Denton: Durant Gives Magic High Praise

By John Denton
Feb. 7, 2014

ORLANDO – Long before he became the most lethal scorer on the planet and had the Oklahoma City Thunder perennially in contention for the NBA championship, Kevin Durant lived through a trying rebuilding process.

Durant endured a 20-62 season his rookie year (2007-08) and a 23-59 season as the franchise transitioned from being the Seattle SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder. During those losing seasons, Durant’s teams were able to acquire several key pieces such as Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka that would eventually form the foundation of a squad that would grow into a powerhouse.

Looking back now, Durant – the NBA’s leading scorer again at 31 points a game – remembers those formative days fondly, saying that the struggles that he endured and the hard work put in makes all of the winning more fulfilling. Considering what he went through early in his career, Durant sees similarities to the growth process of the Orlando Magic – all the way down to GM Rob Hennigan having his fingerprints of the construction of both franchises.

``It’s just all about being patient and having faith and trusting n the GMs and coaches to get your teams better to bring in guys who fit with character,’’ said Durant, whose Thunder (40-11) face the Magic (14-37) tonight at the Amway Center.

``You have to set the identity that you want to have. The front office, coaches and players controlled how we came into work every single day and our practices were like games, shootarounds were like practices and we just learned every single day,’’ Durant continued. ``And every single day we just kept chipping away and we understood that it was a process. It also helped that we got some guys in here as well. We stuck with what we believe in, which is having character guys that think about the team first and work extremely hard.’’

After being forced to trade star center Dwight Howard in 2012, Orlando plummeted to 20-62 record last season. The Magic are still a team in transition this season, but they have collected several young promising players in Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson. They have meshed those young players with core veterans Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis to make enough strides this season to catch the eye of Durant. The Magic enter tonight’s 7 p.m. game with a three-game home winning streak and four victories in their last five games at the Amway Center.

``They have a really good team, but their record doesn’t tell how good a team they have from top to bottom,’’ Durant said. ``From Jameer, to Afflalo, Tobias Harris, Glen Davis and Vucevic – those guys have all put up big numbers in this league before. Afflalo is playing at an all-star level and Vucevic is one of the best centers in the league. So we have our work cut out for us.’’

Durant, the No. 2 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, is especially fond of Oladipo, the Magic’s prized No. 2 pick from last June’s NBA Draft. Both hail from the suburban Washington, D.C., area and they got to know one another last summer during a summer all-star game and a postgame sit-down session. Durant’s advice about working hard and taking nothing for granted stuck with Oladipo and meant the world to him.

``It meant a lot because he didn’t have to do that, but he did it anyway,’’ Oladipo said. ``In the course of that game we ended up guarding each other. I pretty much ended up guarding him from the second quarter to the whole game. Being competitors that we are, we were just going at it.’’

Said Durant of Oladipo: ``He works extremely hard, he’s extremely humble and he can play. The No. 2 pick, of course you can play this game if you are picked that high. He’s going through some ups and downs, but that’s what any player goes through. I want to see him win. We’re from the same area, knowing the same people and came up through the same ranks in the D.C. area, so I want to see him do well.’’

Durant is also especially fond of Orlando because of his relationship with Hennigan, the Magic’s GM for two seasons. Hennigan was in Oklahoma City from 2008-12, working as an assistant GM for two years and as the director of college and international player personnel for two years. Durant said that Hennigan played a major role in the Thunder’s rise to greatness – they won 50 games in 2009-10, 55 games in 2010-11 and 47 during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 run to the NBA Finals. He says he could totally see the Magic putting together a similar climb because of Hennigan’s basketball smarts and his dealings with players.

``Rob was one of the main guys that we had around that kind of helped change this whole culture here in Oklahoma City,’’ Durant said. ``I just knew it was a matter of time before he got his own (GM) job because he’s a bright basketball mind. He knows a lot about the game and it seems like he (always) makes the right decisions. He’s one of those guys that totally cares for his players more than just playing basketball. He’s somebody that I respect a lot and I know with his guidance (the Magic) are a really good organization.’’