Durant Fights Obesity, Helps Kids

By Randy Renner

Thunder superstar Kevin Durant walked out onto a new basketball court that bears his name to the wild cheers of more than a hundred young students at Oklahoma City's North Highland Elementary School Monday morning.

Durant, his foundation and Nike built an outdoor basketball court at the school to give kids another safe place to play the game Durant loves so much.

"I just wanted to teach these kids how I was brought up and the values I learned from being outdoors," Durant said.

When KD was growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, there were several outdoor basketball courts. It was a poor area, so the courts weren't always in the best shape but, kids would gather and hoop it up anyway just happy to be outside.

"That's where we all went. We didn't always have access to a gym," he recalled. "Some days we didn't even play basketball we just sat around and talked to each other."

In those days, technology wasn't quite where it is today, and most kids in Durant's neighborhood might not have been able to afford the latest video game anyway, so they always played outside.

"I think we're starting to shy away from that now."

The statistics support Durant’s concerns about the growing lack of youth involvement in outdoor activities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity affects about 12.7 million children under the age of 19. The rates tend to be especially higher in low-income households.

“Living an active lifestyle, I think that’s something as a community, we’ve gotten away from,” Durant said. “Just having this opportunity to refurbish an outdoor court means a lot to me. I think something like this, even though it’s on a small scale, it can help for years and years to come.”

Anita Jones, the principal at North Highland Elementary agrees.

“I think it is very important,” Jones said. “We live in a society now where a lot of students suffer from obesity and juvenile diabetes because they don’t have those interactive skills. They are not active. They are couch potatoes. So this is a way for them to come out, get involved and be active and just have fun and be kids again.”

The court at North Highland is the first Durant and his team have built in North America but it won't be the last. He hopes to add more courts here in the Oklahoma City area and probably in his old neighborhood back home near D.C.

“Kevin said this community is a lot like the community he grew up in,” Jones said. “A lot of single parents, high poverty area. And he wanted to give back and he wanted the kids to know that he cares. It’s so important when you have celebrities and you have those people that are there that will reach back and try to pull somebody else up.”



Durant Torches Stephen A. Smith on Lakers Rumors

By Randy Renner

Thunder superstar Kevin Durant left no doubt about what he thinks of ESPN's Stephen A. Smith's reporting of sources saying Durant has interest in playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season saying "he's lying" during a post-practice interview session with reporters.

"I don't talk to Stephen A. Smith at all. Nobody in my family, my friends, they don't talk to Stephen A. Smith. So he's lying." 

Earlier this week Smith said on ESPN's First Take, "I'm hearing if Kevin Durant doesn't stay in OKC, LA is his primary objective and landing spot as opposed to South Beach or even his home in Wahington, DC." 

Back in August during an interview session at a USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, Durant was asked about all the rumors that will be coming out during the season as his free agency gets closer. He said then, "I've got two people that I trust with my life, my agent and my manager who's my best friend as well. I trust them with my life. So if you hear sources or anything, don't believe it if it didn't come from them." 

When asked today about having to answer questions about rumors like the one Smith reported Durant again said, "Like I've said before I have people who I talk to about everything and I know for a fact they didn't talk to (Smith) so he's making up stories." 

(Editor's Note) Durant's full interview session can be heard below. The Stephen A. Smith questions come toward the end of the session.

Thunder Players Love What They're Seeing From New Staff, System

By Randy Renner

After five practices in three days Thunder players are thrilled with what they've seen so far of the new offensive and defensive systems, "if you know how to play basketball it's easy," D.J. Augustin said after Thursday's practice.

"Coach is just putting us in situations where we can be set and organized and after that it's just playin' basketball and being smart and making the right decisions. I think it's pretty simple really."

"Everybody's been buyin' in to the new system," said shooting guard Anthony Morrow. "I think the sky's the limit."

What is it exactly about this new way of doing things that's so much better than before?

"Offensively I think we have a lot of space," Morrow said. "Russell and Kevin and Dion and Cam and DJ and those guys have a lot more space in the pick-and-roll and shooters such as myself, Steve, Kyle and those guys we really can space out the floor and put a lot of pressure on the defense. And defensively we really wanna try and take away the three."

Augustin said it's more than just the new system, it's the way it's being presented.

"I just think (the coaches) are very organized and real put together so by them being that way it's gonna keep us organized and put together once we're on the floor."

Head coach Billy Donovan appreciates the praise but he figures it's just part of his job to make things as easy and as interesting for the players as possible.

Whether the team is working on spacing the floor or transition defense "I think you try to keep it new, you try to keep it fresh you try to keep it moving," Donovan pointed out. "Once these guys get lathered and they're stretched you try to go from one thing to the next to the next to the next and get that work in and keep them focused."

"They've got time limits on certain drills," Augustin added. "We don't overdo it on certain things. It keeps us organized in our minds."

And it's a good thing because Donovan said a lot of different situations have been covered in just the first three days of camp.

"We're covering everything, half-court offense, half-court defense, pick-and-roll coverages, side out-of-bounds, underneath out-of-bounds, late clock situations, what are we doing if our pick-and-roll coverage gets broken down. So every day we're just making sure we're hitting the things that are important."

It's not the easiest thing in the world for players who've gotten comfortable running offense and defense a certain way over the last several seasons to all of a sudden change everything in the span of a few practices and film sessions and Donovan realizes that.

"I appreciate them having an open mind in terms of being willing to look at things that are maybe new and different drills that maybe they haven't done before."

"It's very different but it's very efficient on both ends," Morrow said. "When you got guys that are focused and wanna get better every single day and you got coaches as precise as they are I think it's really good for us. We feel good, we feel refreshed we just wanna work hard every single day."

