First Look: Durant, James, Stuckey, More...

First Look: Durant, James, Stuckey, More...
Nov 11, 2006, 04:53 am
Kevin Durant
While nobody can teach 6’10 and freakishly athletic, it could be said that the only potential pitfall in Kevin Durant’s inevitable rise to NBA stardom is that he was too good too young. It is hard to teach a kid when to shoot and when to pass, when every shot he takes, no matter the distance or situation, has a very good chance of going in. Thus, it isn’t surprising to see Durant struggle a bit with fitting into the team concept. Tonight, the freshman scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, but looked a bit out of place within the Texas offense. Many of his shots were rushed, and he never really got into a perimeter shooting rhythm.

At the same time, some of the things the eighteen year-old Durant does on the basketball court simply have to be seen to be believed. He managed to score in just about every possible manner over the course of the night, hitting a pair of trademark quick release jumpers, crossing over players eight inches shorter and getting all the way to the basket, knocking down a lighting quick 10-foot turnaround after flashing into the lane, and a breathtaking open court dunk started with a hesitation move that faked two helpless Chicago State defenders out of their shorts and literally brought down the house.

Durant is constantly walking a fine line between brilliance and disaster. Durant did a good job of not forcing things in the first half when Chicago State was sending help his direction – he actually looked very good handling the ball in the open court and setting up the red-hot AJ Abrams. But in the second half, he suddenly found himself with a bit more space and being guarded by much shorter defenders. He fired up several poor shots, got his pocket picked when he tried to cross over a 5’8 Chicago State guard and threw the ball away twice in the open court, all in a five minute stretch. At this point, a visibly frustrated Barnes called Durant over to the sideline for what could be the first of many tongue-lashings the freshman will this season.

Durant claimed one of the major reasons he picked Texas was their weight training program, and a summer of pumping iron has clearly paid off for the once painfully skinny prospect. Durant’s arms are still quite spindly, but he has added a noticeable amount of bulk to his torso. While he still tends to shy away from contact and avoid the paint on offense whenever possible, the added muscle has already made quite a difference in his first step. He was studious on the glass the entire evening and while his defensive awareness is still significantly behind the curve, his immense wingspan makes him a natural shot blocker. One particularly impressive sequence saw Durant anticipate an interior dish, leave his man on the perimeter, and come up with an emphatic weak side rejection.

Has a 6’10 freshman as skilled as Durant ever set foot on a college court? It may sound extreme, but it is hard to come up with a decent list of players that even approached what Durant is doing out there. Can Rick Barnes find a way to get his freshman to work backwards and pick up on all the little things less talented players are forced to learn to earn their time on the court? If the answer to this question is yes, one NBA team is going to get very, very lucky in June of 2007.

Damion James

The idea of a player like Damion James playing second fiddle to anybody on the NCAA level is a little absurd. The idea of him playing second fiddle to a fellow freshman is downright laughable. But that is what happens when you sign on to be Kevin Durant’s teammate. So while the 6’10 Durant is busy working on his crossover and burying jumpers over players who couldn’t block his shot if they were on stilts, James will be the unsung hero, getting dirty down low and facilitating Texas’ potentially dynamite offensive attack. James isn’t going to create much offense for himself this year, but a long NBA future is still in the cards.

The first thing you notice about the lefty James is his mature build. Looking somewhat like a “LeBron lite” at first glance, James enters college with a muscular, NBA-ready physique. Unlike Durant, James looks right at home in the lane knocking people around, and there are very few players at the college level who won’t struggle with either his strength or his athleticism. This works out well for Barnes, because the Longhorns don’t have much to work with inside and James is the perfect “face up 4” in Texas’ new perimeter-oriented schemes.

