<
>

How Kevin Durant became his most efficient self yet

play
Kevin Durant leads Warriors in scoring and efficiency (1:18)

In his first year with Warriors, Kevin Durant has been able to put up big numbers with fewer shots. Durant and teammates talk about why the Warriors' leading scorer is also the most efficient. (1:18)

When you're looking for things Kevin Durant has added to his game in becoming the most efficient Kevin Durant we've ever seen, it helps to be in the building some 45 minutes before the opening tip, so you can watch him warm up.

Provided you get there early enough, scan to the top of his unmistakable 7-foot frame. Sometimes it's earbuds. Sometimes it's full-fledged headphones.

You'll notice that, either way, his ears are always occupied now.

"It helps me, man," Durant said the other day, when he spent a good 20 minutes with ESPN.com to work through and break down his first 20-odd games as a Warrior. "It gets me in my mode, blocks all that outside noise. It just kind of keeps me in my own zone."

Zone is a polite (and handy) word to describe the orbit in which Durant, who's shooting a career-best 56.5 percent from the field so far this season, has been floating since he moved 1,600 miles west.

The first six weeks of this NBA season have been nirvana for fans of gaudy box-score lines, stats that read like misprints and sheer individual audacity. You legitimately don't know where to look first most nights, with James Harden accounting for nearly 60 points a game with his scoring and passing, Anthony Davis ruling the rims at both ends and Klay Thompson ringing up an unfathomable 60 points in a scant 29 minutes while taking only 11 dribbles. And, of course, with a certain Russell Westbrook making triple-doubles his Big O-style nightly norm.

Yet Durant, from his new address, has been consistently dishing his own brand of amazing as he prepares to step into the saucy Warriors-Clippers rivalry for the first time Wednesday.

There was the time he scored 20 points on seven shots against Phoenix. There was the time he discovered his inner Dikembe Mutombo and blocked six shots against Minnesota. There is the sudden reality that finds Durant averaging a historic 27.0 points on a mere 16.9 shots while also averaging career bests in rebounds (8.4), steals (1.48) and swats (1.76).

Of the NBA's 450 players, only one is ranked in the top 10 in both scoring average (seventh) and field goal percentage (sixth): Kevin Wayne Durant.

"He's even better than he was billed to us," said Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, Durant's frequent workout partner. "He can go out and get 50 easy. He's that good. And in our environment, no one would get upset.

"You can see our guys trying to get KD the ball more at times. But he's chosen to blend in, learn and try to do it the right way."

Said Warriors coach Steve Kerr: "I knew he was good. He's kicked our ass for years. I just felt our style of play would suit him. He was brilliant in OKC, but the way they play, there's a lot more isos. It was sort of take turns: Russell would go, then KD would go. I think KD understands he's going to have the ball in his hands less [with Golden State], but he'll be in more advantageous positions to score. I think he's really embracing the style. I think he likes making plays for other guys, and vice versa. It's a fun way to play."

It's true. Proving his versatility and adaptability has been admittedly intoxicating to Durant, who is now half of a fast-blossoming doubles juggernaut with two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry that somehow leaves enough room for Thompson and Draymond Green to continue to function at All-Star levels.

Durant isn't ready to co-sign the notion that he's playing the best basketball of his life, but he sees no reason to protest when someone suggests that he, even if not quite on Green's level as an all-around defender, has unexpectedly emerged as Golden State's foremost shot-blocker.

"I'll take that," Durant said with a smile.

"I go into games looking for [blocks]. I think that ignites our team and our crowd, so I'm looking for those now. I'm sure there's going to be times where I get dunked on and where I'll be embarrassed. But they want me to protect the rim. They want me to be there because we play small a lot, and I can use my length.

"I had six [blocks] in one game, and I felt great about myself."

Said Kerr: "He's playing more 4 here than he played in OKC, so we're asking him to anchor the paint at times. It doesn't come naturally to him. He's really more of a guard than he is a big. But he's adapting, and he's getting better. When he's locked in, he's an all-league defender. But it's an awful lot to ask a guy to score 27, 28 a game and be locked in for 48 minutes."

