Before he was an NBA champion, an NBA MVP, a nine-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year, a National College Player of the Year, a McDonald’s All-American MVP and one of the top-ranked prospects in the nation, Kevin Durant was a scrawny kid who would spend countless hours playing pick-up games at a local gym called Run ‘N Shoot in Prince George’s County (P.G. County), Maryland.
Quinn Cook, who is now one of Durant’s teammates on the Golden State Warriors, grew up in the same area and they would often play together despite the five-year age gap.
“He’s always been like a big brother to me because I met him when I was about 7 years old and he was 12 years old,” Cook told HoopsHype. “We were in the same AAU program, the P.G. Jaguars, but he was on the older team. We came from this small county where we all know each other. He took me under his wing early on.”
As the little-brother figure who was playing with much older kids, Cook always looked up to Durant and thought he was an outstanding player who could do just about anything he wanted on the court. Soon, it became clear that Cook wasn’t just biased toward his older friend; Durant was indeed special.
“He was always really good, he was always tall, he always had that length and he could always shoot,” Cook explained. “Then, he started to become the player that he is today and all I could say is, ‘Wow.’”
Durant wasn’t just best-kid-in-the-local-gym good. Durant kept growing, improving his skill set and getting more athletic. When he wasn’t playing basketball, he was studying various players.
“The first guy I studied was Billy Owens, who played at Syracuse,” Durant told HoopsHype. “He was the first guy who I watched film of and tried to emulate his game. Then, from there, it escalated and I started watching a lot more players – from Vince Carter to T-Mac to Dirk to Kobe to LeBron.”
Durant continued to work hard in the gym and watch film of the NBA’s biggest stars. After that, it wasn’t long until everyone was on the Durant bandwagon.
“All of a sudden, he’s like a created player from a video game,” Cook said. “Every kid has created a 7-foot guard who can do everything – shoot from anywhere, dribble like a point guard and defend every position. Kevin is a real-life created player!”
From there, Durant became one of the top prospects in the country, played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and earned MVP honors. After one year at the University of Texas, he became the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft.
Durant became a household name. Everyone knew about the 7-footer who could play multiple positions and score from anywhere on the court, and they were curious how he would transition from college to the pros. While he needed to bulk up, fans, media and people in NBA circles were excited to see what he could do at the next level.
Little did they know, Durant would have an enormous impact on the next generation of players and that plenty of versatile, 7-foot “created players” would learn from him and follow in his footsteps.
Regardless of how you feel about Durant, there’s no denying he’s been extremely productive since entering the NBA. At just 29 years old, he has already scored over 20,000 points. Over his 11-year career, he has averaged 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 49 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from three-point range and 88.2 free-throw percentage.
However, put all of his accomplishments aside and there’s another way that Durant has left his mark on the game: Influencing countless players over the last decade.
Each year, the NBA surveys the incoming rookie class and asks them various questions including, “Who is your favorite player in the league?” Durant was the top selection for three straight years, from 2014 through 2016, even beating out Kobe Bryant just before his retirement in two of those three seasons.
Talk to high schoolers, college players and pre-draft prospects about who they grew up watching or modeled their game after and you’ll hear Durant’s name mentioned quite a bit.
Paolo Uggetti of The Ringer recently wrote about how some of today’s young NBA players know relatively little about Michael Jordan’s playing career, with most of their limited knowledge coming from YouTube clips and what they’ve heard from their elders.
Entering this season, there were 14 teenagers on NBA rosters – 10 of whom were born in 1998, including Jayson Tatum, Frank Ntilikina, Markelle Fultz, Malik Monk and Terrance Ferguson among others. These players were newborns when Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for good and they were toddlers during his stint with the Washington Wizards.
But it’s not just Jordan that they missed. Some also missed the stars of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Many young players say they grew up on Durant, since he was drafted in 2007 and then led the league in scoring in four out of five seasons from 2009 to 2013. This was just as this next wave of basketball players were falling in love with the game and watching it often. Tomorrow’s stars weren’t at the park pretending to be Jordan; they were trying to perfect Durant’s one-legged fadeaway that’s seemingly unstoppable (which KD actually took from Dirk, kids).
Adonis Thomas, who played for the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers, told HoopsHype he’d try to copy how Durant crosses over and then goes directly into his jump shot, as well as the stutter-step and change-of-pace moves that he often uses at the top of the key just before pulling up or driving. Thomas was such a big fan growing up that he chose No. 35 during his freshman year of college, wore Durant’s shoes constantly and even got a tattoo inspired by one of Durant’s. After meeting KD during the lockout and seeing that he had his childhood home tattooed onto the side of his abdomen, Thomas got his own childhood home tatted in the same spot.
