Does that mean that Durant will surely stay there until June 29th? Absolutely not. That will depend largely on which team ends up with the #1 pick, which well only find out on May 22nd in Secaucus, New Jersey. What it does mean is that the #1 pick is Greg Odens to lose mantra (which were just as guilty of disseminating) that weve been hearing for the better part of three years should now come to an end, and that there is at the very least a legitimate reason to have a proper debate on the topic.
Oden was anointed very early on in his career as a sure thing based off his high school performances and the snowballing effect of the media hype, but based on results so far, Durant has shown that he is just as good a prospect, if not better, even though he wasnt earmarked for greatness from a very early age. If anything, Durant looks like much more of a sure thing than anyone in this draft class based on the results we see on the floor and the way his game translates to the NBA. What we now need to do is recondition ourselves to the situation at hand and attempt to ignore what we were beaten over the head with through thousands of articles and TV sound bitesrealizing that what were seeing right now isnt quite how we were told things were going to play out. If Oden begins to back up the hype that he came into college with based off his high school career, then hes very much deserving of being considered the unanimous choice for being picked #1 overall. But until that happens, even Oden would be the first one to tell you that he just hasnt earned it on the court yet.
Most people by now have put themselves firmly in one camp or the other on the side of the player they think should be drafted #1, although they can probably easily be swayed depending on which one they saw last and how they performed. To us, the decision to move Durant ahead of Oden came down to a number of factors.
To start with, Durant should right now be considered the hands down favorite to win player of the year honors, especially now that Alando Tuckers shaky jumper has finally come down to earth. What he is doing at the Big 12 level as a freshman is absolutely unprecedented from the research weve gathered, and can only be compared, as far as high-major conference basketball is concerned, with Chris Jacksons exploits at LSU in 1988-1989. The 6-1 combo guard Jackson (who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) averaged 30.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.5 turnovers as a freshman in the SEC. In seven Big 12 games thus far, Durant is at 33.3 points and 14.4 rebounds, shooting 53.3% from the field and 47% from behind the arc.
Whats been most concerning so far is the almost complete lack of fluidity that Oden is displaying on the offensive end. Hes very mechanical in the post, being highly predictable with his moves and not looking flexible enough to react to what defenses are throwing at him and counter with any kind of polish. Looking at the way he is scoring his points, its hard to get any kind of feeling that what hes doing at the college level will fly in the NBA in the least bit, as his entire game is based off overpowering shorter, weaker and less athletic opponents and scoring almost exclusively within 5 feet of the hoop. At age 18, he still has plenty of room to grow as a player, meaning hell likely learn how to use his body better in the post, get better at taking the ball up strong to the basket, and improve his footwork-- but there are certain traits in an athlete that are just innate, and we arent seeing them at all from him so far. Players who are somewhat stiff in their movements, like a David Robinson or a Dwight Howard for example, dont become more fluid as they get older. And while Oden is certainly an excellent athlete, he's not as freakishly explosive as Howard to naturally overcome his shortcomings there. Does that mean that Oden is not going to end up becoming a phenomenal NBA player? Absolutely not. That just means that its not ridiculous to suggest that his overall upside might be less than that of Kevin Durant.
To talk about upside, we need to make sure that everyone is on the same page as we are regarding the definition of this word. From reading some recent columns, its not clear that thats the case right now. For example, Chad Ford recently wrote in his ESPN Insider blog:
So, assuming that Bill [Simmons] is right about Durant's potential to be one of the best ever, this conversation comes down to how you define "upside."
Since upside is all about perception, it's tough to nail it down with facts and figures. It's more a matter of interpretation.
If upside means individual performance, then Durant is the man -- he has the chance to be a player that redefines his position, a la Magic, Barkley and Garnett.
But why do most NBA teams currently lean toward Oden as the No. 1 pick?
Here's where the other interpretation of "upside" comes into play. For many GMs and fans "upside" means individual performance plus the overall impact on a team's success.
Chad brings up some excellent points in the rest of his column, but wed have to disagree with his definition of the word upside. The dictionary defines upside as the highest or uppermost side of anything, or in business terms the potential dollar amount by which the market or a stock could rise.