Fortunately for Kerr & Co., there have been no indications that Durant feels he's missing out on something amid this league-wide rash of statistical mayhem because of the extra helping of unglamorous duties he has taken on.

"That's why we joined up," Thompson said of the Warriors' marquee quartet after his 60-point masterpiece. "That's the reason Kevin came [here]: We saw the potential that we have with him on this team."

"It feels cool to be on the other side now. It feels like you against the world, your team against the world, so you gotta go out there and show 'em what you're made of. I like that."

Warriors SF Kevin Durant, on joining Golden State

For his part, Durant reminds us that he's already quite familiar with such glories and insists that, as hoops-nerdy as it sounds, he is legitimately consumed by the quest for peak efficiency in his 10th NBA season.

"I look at it like, if I shoot 15-16 shots a night, 13 of 'em gotta be solid, and the rest can be some pull-up 3s or fadeaways that I kind of work on that I wouldn't mind if I make or miss those," Durant said. "I look at those other shots like heat checks -- just trying stuff.

"But I know what our offense is. So when I get those shots that I get, I know that I gotta be patient with 'em. And I know I also gotta be ... they're precious. I think, my shots now, I value them a little more than I did before 'cause I might not shoot 30 shots whenever I want. And that's not a bad thing. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. That's just how we play here ... especially when you got two other guys on the perimeter that can go off and score 30 any night as well.

"It's a different situation. When I won MVP in 2014, I was playing differently. I had the ball in my hands a lot more. I was playing the point forward role, more like how LeBron [James] plays in Cleveland. And it was fun, but it was a lot. I had to do a lot out there on the floor. And I got rewarded for that by winning MVP, but it taught me a lot about the game. That was a huge year for me.

"I felt like I made Thabo Sefolosha better. I made Kendrick Perkins better. I made Serge Ibaka better. And it wasn't because I was just scoring. I think my leadership ... we were down. Russell was out most of the year, so I had to step into a different role. I felt like that was one of the better years for me all around. This year, I just feel like I'm trying to fit in but also still be myself. I know that I can't just run and go grab the ball and clear everybody out. Coach wants me to sometimes, but it's not going to be like that most of the time."

That's true too. Kerr confirmed he's not only built into his offense more isos than ever before to take advantage of Durant's scoring gifts -- post-ups and elbow catches you're most likely to see in bunches when Curry is off the floor -- but that he's also had to ride the new guy about being too selfless. After all, Durant has hoisted 20 or more shots in only four of Golden State's 21 games before his first taste of the long-bubbling animus between the Warriors and Clippers and the chance to square off against "my best friend in the league" DeAndre Jordan.

"Sometimes he'll pass up a shot to give the ball to somebody else, and we're like, 'No, no, we want you to take it,' " Kerr said. "But what a great quality, especially as a superstar player, to want to make everybody better. That's why he's fit in so well. Everybody loves playing with him.

"Throughout training camp, Steph was deferring. I think he was trying to help KD find a comfort zone. But it's a pretty powerful force when you have two MVPs on your team who are both not just willing passers but pleasers, guys who want to make everybody else happy. It's really powerful."

Said Hall of Famer-turned-Warriors executive board member Jerry West: "How many different positions can [Durant] play? Most people looked at him like he's [only] a scoring machine, but what about the passing? The rebounding? The shot-blocking? Players like that just don't come along very often.

"An area that's really troubled me, frankly, is when people take shots at him. 'He's this, and he's that.' He's nothing that people say he is. I've been around him, and he never says anything derogatory about Russell Westbrook -- period. I think he really liked Russell. He doesn't say anything derogatory about anyone. You just don't see many people who can do all the things he does and are also very, very low maintenance. He's rare, very rare."

West, of course, started getting to know Durant in early July, when he was asked to continue the Warriors' recruiting efforts by phone after Golden State's official presentation to Durant and his longtime manager/business partner, Rich Kleiman, in the Hamptons.

