The shooting percentage and free throw attempts are big, as it marks an improvement in his efficiency. It’s not just how much you score but how efficiently. Teams alternate possessions, so typically the most successful ones are those that get the most points possible when they have the ball and limit their opponent’s efficiency on defense. This makes shooting better than the league average a must, and getting to the free throw line is a good sign that Durant is taking the ball to the basket. This yields higher percentage shots and runs up fouls on opposing players, either putting them in foul trouble or your team in the bonus.
Durant has gone from being the sole option on a bad team during his rookie year to being an elite player in his second year (and he’s only 20; he’s likely to improve for the next five or six seasons). His Oklahoma City Thunder isn’t a very good team, but there’s reason for hope. Durant’s teammate, forward Jeff Green, another draft class of 2007 player, is starting to find his game and rookie point guard Russell Westbrook is making a strong case for Rookie of the Year. They could be the other cornerstones of a future contender.
For now, the Thunder is one of the more interesting doormats in the NBA. Their 11-38 record reflects a team that is a work in progress. For instance, Wednesday night, they trailed Denver 114-113 and had the ball with five seconds left. When the designed play failed to offer an open lane for Durant to move to the basket, he stepped back and hoisted a 30-foot prayer that clanged harmlessly off the backboard. There seemed to be no attention to a Plan B. It was another loss in a season that is looking more like a learning experience for a young team.
One of the hallmarks of this season is the emergence of several players whose incubation period was longer than expected. Minnesota guard Randy Foye, Orlando guard J.J. Redick, and Toronto forward Andrea Bargnani are all enjoying their best seasons after having been written off as busts. Top draft picks are always the poster boys of hope for their new teams, but fans have to learn to be patient. But even for top players, the NBA isn’t a quick study.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.