NEW YORK -- Kevin Durant didn't need a nationally televised special to announce his arrival as the name and face of Team USA this summer. Jim Gray was nowhere to be found in the John Jay College gymnasium Tuesday, so there was no need for Durant to proclaim to a breathless audience that he's taking his talents to Istanbul this summer.
|Kevin Durant has the world stage all to himself as the leader of Team USA. (Getty Images)|
Chances are good, however, that Durant won't.
"He's the same guy," observed Russell Westbrook, a teammate of Durant's in Oklahoma City and a teammate of his at the end of the month in Turkey, too.
With Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the 2008 Olympians taking this summer off, the talent and leadership void will be filled by the guy with the biggest gifts and smallest ego in the room. The mission of extending USA Basketball's momentum from its dominant gold-medal performance in Beijing, and avenging past disappointments at the FIBA World Championships, falls on the slender shoulders and immense talents of Durant.
Whether he wants it or not -- and it's pretty clear that he doesn't -- Durant won't have to seek out the spotlight as the U.S. team ventures to Turkey at the end of the month seeking its first world championship since 1994. The spotlight, the attention, the burden of being Kobe, LeBron, Wade and the rest all rolled into one, will find him.
At 6-9 and still growing, the 21-year-old Durant isn't hard to find. Just look for the best player on the court. How he responds will define the next step in the career of basketball's most understated star.
"If we get this done, this propels him into stardom," said Chauncey Billups, the senior member of the youthful U.S. squad that is holding training camp in New York this week. "He's already there, but this puts him in an elite group."
Winning gold at the worlds, without the help of any superstars from the '08 Olympic team, would add immeasurable cachet to Durant's growing resume. But if you think Durant is fazed by this -- if you think he's obsessed with being a man of the world, so to speak -- then you don't know Durant.
"It's pretty cool for a guy who comes from a small town in Maryland to see my face on the side of a building or have people talking about me as a good player," Durant said. "But for me, I try not to think about it. I know these guys here on the floor, we're all together. There's not one guy above anybody else. We're not a team surrounding one person. We're all trying to come together and win. And it's not just me, it's everybody."
The scary thing is, Durant is right. Team USA's chances in the world championships -- they're underdogs to Spain and no lock for silver -- will depend on how well, and how quickly their disparate talents and personalities come together. It all starts with Durant, a "no-maintenance guy," according to coach Mike Krzyzewski, with "no negative intangibles."
After a week of practice in New York, including an appearance at Radio City Music Hall, a scrimmage against China on Saturday, and an exhibition game against France on Sunday, Team USA heads to Madrid for a four-day training camp and two more exhibitions against Lithuania and Spain. Then it's on to a two-day camp and an exhibition against Greece in Athens before the preliminary round of world championship play begins Aug. 28 in Istanbul. Through it all, two things won't change: 1) The U.S. team is seriously undersized after losing Amar'e Stoudemire (due to issues insuring his $99.9 million contract with the Knicks) and Brook Lopez (due to mononucleosis), and 2) The only members of the roster with international experience are Lamar Odom (2004 Olympics) and Billups ('07 FIBA Tournament of the Americas).
"We can't just expect to pick up and be world beaters right now," Billups said, at which point I noted, isn't that the point in a couple of weeks ... to be world beaters?
"There you go," Billups said. "That's right. So we have a little time. We've got to take advantage of that because we've got a lot of things working against us. We're not that big as a team. We don't have a dominating force that we can go to and say, 'Go to work down there.' So we're going to have to be creative. We can get it done, but at the same time, it's going to have to be collective. It's not one guy or two guys that are going to take this thing over. It's going to be a collective effort."
In some ways, that is right in Durant's sweet spot -- the challenge of leading a team, deferring the credit and not hogging the ball or the spotlight. But you can analyze the U.S. roster all you want; once the games start, this will be an NBA team. And NBA teams thrive off star power -- a catalyst and a go-to guy they can turn to when they need a rebound, a steal, a block or a basket. Make no mistake: That player on this team will be Durant.
In fact, the pecking order already has been established, though not because Durant demanded it. Because his teammates did.
During one sequence in a scrimmage this week, Durant started two consecutive fast breaks by getting the defensive rebound and dribbling the length of the court to set up alley-oop layups by Derrick Rose and Andre Iguodala. He didn't defer to either of the point guards on the floor with him -- Rose and Stephen Curry -- because they insisted that he not do that.
"Those guys let me know, 'KD, if you get the rebound, you can go,'" Durant said. "And I said, 'You guys just run with me and I can find you guys. I can pass and I can see you guys jumping up to the rim and I'll throw it up to you guys.' This team is very athletic. It's a pleasure to play with this group."
Serving as de facto point guard isn't the only change in Durant's customary role as the primary scorer on his team. Due in part to the U.S. team's lack of size, Krzyzewski has taken to playing Durant at power forward in certain lineups -- a look that has been more prevalent in the two practices in New York than in last month's training camp in Las Vegas. Using Durant that way challenges his desire to rebound and puts him out of his comfort zone defensively; he now has to defend the roll man on pick-and-rolls. The payoff comes on the offensive end, where Durant expects to see even more mismatches than he's accustomed to seeing.
"When coach puts me at the four, my eyes light up because I think I can do a good job with my teammates helping me defend the fours and I think I'm quick enough to guard the fours," Durant sad. "But on the offensive end, I think when the four comes out to the wing, I can do a great job of penetrating, kicking, getting to the rim or even shooting threes. So I'm looking forward to playing any position they need me to play. If they need me to play three or four positions, I'm big on being versatile."
And that's one of many traits that Krzyzewski has come to admire about Durant.
"He's our best player," Krzyzewski said. "As a result of that, we're going to use him as a coach should try to use a guy of his talents. I'm just going to try to keep learning about him and keep putting him in situations where I don't inhibit him and he's able to instinctively react to the game."
Durant's instincts have always taken him away from the spotlight, in the opposite direction of the marketing dollars and glitzy promos. As the Summer of LeBron gives way to the Summer of Durant, there will be nowhere on the world stage for him to hide.
"Durant's one of a kind," Krzyzewski said. "You can't say this guy's like him or he's like someone else. It doesn't fit. He's creating his own mold."
And if Durant can bring his talents home from Istanbul with a gold medal, he'll be expanding that mold beyond anything he ever wanted or imagined.