LONDON — Mike Krzyzewski has recruited and coached enough blue chip athletes in his life to know when to and when not to push their buttons.
So there were no mind games being played four years ago when Kevin Durant was left off of the U.S Men’s Senior National Team that went to Beijing and won gold at the 2008 Olympics.
Krzyzewski knew it was just a matter of time before Durant would be on USA Basketball’s version of the varsity. Everyone knew it after watching a 19-year-old Durant dazzle in his limited opportunity with more established NBA stars.
Durant’s time came two years later in Istanbul, where he led the 2010 World Championship team to a gold medal and showed the world how quickly things can change when you’re arguably the best scorer on the planet, or at least on your way to that title, and you recognize that no one man can stop you.
Fast forward to this summer and these Olympics and it’s clear that Durant won’t have to wait until 2016 to rise to the level of more seasoned teammates like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the senior members of the team competing here in the Olympics. Durant’s time is now and whether he realizes or not, Durant, all of 23 and already three-time NBA scoring champ, as ascended to a leadership position in this constellation of superstars.
“I’m on him constantly,” said U.S. point guard Chris Paul, one of five holdovers (Deron Williams is the other along with James, Bryant and Anthony) from the 2008 Team. “He’s still a young guy, so to speak, and he’s such a good dude that he’s not going to try to come in here and take over or anything like that. And I don’t blame him. Everybody wants to fit in when you first get on this team. But because of who he is and what he can do for this team, he doesn’t have that luxury. And that’s just the way it is.”
Durant said he has had to adjust to his teammates demanding more from him, the role he serves normally on a Oklahoma City Thunder team that fell in five games to James and the Miami Heat in the The Finals two months ago.
But he seems to be adjusting just fine, picking and choosing his spots in wins over France and Tunisia here, and always looking to attack. And he’s not only this team’s leading scorer (17.5) through the first two games, he’s the leader in minutes (51), rebounds (9.5) and tied for the top spot in blocks and steals.
“It’s different, there’s no doubt about it,” Durant said of the role he’s playing on this team. “I’m just trying to do what I always do and that’s help my team win games. I’m not worried about anything more than that. I’m here to win a gold medal and whatever my team needs to me to do to get that done, I’ll do it.”
It’s that attitude that has made Durant a USA Basketball favorite and a staple of the program for the future, depending, of course, on what becomes of this chatter about a 23-under age limit rule.
“Kevin really has displayed for all of USA Basketball the proper sequence of being involved,” Krzyzewski said. “First, by being on a select team, then by being involved, helping others, then you learn about the international game that way. He is only 23, he is not only a great player now, he has a great future ahead of him. He is as important as anyone we have.”
That simply was not the case in 2008. There were more experienced veterans in the system who had earned their way onto that team, guys who had specific roles within that unit and who already had a familiarity with each other and the program.
Krzyzewski has no problem acknowledging it now. He’s also quick to point out the fact that Durant has to make some changes to his approach.
“The main adjustment is to play with other alpha dogs,” Krzyzewski said. “He was the guy for the ’10 team, and everybody accepted him for that. Now he is with LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, these guys push … just so that he doesn’t hold back. The guys have been great with him, they want him to score. To me, it says a lot about our guys when they’re telling him, ‘Shoot it.’ You hear LeBron say, ‘Shoot it,’ every time. Kobe, kicking it out to him, ‘Shoot it.’ Carmelo also does it. It’s a good thing. And Kevin’s capable of a 40-point game, which he has done. And we might need that from him to win a gold medal.”
If that’s what it takes, so be it. Durant insists he’s ready for whatever.
Plus, he’s already come up short in one championship quest this summer.
Leaving here without a gold medal is an idea he can’t fathom.
“I’m focused on whatever comes next for us,” Durant said. “Nigeria [Thursday night] is the only thing on my mind. One step at a time and getting gold. That’s it.”