"I always said my part in this was overrated," West said, "but the one thing I really did tell him is: 'Just follow your heart. Do what you want to do, and make your own decision.' Frankly, I didn't think he would leave. I really didn't."

Further crucial summertime counsel came from Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski when he and Durant got together in mid-July for what would be a month-long ride to Durant's second Olympic gold medal. Like West, Krzyzewski helped convince the 28-year-old that he was smart to listen to his own instincts, as opposed to the naysayers shouting all the reasons he shouldn't and/or couldn't join the team that knocked his squad out of the Western Conference finals.

"He wants everyone to not necessarily like him, but respect him and think highly of him," Kryzewski told ESPN in a July sitdown with SportsCenter's Hannah Storm. "So that [initial criticism] knocked him back a little bit.

"I said, 'You know, when you're really good, you're going to be criticized, and you're going to be hated by a certain amount of people. ... You might get 50 letters, and 49 of them say how much they love you. Don't let the one letter ruin it.' But we do a lot of times, until you get kind of immune to that.

"I said, 'So that's what you're going through now: that a lot of people are not going to like you because of the decision you made.' I said, 'Did you like the decision?' He says, 'Yes, I do.' So I said, 'Well, all right, you don't have to answer to anyone else.' "

On top of everything else happening in his eventful first quarter of a season as a Warrior, Mr. Efficiency is starting to see things the way West and Krzyzewski urged him to.

"I wouldn't say I'm as hated as Coach K or J.J. Redick or Christian Laettner," Durant said with a laugh, feeling comfortable enough about the subject to toss in his own Duke joke. "They hate Christian Laettner still to this day.

"You kind of embrace that. And I can feel that from casual NBA fans that show up to these arenas on the road. You can feel it. I know it's all just in the spirit of the game. But at the same time, it's like, man, it feels cool to be on the other side now. It feels like you against the world, your team against the world, so you gotta go out there and show 'em what you're made of. I like that.

"I can feel the vibe with a lot of guys that I play against now. They kind of look at me a little different now that I play for these guys. But I knew it was coming. It makes the game better. It makes the competition better. We're circled on everybody's calendar. And I know a lot of guys are gonna want to come at me. So it makes me work even harder. I'm excited I'm at this point in my life as a player."

Said Kerr: "He's handled it incredibly well. He's such a level-headed person. I think he understands that the criticism would come. And he also understands he has to take it for what it's worth. Really, who cares? It's human nature to care, but in the end, I think he's really happy living here, playing on this team, so he understands the tradeoff.

"He takes some heat, but he's happy. LeBron probably went through the same thing when he went to Miami and made a decision that he wanted. It's not easy being a superstar. These guys who are in the limelight constantly, everything they do is going to be picked apart and judged, but ultimately, they have to make decisions for their own lives. And I think looking back, everybody would have to agree that LeBron made a great move going to Miami. I think people will look back at this over time and realize this was a great move for KD too."

The ever-relaxed atmosphere of the Warriors' world certainly seems to agree with him. When pressed, Durant revealed that getting loose pregame with the help of his trusty Beats was not exactly embraced at his previous stop.

"I wanted to do it before," Durant said. "And [then-Thunder assistant coach] Brian Keefe, who's with the Lakers now, I came out one game with headphones on, probably my third or fourth year in the league, and he's like, 'Take that s--- off. We don't do that here.' I was like, 'Damn, my bad.' I just wanted to zone out a bit.

"They're kind of loose here. They let us do what we want to do, but within the structure of the team. So I came out with headphones one day, and they didn't say nothing, so I just kept rocking with it."

The new ritual appears to be beneficial, with Durant threatening to record the most efficient shooting season by a 25-points-per-game scorer in league history. The number to beat is the 63.0 effective field goal percentage that Curry posted last season. Durant is at 62.4 percent heading into Wednesday's play ... with Curry in close pursuit at 61.0 percent.

"He's 6-foot-12 or whatever, and he can do everything," Fraser said. "It's not fair."