For the third and maybe final time, Kevin Durant is about to enter the most important season of his career. In his lone season at the University of Texas, Durant caught the attention of the NBA teams with his polished scoring abilities to become the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. In his third season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he averaged 30.1 points per game, to cement his status as a legitimate superstar and land a lucrative five-year contract extension.
Entering the 2015-2016 season, Durant remains one of the best players in the NBA. He is a six-time All-Star, an NBA Finalist, a four-time scoring champion, and only 15 months removed from hoisting his MVP trophy. But for the first time in his career, Durant must overcome an injury-plagued season and again prove his value as a player who can deliver an NBA title with his contract expiring at the end of the season.
Durant played only 27 games during the Thunder’s 2014-2015 campaign, spending the rest of the time glued to the bench, training table, or the operating table to fix the Jones fracture in his right foot. Despite point guard Russell Westbrook’s MVP-caliber year and league-best 28.1 points per game, the Thunder would miss the postseason for the first time in six seasons.
The injury eventually required three surgeries, the latest coming in March. On Tuesday, Durant told reporters during a light Team USA workout in Las Vegas that he’s ready to return and kind of itching for it.
“I can go 100 percent,” Durant said after the practice. “I’m not going to play to 5-on-5 just yet. I’ll ease my way into that part. But everything else is no restrictions. The competitive juice is boiling in my body and I’m ready to play.”
Durant is expected to practice with the team on Wednesday, but evidently won’t play in a scrimmage Thursday that is open to the public. It was around this time last year that Durant decided to pull out of the FIBA World Cup after leading the NBA in scoring (32.0 ppg) and minutes (3,122), amid concerns of overuse.
Thunder fans would absolutely prefer Durant spend the rest of the summer resting that right foot and avoiding any drills, however light, until training camp starts in October. Yet Durant sees his time with Team USA’s stars as the perfect opportunity to test his foot and sharpen his mind before the season.
"Iron sharpens iron," Durant said. "I'd be a fool if I didn't get with any of these guys. If I wanted to be secretive about workouts, or be by myself, I'd be stupid to do that. To bounce ideas off of Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Steph Curry, that's like heaven, like being in basketball heaven with these guys."
Inactive for as long as he was, especially after missing only 16 games his first seven seasons in the league, Durant also said he grew increasingly restless away from the court but the experience served him well.
"I had my days where I'm like, 'Man, this isn't getting any better, I'm sick of working out, I've been working out for a year, I'm ready to play.' It was kind of like cabin fever almost," Durant said. "I played a lot of [video game NBA] 2K and watched a lot of the NBA playoffs, even though I said I wouldn't. That atmosphere, I couldn't shy away from that so I just wanted to watch it and learn.
"It was tough, man, because I love to play the game and not being able to play at the highest level, it was tough for me. But I'm glad I went through that journey and it's made me a stronger man."
That extra layer of maturity, clearly attained from the almost helpless experience of watching while others play the game he loves, is one Durant will need as Oklahoma City embarks on a new season in the increasingly difficult Western Conference.
During Durant’s convalescence, the West elite showed little sign of vulnerability. The San Antonio Spurs added Aldridge to a roster that won 55 games. The defending champion Golden State Warriors bring back every key member of their 67-win season. The Los Angeles Clippers managed to keep DeAndre Jordan and added veterans Paul Pierce and Josh Smith. The Houston Rockets return mostly the same squad and added Ty Lawson.
There have been suggestions that Durant will bolt from the West for his hometown of Washington, D.C., to play for a Wizards team that showed potential in 2014-2015. He would likely have an easier time attaining his first title in the East, where only old foe LeBron James really stands in his way.
But Durant deflected free-agency speculation, and made sure to reference his exciting OKC teammate.
"I know you guys have to do your job and ask those type of questions but I'm just trying to focus on being 100 percent committed to Oklahoma City and be the best player and leader I can be," Durant said to reporters. "I'll worry about that when I get there. I haven't even thought about being recruited. I'm just trying to go out there and not get cussed out by Russell Westbrook."