LAS VEGAS — There were smiles for sure, plenty of them, flashed most frequently while he was engaging in friendly conversation or competition with his fellow stars, and especially his fellow (Russell Westbrook) or former (James Harden) teammates.
But there were also flashes of anger Tuesday, aimed entirely at himself, whenever he couldn’t get a shot to fall. Those, too, were positive developments, signs that Kevin Durantis not only back where he belongs, on a floor with the game’s other greats, but also is getting back to himself, getting back to expecting little less than excellence.
After all, it wasn’t clear that he would be so far along at this stage, just a little over four months following a third surgery on his right foot, this one a bone-graft repair to the fifth metatarsal.
“Remember Christmas as a kid?” Durant said, smiling, when asked about the feeling of participating with his peers on the first day of USA Basketball training camp. “It’s like that.”
And if NBA fans in general, and Thunder fans in particular, liked what they saw of him on the NBA TV telecast, they would have been even more fond of what they would have heard had they been standing beside him, as he sat against a far wall and addressed the media.
“I’m feeling great, man,” Durant said. “This is about my fourth week really getting after it. I feel good. Good to be back in a team setting. I can go 100 percent. I’m not going to play five-on-five just yet. But everything else is no restrictions.”
No player in the NBA will be as intriguing over the next 11 months as the four-time scoring champion. No one else in the Mendenhall Center gym Tuesday—not reigning MVP Stephen Curry, not tabloid-and-endorsement newsmaker James Harden, not emerging force Anthony Davis, not even the oddity that is DeAndre Jordan. No, not even the guy scheduled to arrive Wednesday, who has been the media and public’s “Chosen One” for both celebration and criticism since he was just a teen in Akron.
The Durant storyline is irresistible.
So the coverage will be irrepressible.
Coming off a major injury that limited him to 27 games, and seemingly put his career at risk, considering how many players of his height have struggled to overcome such ailments.
Playing for a high-profile new coach in Billy Donovan after the firing of longtime ally Scott Brooks.
Searching for his second appearance in an NBA Finals and first NBA championship in what is already, amazingly, his ninth season.
Entering the summer of 2016 as the only true premium free agent unless you buy the crazy notion that James would consider leaving Cleveland for a second time.
That sticks Durant in the center of everything, even while playing—for now—for one of the NBA’s smaller markets.
That’s why it’s heartening to hear that at least he’s feeling healthy, that at least he has an opportunity to approach all his challenges and decisions at something close to peak performance. He said he stopped feeling pain in his foot about four weeks after surgery but needed to be patient to let the bone heal. And he stopped feeling fear after several months when he couldn’t stop that emotion from creeping in.
“I had my days where I’m like, ‘Man, it’s not getting any better, I’m sick of working out; I’ve been working out for a year, I’m ready to play,'” Durant said.
He said he got through his “cabin fever” by playing NBA 2K video games and by watching the playoffs, even after he promised that he wouldn’t subject himself to the latter. He feels that, after his adversity, he’s now a “stronger man” and that he won’t take the routine for granted again.
The game has missed him too, even if some memories have apparently faded. Durant joked that every time he walks down the street, someone who’s not in the NBA is “trying him,” wanting to play him one-on-one.
“I guess they haven’t seen me in a while,” Durant said, smiling.
Everyone will see plenty of him now. Everyone also will hear plenty about him, about where he may play next, if it’s not Oklahoma City. Much of that speculation will be silly, since there are so many unknowns at this stage, so many variables that could impact his decision, starting with the collaboration that he creates with Donovan and how that manifests itself in the West standings.
Durant has spent quality time with Donovan in Los Angeles, Orlando and Oklahoma City this summer, and he has discovered the former Gators coach is “all about connecting with his players, and I love that. I had a great relationship with Scotty that we built over seven years. And I know what it takes to have that chemistry with your coach. We’ve been building [it with] him since he got there.”
Meanwhile, the Thunder kept most of their roster intact, a roster that a prominent Golden State official deemed the best in the West after the 2015 trade deadline, provided all the parts were available.
So what do the Thunder need now, other than health, to compete for the top of a conference that not only includes the defending champion Warriors but also strengthened squads in San Antonio, Houston, Memphis and Los Angeles (Clippers)?
“Uh, that’s it,” Durant said, smiling. “I feel like we got a lot of pieces. We got to build that chemistry. From day one, be locked in. It starts with me as a leader. Policing everybody. Look at myself in the mirror first. And being somebody that leads by example—me and Russell—we have a big load on our shoulders, but that’s what they pay us for. To be leaders, to be the best players, to go out there and handle everything.”
He’ll need to handle that, while handling all the outside stuff, the stuff that got on his nerves last season, as he strayed from previous form by taking shots at reporters. On Tuesday, Durant resisted a chance to outline his frustrations with media coverage (“You know, I’m not even going to answer that,” he said, laughing) during a session in which he was in good spirits throughout.
He said all the right things about the Thunder (“I’m 100 percent committed”) and even had a smart answer ready when asked whether he would be OK if he replaced James this season as the man most squarely in the NBA’s pressure cooker.
“Oh, I’m looking forward to that,” Durant said, smiling. “I can’t wait. I can’t wait. Boo me. Call me any type of name in the book. Talk about my family. It is what it is. I’m ready for it.”
Ready or not, the season of Durant should be something.