The Scorer
Kirk Goldsberry [ARCHIVE]
February 6, 2013
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On May 19 of last year, the Lakers hosted the Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. The score was tied at 98 and the Thunder had possession. With about 26 seconds remaining, James Harden handed off the ball to Kevin Durant. The design was a pure isolation play and the idea was to kill as much clock as possible while getting a decent Durant shot. Durant took the ball and calmly dribbled some seconds away. At the 20-second mark, with 10 left on the shot clock, Durant bounced the ball on the "L" in the Lakers midcourt decal. Still calmly dribbling, he finally squared his shoulders to face the basket; with the other eight players scattered around the perimeter, it would be him against Metta World Peace in the game's most vital sequence.

Durant continued his dribble as he approached the top of the arc. In a single smooth motion that was equal parts nonchalant and cold-blooded, he crossed the ball through his legs to his left hand, stuttered his feet, and rose up from the top of the arc to win the game. The 23-year-old had just launched a devastating 3 to conquer Kobe Bryant's Lakers on their home floor. It was the least frantic version of "hero ball" ever; it looked like a warm-up move that he had practiced a thousand times before, and it was.

In this instructional video, Durant explains that when he's at the top of the arc and a defender is "down and ready for me to go to the basket, I give him a wide [stutter-step] so he can get a bite on it, then I pull up." That looks really familiar.

Back at Staples, when Craig Sager asked him how confident he was about getting a good shot with World Peace defending him, Durant said, "I knew he was gonna play off me just a little bit. … I saw some airspace and was able to knock it down." Practice makes perfect.

Kevin Durant made his NBA debut in Denver on Halloween night way back in 2007. It was about a month after his 19th birthday; Durant played 32 minutes and scored 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting. The Nuggets won 120-103, but after the game the questions were all about the 19-year-old Sonics rookie. The Nuggets' Allen Iverson said, "The future is bright for him and the sky's the limit for him. He's going to be great." Iverson was right — five and a half years into his career, Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the NBA and only getting better.

In 2013, we take it for granted that Kevin Durant is a great NBA shooter. But the truth is that not too long ago, this simply wasn't the case. During his rookie season, Durant struggled mightily. Although he was extremely active from midrange, he shot only 39 percent from there. Beyond the arc he shot a measly 29 percent, far below league average. To really appreciate the historic Durant season currently unfolding, you must first be aware of how far he's come since Halloween 2007.

Durant's first NBA coach was P.J. Carlesimo, but this was a poor fit. Carlesimo didn't fare well in Seattle/OKC in part because he inherited a rebuilding team that had just traded away Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and in part because he couldn't figure out how to use his young star. Although it's seldom discussed these days, Carlesimo tried to use Durant as a shooting guard … you know, one of those 6-foot-10 shooting guards with a 7-foot-4 wingspan. As a result, KD spent his time on defense chasing much smaller players as they weaved through countless screens. On offense, Durant was used as a catch-and-shoot specialist. His rookie shooting chart reveals a few things:

1. He was most active on the right wing and along the right baseline. 2. His shot behavior was asymmetrical and heavily weighted toward his right. 3. His offensive game relied more on midrange jumpers than on drives to the basket.

After Durant's rookie season, the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma and became the Thunder. But the Thunder started 1-12 and Carlesimo was fired after the team lost its 10th straight game — a Friday-night blowout against the New Orleans Hornets. When Scott Brooks was named interim head coach, the first thing he did was relocate Durant from shooting guard to small forward. In the Saturday-night rematch against the Hornets, Durant made his debut as a small forward: He scored 30 points and made 69 percent of his shots.

Since his rookie season, Durant's improvement has been both steady and drastic, but it boils down to two related factors: His shot selection is better, and his field goal percentage has increased everywhere. I spoke with Durant last week and asked him how his approach to the game had changed since his rookie year. He told me the key difference is "knowing where the best shots are and knowing where my spots are." This knowledge has made him a much smarter shooter. "When I was a rookie I was shooting lots of contested 3s, coming off curls shooting with two hands in my face. I think I've learned what are really good shots and the easiest ways to get points. I'm always looking for the easy points."

Durant's improved ability to handle the ball and attack the basket has improved his chances for easy points. And there are no easier points in the NBA than free throws. He's shooting 9.5 free throws per game and making better than 90 percent of them. He's also overcome the temptation to take the first possible shot available to him during a possession, a development that likely explains why he's shooting fewer midrange shots this season. "I give up good shots in favor of great shots," he told me. "I've been mixing it up in different ways. If I don't go to [my midrange shot], that means I'm scoring well from other places on the floor."

It's true. This season, Durant is scoring more effectively in the "NBA Jam" zones — at the rim and beyond the arc — while taking fewer midrange shots. From this spatial perspective, in 2010-11 Durant was a 23/50/27 guy — meaning 23 percent of his shots were close-range shots, 50 percent were midrange shots, and 27 percent were 3-point shots. This season he's a 34/41/25 player. He's given up good shots in favor of great ones.

Durant's performance close to the basket has changed, too. Although he makes 67 percent of those shots — the identical percentage he made two years ago — he's taking a greater proportion from close range. Just two years ago, only 23 percent were close to the basket. Last season, that number jumped to 32 percent, but consequently his efficiency in this area dropped to 63 percent. This season, 34 percent of his shots are close to the basket and he's making 67 percent of them. He's managed to increase his activity near the hoop and also regain that efficiency when less active there. In addition, he draws a majority of his shooting fouls in this zone, which helps him get those 9.5 free throws per game. In other words: Good things happen when KD is close to the basket.

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