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Kevin Durant Makes "The Leap" At FIBA World Championship

Patrick Crawley |
September 14, 2010 | 2:17 a.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor
The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more striking.

On a day when LeBron James was in Washington, D.C. relaxing and cheering on “his” Dallas Cowboys, Kevin Durant was half a world away, in Istanbul, putting the finishing touches on Team USA’s first world basketball championship in 16 years.

While the reigning NBA MVP was trash tweeting and carrying on, the leader of America’s so-called “B-Team” was hoisting the FIBA world championship MVP trophy. And in that moment a shift was made.

In leading Team USA to the FIBA world title, and setting all kinds of scoring records in the process, Durant made the leap from star to elite-level MVP contender. 

With that gold medal hanging from his neck, the 21-year-old Durant is no longer an echelon below King James and Kobe Bryant. He’s breathing down their necks.

With his wire-strong frame and sweet stroke, Durant has always been borderline unguardable. His limitless range and impossible height make him a constant threat – let’s not forget he was the NBA’s leading scorer last season. But under coach Mike Krzyzewski he took on a new killer persona.

In the world championships, we saw a more confident Durant than the one rendered ineffective in the first round of the playoffs by Ron Artest. He was more active on the defensive end, more willing to take the ball inside against bigger defenders and more composed in his shot selection.

He even gave the crowd in Turkey Kobe’s trademark scowl after hitting consecutive threes in the second half of the championship. Only a few players in the league can pull off that scowl. Now Durant is one of them.

Surrounded by a cast of afterthoughts (seriously, Tyson Chandler and Danny Granger made this team?), Durant rose to the occasion time and again: 33 points in the quarterfinal against Russia; 38 points (a Team USA single-game record) in the semifinal against Lithuania; and, of course, 28 points to seal the deal against Turkey.  

More importantly, Durant stepped forward and set the tone for a young team in desperate need of an identity.

Tasked with carrying Team USA on his skinny shoulders, he didn’t wilt. He soared.

When Derrick Rose crashed wildly into the lane with no Plan B, there was Durant to bail him out with a timely three. When the opposing team leaked out on the break, there was Durant to block the shot at the rim. And when Coach K needed a scorer to complement his offensively-challenged second unit, there was Durant, staying on the floor, playing extra minutes.

Rarely has America seen an NBA player so proud to play for his country.

When the U.S. faced Lithuania in the semis on September 11, Durant wrote a message of memoriam on his sneakers and went on to torch the opposition to the tune of 38 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists. Team USA won handily, 89-74.

“I just wanted to remember everybody back in the States, everybody that was affected by 9/11,” Durant said according to a report from the Associated Press. “And to play on this day was a great honor and we just tried to do our best to play hard for our country and our families.”

Likewise, when his teammates struggled from the field in the first half of the championship game against Turkey who was there with 20 points, including a zone-busting five 3-pointers, to extend the lead to 10 at halftime? That’s right: Durant.

At a time when no players from the 2008 gold-medal winning team stepped forward to rep the U.S. (including Dwight Howard, whose offseason itinerary included a leisurely jaunt through India), Durant not only brought home the gold, he also set national bests for points in a game, points in a tournament and tournament scoring average on his way to earning tournament MVP honors.

It’s no wonder then that Team USA teammate Chauncey Billups singled out Durant for his outstanding play, saying the lanky forward had “put himself in that superstar caliber of player” – no faint praise coming from someone with a championship ring.

International success has long been the predictor for individual success in the NBA.

A year after Charles Barkley won the gold medal in 1992 as part of the “Dream Team,” he was named league MVP and led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. Likewise, LeBron won his first MVP award and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Finals after starring on the “Redeem Team” that won gold in 2008.

If that trend holds true, the 2010-11 season will mark not only Durant’s first Maurice Podoloff trophy but also a deep playoff run for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

LeBron, and the rest of the league, would be wise to take warning.

To reach editor Patrick Crawley, click here.

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