These young NBA fans had never seen someone with Durant’s versatility, since he could literally ability play every position. He’s a legitimate 7-footer (which he has finally admitted publicly) and for years, many big men had been restricted to the paint. However, Durant refused. He proved that he could handle the ball, shoot from anywhere on the court, guard multiple positions and create match-up nightmares for opponents.
The Miami Heat may have popularized “position-less basketball” with the Big Three, but Durant was an even earlier adopter. As a rookie in Seattle, head coach PJ Carlesimo raved that Durant was so special because “you can play him probably any of four positions, if not five.”
Young players around the country noticed – particularly the ones with a similar frame – and tried to duplicate his success.
“Kevin Durant was definitely the first Unicorn,” Brooklyn Nets forward Quincy Acy told HoopsHype. “Without KD, there’s no Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo or others.”
Acy may be right. Durant helped normalize 7-footers shooting threes, handling the ball, running the fastbreak and creating for others, which is why it’s no big deal when Porzingis or Antetokounmpo do those things. It’s also worth noting that Porzingis is 22 years old and Antetokounmpo just turned 23 years old in December, so they grew up watching Durant. Dirk Nowitzki deserves credit for pushing 7-footers out to the three-point line and for influencing Durant (as Kevin mentioned), but the athleticism and guard-like play that these younger players exhibit was learned from Durant.
If Durant never came along, would today’s Unicorns have practiced their ball-handling, three-point shooting and other perimeter skills? Or would they have been put in the paint and told to focus on being traditional big men? Acy, who has witnessed the impact that Durant has had on young players while he’s been in the league, believes that Durant’s success as a do-everything 7-footer opened the floodgates for others.
“I think a lot of the young players were influenced by him,” Acy added. “He has influenced the overall game of the NBA as well. I think pretty soon in the near future, all rosters will be filled with guys who are at least 6-foot-9 who can all dribble, shoot and defend. He really changed the landscape of the game. Now, you have a bunch of [players like Durant], from the Greek Freak to Kyle Kuzma to Brandon Ingram – all of those point forward types who can play from top to bottom, switching one-through-five. It’s really amazing to see how quickly the game is evolving and the direction that it’s heading.”
Speaking of Kuzma, he recently told HoopsHype that the three players he studies the most are Durant, Kobe and LaMarcus Aldridge (specifically citing his post-ups).
Jamal Crawford is close friends with Durant. They’ve grown close over the years, with Durant even flying out to Seattle during his down time in the summer to play in his Crawford’s Pro-Am. Crawford will turn 38 years old next month, so he was in his eighth NBA season when Durant was a rookie. He’s seen how the NBA has changed over nearly two decades and how Durant has had a major influence on the stars of tomorrow. And, like Acy, he believes that there will eventually be many Durant-like players throughout the NBA as the league continues to evolve.
“KD really is the future of basketball,” Crawford said. “First, we saw guys like Tracy McGrady and other taller wings and what they were able to do. Now, you look at KD and he’s 7-feet tall! He took it to another level. He’s a walking mismatch. I understand why this generation wants to play like him. They want to have his size and length, they want to be able to shoot from anywhere, they want to be able to create. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do all of those things?
“For a long time, 7-footers had to have their back to the basket. Then, they started moving out, shooting from 15-feet and getting to do a little bit more. But when we’re talking about KD, we’re talking about a 7-foot guard! He plays like a guy who’s 6-foot-5. It’s amazing to watch and I really do believe he’s what the future superstars will all look like years down the line. But for now, it’s unbelievable what he’s able to do. He’s a once-in-a-generation type of player. I understand why all of the kids love Kevin Durant.”
Many young players spoke about their support for Durant and how he inspired them.
“I am a huge fan of KD and have been for a really long time,” Orlando Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac told HoopsHype. “I have always aspired to be as versatile and skilled as him. Before every single one of my high school and college game, I used to watch his highlights.”
Entering the NBA, Durant was measured at 6-foot-10 and 210 lbs. with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, 9-foot-2 standing reach and 33-inch vertical leap. At his workout with the Magic, Isaac (who turned 20 years old in October) measured in at nearly 6-foot-11 and 205 lbs. with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, a 9-foot-2 standing reach and 38-inch vertical leap. Our friends at NBADraft.net compared him to Durant and, during the pre-draft process, one executive started calling Isaac “mini Durant.”
