Stephen A. Smith: Durant on verge of superstardom

In his third season, Kevin Durant has emerged as a serious MVP candidate. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

He's skinny. That's the thing that jumps out at you first: this frail frame in a 6-foot-9 body, inviting elbows and forearms.

Then you see Kevin Durant play. Suddenly, the purity of his game comes shining through. It's a sweet-looking jump shot one minute, silky moves to the basket the next, ultimately convincing basketball aficionados that the next superstar is blossoming before our very eyes.

If LeBron James isn't the primary topic of discussion for MVP honors in the NBA this season, then there's Durant. And if another player is even considered, commissioner David Stern needs to demand an investigation.

At age 21, Durant is the league's second-leading scorer (29.6 points per game) behind King James. He has scored 30 or more points 39 times this season, which is the most in the NBA. His squad, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the youngest team in the league (averaging under age 25), boasting a 44-28 record, already in the thick of a playoff hunt in the Western Conference. One should wonder why they even have to play the moribund Sixers tonight at the Wachovia Center.

In the interest of fairness, if nothing else.

"I knew that he was capable of [a season like this] because of the work that he puts in every day," said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, minutes before his Thunder flew to Philadelphia yesterday.

"[Durant's] work is top-notch. All summer long he worked on his game. He did everything we asked, and then more. His practice habits are all about winning basketball. His shooting habits are incredible. I've never seen a guy work so hard with shooting drills in my life. Of course, he has the skills. But the work ethic is what gets him over the hump to the level he's on."

Congratulations to Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers' former coach, who Brooks says is one of the guys who has helped Durant excel. Scott couldn't stop praising Cheeks, mainly for the relationships his aide has cultivated with Durant and Oklahoma City's young players.

But, truth be told, you don't teach the sort of skills the former University of Texas star possesses.

You can't coach that wingspan. Neither Scott nor Cheeks can teach someone as lanky as Durant how to jump, dribble, and shoot the way he does. Since Christmas Day, Durant has averaged a league-high 30.8 points, shooting 48 percent from the field and leading the Thunder to a 20-7 record in that span.

Along the way, Durant has been mentioned in the same breath as Dirk Nowitzki one minute, George "Iceman" Gervin the next.

"About the only thing I have not seen him do is finger roll," Gervin, famous for the finger roll and being a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, told me weeks ago. "I can honestly say I've never felt like anyone's game emulated mine until this kid Durant came along. He's a special, special dude."

Something special is easy to distinguish when you score 25 or more points in 29 straight games (Dec. 22 to Feb. 24), surpassing everyone not named Michael Jordan, who did it in 40 straight games in the 1986-87 season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Amazingly, Durant averaged 32.4 points in that period - shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range, something Jordan never did.

The praise rolls in:

"He's terrific," said Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown.

"He's a bad boy," Denver's Carmelo Anthony said affectionately.

"There aren't too many players who are special," Cleveland's coach, Mike Brown, said. "Durant is one of them."

Imagine how scary it is for NBA players to think about facing Durant in the years to come. Worse, imagine how someone like the Portland Trail Blazers feel, knowing they lost out on drafting him when they took the injury-prone Greg Oden instead, much in the same way they lost out on Jordan by drafting Sam Bowie back in 1984.

"All I know is we're ecstatic to have [Durant]," said Brooks, unquestionably a top candidate for league coach-of-the-year honors, along with Milwaukee's Scott Skiles. "He leads us in rebounds [7.5 per game] and steals [1.3]. We needed to get better defensively, so we asked him to and he did that, too. There's nothing this kid won't do. He's a flat-out winner. He's made us relevant this year."

Actually, he's done more. Durant has negated Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony as league MVP candidates in the process.

One can only cringe when considering what he might do to the Sixers tonight.


Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846.