BALTIMORE – With a steady handle, he drove past opponents and created room for his pull-up jumpers. His markedly improved athleticism allowed him to finish at the rim. His dunks were hard, and his jumpers were soft.
No, not Austin Daye – at least not yet. I’m talking about Kevin Durant.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star scored 59 points in the the Melo League’s 149-141 win over the Goodman League on Tuesday night, but it’s not that difficult to imagine Daye nearing (not equaling) the ability to produce like that.
Daye has worked out with Durant often this summer, and the Piston planned to work out with Durant in Washington D.C. this week. Coincidentally, this exhibition was slated for the same time, and Daye could join Durant’s Goodman League team.
It wasn’t the best venue to show off his training, but I really hope Daye is picking up a lot from Durant. Like Durant did his first year in the league, Daye is probably best-suited to play shooting guard until he gets stronger. In his first two years, Daye has mostly played the forward positions and catered his skills for the frontcourt.
Durant can give Daye pointers about playing both oversized shooting guard and weak small forward (neither completed a single bench press at their pre-draft combine).
“I’m just learning different combinations of moves and things like that, incorporating my game,” Daye said. “As far as learning curve, I mean, I learned a lot already from my father. So, it’s hard to teach me a lot of new things. But just to get better at certain things.”
As troubling as it seems at first glance to hear Daye say it’s hard to teach him new things, he’s right. For a player his age and caliber, he’s very polished. Most guys so young struggle because their skills are so raw. That’s not the case for Daye. He hasn’t earned a permanent rotation spot yet because his defense and mental focus drift too often, not because his skills lack refinement.
That’s where I think Durant can come in.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Daye said. “He’s a similar player to me, so I like working out with guys like that – especially a guy his caliber.”
I really hope Daye picks up on how Durant carries himself. Durant isn’t one of the best players in the NBA because he’s more skilled than Daye (although, he is). He’s one of the best players in the NBA because he brings it every night, because he’s worked on his defense, because he’s always looking for an edge.
If last night’s game was any indication – although, I honestly don’t think it was – Daye found his edge. He played relatively straightforwardly when everyone else was going for flash. That’s a big reason he scored 23 points, fourth-most in the game behind Durant, LeBron James (32) and Carmelo Anthony (27). I’m not sure Daye’s scoring showed anything about his NBA ability, though.
But Daye’s defense impressed me. He blocked a few shots and challenged a few more. Sure, Gary Neal made a few 3-pointers over him, and LeBron dunked on him. But that was a product of being there. Most defenders never got close enough to be embarrassed.
Throughout the contest, I said Daye was the the Defensive Player of the Game. Although I was half-kidding about the need to even recognize defense in an unorganized exhibition, and although Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak kept making fun of my stance, it was true: Daye played the game’s best defense. Realize that’s a low bar, but I’ll never complain about him showing defensive intensity.
When he re-connects with the rest of his teammates – whenever that may be – hopefully, he can tell them about his career-defining summer with Kevin Durant.