“So many taller guys want to play on the perimeter because of him,” Isaac said. “Our bodies are similar and he is my vision in terms of where I see myself going,”
Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner, who’s 6-foot-11 and 21 years old, is shooting 35.5 percent from three-point range and is encouraged to let it fly when he has a good look. He knows Durant is one of the players who paved the way for players like him to excel on the perimeter.
“KD revolutionized his position with his height and skills; he made it okay for bigs to shoot threes and work on all aspects of their game,” Turner told HoopsHype. “Plus, the way we he handles himself off the floor, he’s made himself into a great role model for all hoopers who are coming up.”
Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram is perhaps the player who gets compared to Durant the most. Even KD pointed out their similarities when they faced off after Team USA’s exhibition game against the USA Select Team. Durant admitted that it was strange playing against someone so similar to himself in terms of his frame, length, athleticism and perimeter skills – although Ingram is obviously much more raw since he’s only 20 years old. After the game, Durant told reporters: “[He’s the] first person I can say, that I can look at him and feel like I’m looking in the mirror.”
Prior to entering the NBA, Ingram told teams that he had modeled his game after Durant and admitted that he hopes to have a similar career. Last month, in an interview with HoopsHype, Ingram said that he still watches film of Durant often, specifically studying his “pull-up jumper” and how he uses his “size and length to shoot over other guys.”
San Antonio Spurs guard Brandon Paul likes Durant and defended him against the critics who lambasted him for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors in free agency.
“I think he’s a great guy and a relentless competitor, so it’s easy to look up to someone like that if you’re a young player,” Paul said. “I think him playing the way he does, especially at his size, he gives kids that may be in a similar situation a lot of confidence. Also, he seems to have his head on straight and has the right people around him, so I’m sure he’ll continue to be successful.
“I thought some of the negative attention he got for his so-called ‘Decision’ was ridiculous. If someone working a desk job gets an offer to work for a better, competing company and it’s a chance to better their future, there’s no one who’s going to question them for taking it! (laughs) Obviously these are different scenarios, but when you think about it, it really isn’t all that different. It’s tough because I think people see us and don’t understand we aren’t athletes first. We’re sons, brothers, husbands, etc. I think he made the best decision for his future and people who couldn’t understand that are selfish.”
Durant was blown away by the support from younger players. As an intense competitor who lives in the moment, he admitted that he rarely steps back to consider his legacy or how he has impacted the next generation of players. So hearing from so many players who credit him in one way or another was a special experience.
“It means a lot,” Durant told HoopsHype. “I think back to when I was a kid myself, when I was working out and always trying to get better… I’ve always just focused on getting better and I’m still the same way now. You never stop to think about the impact that you have on others because you’re just so focused on your work and stuck in the present. It’s kind of surreal to see these young basketball players who want to take pictures with me and talk to me and get information from me. That’s how I was [not too long ago]. I was a sponge too. Now, it’s really cool to see that cycle, where the next generation is doing the same things and reaching out to me. It makes me feel like I’m doing things the right way, and it gives me hope that what I’m doing will hopefully breed more and more basketball players. Because I know how much this game changed my life, and I’d love for it to change their lives as well.”
Durant says that he’s always open to talk and dispense advice. He’s not one to force interactions, but he made it clear that he’s ready to offer assistance to anyone who wants it.
“I always try to be open and accessible,” he said. “I’m always open to talk and I’ve pretty much gone through everything – from things that happen during games on the court to everything you face as an NBA player off the court. I feel like I have a lot of information to offer and I’m here waiting for anyone who wants to talk it out. I let a lot of players know that I’m available from the beginning [of their career], but I don’t force the connection. It’s all about how they feel and if they want to reach out to me.”
Durant recently invested in the app Overtime, which features highlights of high-school basketball prospects, and he will also create content for the company moving forward. Between this and his continued success on the court, the 29-year-old is ensuring that he’ll continue to reach young players.
As some players get older, they don’t want to help the next wave of stars for fear of creating their own competition or setting themselves up to be replaced. Durant doesn’t care about that. He wants to see the game’s young players thrive so that basketball can change their life in the same way it changed his.
“I feel like this is my time, but eventually it’s going to be somebody else’s time,” Durant said. “Why not try to elevate them and make them bigger and better than I was? I know how much fun I’ve been able to have and I know what it’s like to have my life change in an instant because of this game. I want that for others too. I want other people to be able to experience all of this. That’s why I try to help the next generation.”
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