After Greg Oden's tragic season-ending injury, many have come of the opinion that Durant was, in fact, the better pick for now, and have been eager to jump onto the Durant Bandwagon in full force. I, however, am not sold, and I'll tell you why.
I am not here to discredit Kevin Durant's credentials. He was absolutely sublime for Texas all season long, and put up the kind of single-game numbers you just don't see from a college player. As a freshman, he wasn't just the best player in the country, he was clearly the best player in the country. And watching KD, it's easy to see why people predict greatness for him: He has one of the purest shooting strokes I've ever seen, a huge collection of offensive moves from the post and the perimeter, and a beautiful fluidity to everything he does. Oh, and he's 6-10. We really never have seen a player like him before; he's some kind of bizarre mixture of Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kobe Bryant, and his uniqueness makes any sort of prediction about him pure speculation.
But here's my speculation: Durant will disappoint.
Durant is primarily an offensive player, so I'll state my qualms about his offensive game first. As I said, Durant has a beautiful jump shot, and is a pure shooter, so he can get squared up from any angle and get his shot off at any time. However, being a great shooter does not make a franchise NBA scorer.
The average NBA possession yields just over half a point-the average "true shooting"% for the league last year was around 55%. (If you don't know what this stuff means, take 10 minutes out of your day and read Hollinger. Trust me, it'll be worth it.) Good jump shooters, like Kobe Bryant, Gilbert Arenas, and Ray Allen, shoot an eFG% of anywhere from 45-49% on jumpers, under the league average for efficiency. Today's game is about going to the rim, where baskets are much easier to come by (good scorers shoot anywhere from 65-70% on "inside" shots), and fouls can be drawn for easy points. The other way to come by efficient scoring is by getting a sharpshooter behind the 3-point line, where the extra value of the shot makes up for its difficulty. (A 40% 3-point shooter is really shooting 60%, which is good.)
Mid-range shots are an inefficient way to score, especially for a player who will never get a good look at one; while the mid-range jumper is sometimes necessary to "keep the defense honest" and consequently free up space to get to the rim, a contested midrange jumper is almost universally an inefficient shot. Durant's 3-point shooting ability would normally be a huge asset to his team, but with how defenses will be keying in on him next year, the shot is just too tough to hit consistently under coverage. (His .236 3-point% in the summer league seemed to reflect this.)
Make no mistake: the key skill for a franchise scorer in this league is the ability to get to the rim and get shots inside. Even superstars who are thought of primarily as jump shooters get to the rim regularly. (Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas were 1st and 2nd in the league in Free Throw Attempts last year.)
Do I think Kevin Durant will consistently be able to get to the rim at the NBA level, and hence become the franchise scorer he's projected to be? No. He doesn't cause mismatches. While that may seem like an odd thing to say about a 6-10 shooting guard, it's true. After the infamous combine, basketball's answer to Vince Young's Wonderlic test, basketball purists quickly came up with a consensus: he's a basketball player, not a track star. If you think these measurements can tell you what kind of player he'll be, you're an idiot. Tony Allen dominated these tests, for the love of god. I won't take cheap shots at that kind of thinking by pointing out that it led to us taking Luke Jackson over Andris Biedrins, Josh Smith (Jay Bilas: "he will be the bust of the draft."), J.R. Smith, Sebastian Telfair, and Jameer Nelson; that would be wrong. Instead, I'll point out how all the best scorers in the NBA are either bigger or faster than anyone trying to guard them, or, in LeBron James' case, both. Great players cause mismatches; Kevin Durant is on the receiving end of one. He's either a slow small forward, molasses-like shooting guard, or weak power forward; Ron Artest could get in his grill all day from the perimeter and comfortably keep him out of the paint, as could Lamar Odom or even Tayshaun Prince. He's not going to overpower anybody.
Going through his YouTube highlights one more time, not only did the amount of jump shots stand out (jumpers on YouTube?), but the finesse of his game. One move that Durant seems to have in his bag is to drive hard one way, then lose his man with a counter-spin the other way and hit the resulting 7-footer. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous move, but it has disturbing implications; he invented that move because he was getting beaten to the spot on his drives by white guys from Gonzaga, who may or may not have thought that he was a dragon. He did dominate in college, but he did so not through his sheer ability, but with his ability to bend the game so that his abilities would be highlighted. Will that ability be enough at the NBA level? I do not think so. In the Summer League, his forays to the basket were often stopped cold by fellow rookies and D-leaguers; he did start getting to the line near the end of the summer league, but Adam Morrison averaged over 10 free throws per game during his summer league, and while I think the Morrison/Durant comparison has been played out, that does seem pertinent. If Kevin Durant can find a way to get to the league in the NBA, I'm wrong about him. But he seems to willing to settle for his jumper, as well as just not fast enough.
So that's why I don't think that Kevin Durant will shoot higher than 40% this year, which only scratches the surface of why I don't think he'll become a franchise player. When playing the "compare the best players in the NBA" game, typically around MVP time, one of the most important things for me is "how good is he on his worst night?" In other words, when he can't buy a jumper to save his life or find easy lanes to the bucket, how does he help his team to victory? Tim Duncan is the best at this test; he gives you 10 rebounds, great defense, draws a double-team, shares the ball, gets scrappy buckets, and leads his team. LeBron will get 5 or 6 boards, get a steal or two, get some points on fast breaks, draw a double-team, and keep his teammates involved. Dwayne Wade will get to the line 15 times. Tracy McGrady will run the offense.
The absolute worst elite player at this test is Dirk Nowitzki, the player who represents the best-case scenario for Mr. Durant. Like Durant, Dirk is an absolute liability defensively because of his lack of speed and muscle, and like Durant, Dirk's offense rarely gets other players going, because much of it is off a jump shot rather than a coverage-drawing post-up or drive to the hole. Dirk has managed to make himself a good rebounder, which Durant has not proven himself able to do at the NBA level. (He could rebound in college, but not in the summer league, and now he's been put at shooting guard.) Unlike Wade or Arenas, Durant and Dirk aren't fast enough to crash into defenders for free throws or strong enough to try to get an easy look in the post when their shot isn't going; their games are entirely dependent on creating and maintaining a groove, and if they're forced out of that groove, like Dirk was against Golden State, they're giving you nothing. When Durant's shot isn't falling, he's going to have himself a very, very bad night.
And as for the USA scrimmage, which he played fantastically in, remember that that style of play is perfectly styled to Durant's strengths: there is almost no scoring off drives, much more spot-up shooting, a shorter three-point line, and a greater emphasis on fundamental play.
So that's my bold prediction: I still don't think I have Kevin Durant figured out, because he is so unique, but that's my best attempt. Feel free to disagree, but for now I'm ready to let Mr. Durant settle this one on the court.