James is aggressive and explosive around the basket, going after rebounds that the average player probably wouldn’t attempt to corral. He sees the floor very well, capable of handling the ball and finding his teammates in the halfcourt. The ultimate opportunist, James runs the floor very well, is an excellent leaper for a player with his bulk, and displays nice touch around the basket. His outside shot is a weak point at the moment, but more in terms of polish and consistency than technique or feel. As James looks for his own offense more consistently and as long as he puts the work in, don’t expect perimeter shooting to be a very big issue.

James isn’t going to be one and done like many of his elite freshman counterparts, but expect the “other” Longhorn freshman to eventually find plenty of success at the game’s highest level.

Rodney Stuckey

Rodney Stuckey is a player that has gained much publicity over the past year – first for his 4.0 GPA after only partially qualifying out of high school – and then for his 24+ ppg freshman scoring average. Beyond that scoring average, details on Stuckey’s game are very hard to come by.

I took in one of his early performances last season against Gonzaga, and came away with the impression that Stuckey was a talented guard lacking in experience and polish. Fast forward a year, and to another matchup against the ‘Zags. Where Derek Raivio was able to really bother Stuckey as he brought the ball up the floor a season ago, the wispy senior was no physical match for a battle-hardened Stuckey this go-round. While the Eagles would end up losing this game, early on Stuckey was able to do what he wanted offensively. He showed the ability to score in all sorts of ways, displaying absolutely beautiful form and a ton of elevation on two hotly contested 3-pointers, and took Raivio into the low block on several occasions in the first half. Stuckey doesn’t have the most explosive first step for the mold of guard we are talking about, but makes up for it with a remarkable ability to hang in the air and finish through defenders. He isn’t close to maxed out in terms of body strength, but you’d never know it from the way he slashes. Simply put, it is easy to see how Stuckey nearly averaged 25 ppg last season.

While Stuckey could probably be viewed as a tweener, the NBA appears to be trending toward athletic, multiple-position guards in his mold at the moment. Randy Foye appears to be the obvious comparison here, with the similar body types, athleticism, shot creating ability, and toughness going to the hole. Much like Foye, Stuckey is capable of running the point at times and is also somewhat sloppy as a ballhandler. At the same time, Stuckey has the court vision of a true point guard and will burn defenses with the pass if he can get himself moving toward the basket. It should be noted that while Stuckey’s aggression level was very much Foye-like coming out of the gate tonight, he became more passive as Gonzaga’s lead grew wider, and wasn’t much of a factor after the first five minutes of the second half.

It is hard to get too excited about a player one game into the season, but it is clear that Stuckey is quite a gem hidden in the expanses of Big Sky territory. If he was displaying this type of ability at a high-major, he might be viewed as a lottery pick right now. Don’t be surprised if he ends up there sooner rather than later.

Other 11/10 Notes Hasheem Thabeet is certainly a prospect, but lotto 07 seems a little extreme…there’s a lot more “Roy Hibbert” to the way he moves than the advertised “7’3 freak”…at the same time, he’s got a lot of the basics down defensively and would be an excellent rebounder at 6’10, let alone 7’3…one of his six blocks on the night was more of a catch, which he pinned against the backboard with both hands on the way down…Stanley Robinson is a bit raw, but is an elite level athlete and competes with the enthusiasm and aggressiveness that will get him places…hard to see him in college for too long…DJ Augustin looked excellent distributing the basketball and slashing to the basket with all the space provided by Texas’ perimeter-heavy lineups…another Horn freshman, wing Justin Mason, impressed during a five minute stretch in the first half…Josh Heytvelt had a big statistical game, knocking down a three-pointer and blasting home a couple of exclamation points around the basket. He’s not as much of a post presence as he needs to be and he doesn’t run the floor well, but he should put up big numbers this year with all the easy looks the Gonzaga guards will get him. He finishes very, very well…speaking of Gonzaga guards, freshman Matt Bouldin is a keeper. He’s got pure point guard court vision at 6’5, shoots the living crap out of the ball, and is quicker off the bounce than one would think. If he works on his explosiveness a bit more, this is a guy that is going to play at the highest level someday.

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