We’ve all read about the rookie wall, when first-year NBA players, unaccustomed to the rigors of an 82-game schedule, start seeing their numbers drop.
(On a side note, is “rigors” used anywhere but in sportswriting? Does anyone ever say, “Boy, the rigors of the traffic on the bridge today were terrible!”)
But back to what I was saying about that wall. Kevin Durant has received some negative publicity lately about his game, and I got to wondering how he has done this season at fighting off the rookie wall. Here are some numbers to consider:
MONTH – PPG – FG%
November – 20.6 - 41.4
December – 18.8- 40.8
January – 19.4 - 40.0
February – 17.3 - 36.9
Obviously, we can see a trend towards lower field goal percentages, but that’s just a rough estimate of what’s going on. Another way to look at it is to compare how Durant played against a team the first time he saw them versus how he did the second or third or fourth times. With the recent comments in the PI from Gary Washburn about how teams are learning to play Durant differently, I thought that might make an interesting chart. Here goes, with averages on a per 40 minute basis:
1ST TIME VS OPPONENT
23.9 points, 41 FG%, 4 turnovers
2ND OR 3RD TIME VS OPPONENT
22.5 points, 39 FG%, 2.64 turnovers
As expected, his points and shooting percentages suffered when defenses had a chance to get to know him. Surprisingly, the effect Washburn noted, that people were saying Durant held the ball too low and was causing too many turnovers, is not borne out in the stats, as Durant actually committed fewer turnovers the more often he faced an opponent.
Obviously, the sample sizes are quite small, and other factors come into play. After all, Durant’s games the second or third time around are, by necessity, coming at a point in the season at which experts would expect his play to suffer due to fatigue. Is it fatigue? Is it familiarity? That’s for smarter people than me to deduce.
But since we’re here, let’s take a closer look at some other numbers. For example, free throws. Durant’s games with 10 or more FTA have gone 4, 1, 1, 0 on a per month basis. Likewise, his 3-point shot attempts have declined each month, from a high of 4.4 in November to a season-low 1.1 in February.
In fact, in more than half of the games he played in February, Durant failed to sink a single 3-pointer, and he’s only attempted 11 all month. Considering that he attempted 13 in his first two games and 28 in his first four, this is a startling change of offensive tactics.
Just as interesting, his turnovers have also declined each month on a per-minute basis, to the point where he now averages close to 1.5 fewer miscues per game, a massive change. (Of course, as soon as I started writing this piece, Durant managed to cough the ball up nine times in two games; shows what I know).
So, in some ways you could say Kevin Durant has changed as a player and become a player of contradictions. He’s taking fewer shots, but hitting them at a lower percentage. He’s facing teams multiple times, but committing fewer turnovers when he does.
But worse than all the numbers is his style of play. I do not like to comment on players’ attitudes, since giving meaningful insights into the emotions of a 19-year-old is a dicey proposition at best. That said, I think it is painfully obvious that this season is beginning to wear on Durant. The turmoil surrounding the franchise’s future, the chaotic nature of the roster, the starting roster which seems to vary every two days, and, more than anything, the continual, unending losing – it all must be simultaneously frustrating and tiring for him.
Watching the young man walk back to huddles with slumped shoulders, his body tired, you get the feeling that there are times when he must be wondering what he has gotten himself into. Who mentors a 19-year-old wunderkind on a team composed of mishmashed, mediocre “veterans”? Think of the Sonic roster, of the assistant coaches, whom among them has any idea what Durant is going through? None of them know what it is like to be so talented at such a young age.
It all makes you think – are the Sonics providing Kevin Durant the best environment in which he can truly develop his talents? Would hanging onto Ray Allen for one more season before dealing him have hurt his trade value that much? And wouldn’t it have been better for Durant’s career progress to have spent his rookie season with someone like Allen to guide him, to take the heat for the losses, to show him how to be a true professional?
These are questions only the future will tell. I hope, for our sake and for Durant’s, Sam Presti has thought about them as well.