Kevin Durant: National Player of the Year?

January 13th, 2007

The remarkable impact of the freshmen class.

It hasn’t just been a story in this college basketball season, it has been the story.

The volleyball-sensation-turned-basketball-wunderkind out West. The Carolina kids with Lottery futures. And, of course, Greg Oden and Thad Matta’s merry men. Merry young men, that is.

But of all the first-year standouts who have exceeded what it really means to stand out, one is making much more than a name for himself. He is making a case for history.

Kevin Durant, of the University of Texas, should be honored as the National Player of the Year.

He’s clearly the best player in the Big 12. His team is younger than the average college student in line for a fake ID, yet Durant’s led Texas to an 11-3 record. Junior guard Craig Winder plays less than nine minutes a game and that’s still more than any other Longhorn with more than two years experience.

Oh, and Durant’s numbers are of the shock-and-awe variety.

Consider the following three players:

A) 24.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.8 spg, 1.9 bpg, 58.3 FG%

B) 23.4 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.9 bpg, 49.4 FG%

C) 22.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.9 bpg, 45.3 FG%

Care to guess who they are?

Carmelo Anthony’s 2002-2003 season – the best by a frosh at any major program in recent memory – is C.

Danny Manning’s senior season (1987-1988) – otherwise known as the indisputable argument for his selection as the Big Eight Player of the Decade – is A.

Durant’s current season of ascendance is B.

Quite simply, the Texas star is having a season better than Anthony did as a freshman and on par with what Manning willed as a senior; two of the finest runs in college basketball lore.

Yet somehow Durant’s resume might not get him rewarded with a measly trophy. No freshman has ever won the Wooden or the Naismith. Heck, the most impactful freshmen of the last twenty years –Anthony, Mike Bibby, and Pervis Ellison – never even received conference Player of the Year honors, never mind national recognition. This despite leading their teams to national championships.

Part of the reason for the drought of freshmen accolades is their gaping hole in the college hoops encyclopedia. The Naismith College Player of the Year was first awarded in 1969 (the John R. Wooden Award was introduced in 1977), but freshmen were ineligible to compete from 1957 to 1973. Certainly Bill Walton could’ve been a trophy-holder had he played as a first-year student. Might as well say the same for “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Lew Alcindor, had they been eligible and the award been available.

But now freshmen aren’t just playing with the varsity, they’re toying with them. And no one – in any class – is more deserving of college basketball’s highest honor than Durant is. He hasn’t just been the best player in the country; he’s been the most consistent. And isn’t that who the Naismith and Wooden Awards should go to?

Durant does have some forefathers, though.

In 1970, Spencer Haywood challenged the professional ranks to allow collegiate underclassmen entrance. His legal action practically served as a hand gesture luring others to join him. Four years later, Moses Malone skipped college to play in the ABA. The following year Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willougby became the first high school players drafted into the NBA.

But it was Kevin Garnett who really opened up the preps-to-pros floodgates. When Garnett declared in 1995, the world of high school basketball took notice. And then the prodigies (Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, and Dwight Howard, to name a few) and the not-so-wise (Leon Smith, Ndubi Ebi, and DeAngelo Collins) followed him.

So while many credit the NBA’s “age minimum” rule for the infestation of young guns on this season’s college basketball landscape, Garnett is probably even more – albeit indirectly – responsible. Every single one of these dominant 18 and 19-year olds didn’t get to choose between college and the pros because David Stern chose for them. But it was Garnett’s influence on this younger generation that forced Stern’s hand.

How fitting that the superstar Kevin of yesteryear – the player Durant is most often compared to – is also the primary reason the boyish Kevin is in college and, thus, in position to break new ground himself?

Last year’s high school class was clearly a collection of unmatched brilliance and the new draft rule forced all of them to go to college. The rare mixture of talent and timing was a Molotov cocktail and Durant was the perfect match to set this whole thing ablaze.

In a season drenched in historical significance, the man honored as the Player of the Year shouldn’t be a man at all.

It should be a kid.

A kid making history.