To translate that into basketball scouting terms, the word upside is used to describe a player's potential, essentially, how good can he be down the road if hes to achieve that upside. When scouts try to determine upside, they do that by analyzing physical attributes, natural tools (including athleticism), mental capacity, age, his current skill-set plus the flashes he shows of doing more, etc. It's got little to do with individual performance plus the overall impact on a team. A player can have a huge upside, but not currently be very productive and play for a losing team.
Tyrus Thomas for example was drafted largely on his upside, which he has clearly yet to achieve. He was not an incredibly productive player at LSU (compared with many other NCAA players in last years draft) if you look at his season as a whole, and he probably wasn't even the 1st or 2nd most important player on his own team when judging their success in reaching the Final Four. But that didnt stop the Bulls from taking him 4th overall, because they believed he had the upside to develop into something much greater than that down the road. Big men often get this same treatment in the draft, like Saer Sene last year. He averaged 3 points and 2 rebounds per game playing for a weak team that finished near the bottom of the table in the Belgian league. Basically, the only reasons he was drafted 10th were his height, wingspan, athleticism, youth, and the fact that he played extremely hard and had a good work ethic, which increased his likelihood to achieve his upside down the road.
To go back to the Oden/Durant debate, its not entirely clear that Oden surely has more upside than Durant. For one, Oden has almost completely maximized himself physicallysomething that is very obvious when watching how he scores his pointswhile Durant is getting his production almost despite the fact that hes as thin as a rail. In terms of future improvement, its much easier for a player like Durant to develop his body than it is for a player like Oden to become less tentative and a more fluid and skilled post player. Many of the highlight reel plays weve seen Durant execute as of late have come from the mid to low post rather than from behind the 3-point line, which makes us wonder just how good hell be down there once hes able to properly battle inside with some added strength. Whats really scary is that Durant still isnt really a great ball-handler at this point in his careersomething hell freely tell you himselfso just imagine how much more lethal his offensive game will be when hes more comfortable putting the ball on the floor in traffic and creating shots in the half-court?
Our good friend (also an ESPN Insider columnist) David Thorpe told us in late November that he already believes Durant should get serious consideration for #1 overall because of the way he fits into the perimeter-oriented style of play that the NBA has gradually been moving towards over the past few years, specifically with the rule changes regarding impeding movement and hand-checking. While a player like Oden would have been an absolute terror on any given possession defensively in the more rugged basketball days of the 90s, his effectiveness can now be minimized to a certain extent with a smaller center that plays facing the basket and forces his matchup to come out and defend him on the perimeter.
Playing for Ohio State, its very obvious under close scrutiny that Oden struggles when forced to make quick, sharp rotations that demand a high level of mobility and reactivenessfor example hedging a screen on the perimeter or attacking a slasher from the weak-side on a foray into the paint. Playing heavy minutes in a zone defense where he isnt asked to leave the post for even a moment as the anchor of his teams defense helps mask this weakness to a certain extent, but it still shows on occasion and will be even more of an issue in the NBA where teams play man-to-man almost exclusively.
In terms of upside, its impossible at this point to say whose is higher. From what we can surmise, Oden at his peak level of production will be an NBA defensive player of the year candidate, a league leading rebounder, and an effective, although unspectacular inside scorera David Robinson type if you will. Durant on the other hand is much more of an unknown, since hes really breaking new ground day in and day out in terms of the way hes producing with his incredibly unique style of play. He also needs to find the right situation--team and coach-wise--to fully maximize his skills. He really does have a chance to change the way we think of the forward position, much in the way Dirk Nowitzki has over the past few years, but only in his own special way. Traditional wisdom tells us that big men win championships, but is that an outdated way of thinking? Teams used to desperately look for big men to help clean up the paint and dominate with their back to the basket in what used to be a much more physical league. Now, as the rules have changed, so has the emphasis on scouting amongst teams that really know what they are doing.
Whats certain is that we very much have a lively debate on our hands, and one that will likely extend well into June as the lucky team that wins the lottery is forced to make up their mind as to what they prefer.