The Thunder will have one more practice on Friday then take Saturday off before some of what's new is revealed publicly at the Blue/White scrimmage in Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.

Kanter Working To Improve His Defense

By Randy Renner

Thunder center Enes Kanter has heard what folks have been saying about him and he's more than ready to change the narrative.

"People like to say that I'm just a one-way player, just offense but I really want to work on my defense and try to be a two-way player," Kanter said after Wednesday's practice. "It doesn't just help me it helps us get more wins."

Kanter's scoring and rebounding were outstanding last season after he joined the Thunder, averaging 18.7 points on 56.6 percent shooting (the best of his career) while pulling down 11.0 rebounds a game. But he tended to give up as many points as he scored and some analytics showed him to be among the worst defensive centers in the NBA over the last 30 years.

To be fair Kanter worked in a completely different system in Utah and he didn't have near the skilled players around him in Salt Lake City that he does with the Thunder. He also had to deal with constant lineup shuffles after his trade to OKC because of all the Thunder injuries.

"When we lost Serge (Ibaka) for that month and a half or whatever we lost one of our best defensive guys so that really hurt us."

Hurt Kanter in particular because Ibaka was able to make up for a bad move by his new teammate with a block or by forcing an opponent into altering a shot. Without Ibaka to swat away the mistakes Kanter made he became more exposed.

Now, Ibaka is healthy again and in perhaps the best shape of his life (which is saying something). Kanter returned to Oklahoma City in better shape too. He's dropped about 20 pounds and believes his footwork and leg strength has improved.

"I was really focused on my weight and my defense. I was mainly working on my legs because with defense the most important thing is the legs. Leg strength, leg movement, lateral stance and stuff. So we focused on that."

Kanter has always been gifted with great offensive ability, so much so that defense was too often overlooked. He also has a deft touch around the basket and he really took advantage of that after being traded.

While in Utah last season 45.2 percent of his shots were within three feet of the basket. After being traded to the Thunder that percentage skyrocketed to 59.0 percent and he made 65.7 percent of those shots. His accuracy on mid-range jumpers (10-16 feet) also ballooned, going from just 36.0 percent with the Jazz to 48.5 percent with the Thunder.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan believes the new system he and his coaches are installing will help Kanter and just spending more time around front court teammates who are are focused on defense, like Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams will help too.

"My teammates are really trying to help me out and my coaches too. We're really focused on the defense right now and just trying to get it done."

With Kanter's offensive skills and the team around him he doesn't even have to become an average defender, just provide some resistance and keep grabbing those rebounds.

Fortunately, Kanter's goals are set much higher than that.

Donovan Pleased With Practice Progress

After three practice sessions the first question reporters asked Billy Donovan on Wednesday was how things are going with the installation of the new offense and defense and he seemed pleased.

"It's been going well," he said. "They've got a really high capacity to pick up things and they've really done an outstanding job in that area. It's been encouraging to see them pick it up the way they have."

This isn't just a re-tooling of what the Thunder had done before it's more like a total rebuild but most of the concepts and movements are things, especially veteran players have come across before.

"From that standpoint I don't think they're looking at it and saying, 'hey this is totally foreign to me' at all."

Donovan and his coaches have been trying to get as much in as possible and with the players showing the ability to pick things up and understand them quickly, that process is moving right along.

"My feeling was to really get a lot in and be able to play a game by tomorrow, I'm not saying that we would do anything well but to at least have the shell and the concepts where there's underneath outta bounds, there's side outta bounds, there's half court offenses, our defensive system is in, pick-and-roll coverages those kinda things."

Thunder fans remember that at times over the last few seasons the Thunder have struggled with side out-of-bounds plays, especially in the closing seconds of a half and they'd become predictable and at times sluggish in the half court.

It will be fascinating to begin to see some of those changes. The Thunder's first pre-season game is next week at Minnesota.

Collison: "There's A Lot of New Stuff"

By Randy Renner

By the time the regular season starts at the end of October the Oklahoma City Thunder should look like a much different team from years past.

A new offense is being installed and so is a new defense.

"There's a lot of new stuff," veteran Thunder forward Nick Collison told a playoff worthy sized crowd of reporters. "That's different for us, the last few years we've just jumped right into training camp and we've all known what were were running."

Former head coach Scott Brooks (and the players too) mostly liked that familiarity. They could work on fine tuning things rather than starting over. 

Now days the Thunder are all about embracing change.

"It's good to have some new stuff," Collison said. "Guys came in with an open mind, listened and were eager to learn, so it was a good first practice."

Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, back at a full practice and pain free for the first time in almost a year, said things went well.

"I felt great," KD assured the group. "Everybody was focused and locked in on what coach wants us to do so it was a good start but we gotta build on it."

For a while Durant, Collison and their teammates will spend a lot of time learning new plays, new terminology, a whole new system.

"That stuff was new for us, different system, different coaches but we've got a veteran group of guys that are smart about the game and know how to catch things on the fly," Durant pointed out, "so it was cool."

The changes have been kept under wraps until now. At Monday's media day players said they really wouldn't know for sure how drastically different (or not) things would be and and coach Billy Donovan has been vague when he's spoken to reporters.

Today things started to become a bit more clear.

"Certainly a lot of teaching to do," Donovan said. "Just trying to get a defensive system in, a philosophy in some of those things. Trying to break down and teach but I thought we got a lot in especially considering it was the first day."

Most of the first of two scheduled practices on this first day of camp was spent on the defensive end.

"I don't think we're any different from any other team you're trying to establish a defensive identity of how you wanna play," Donovan said. "So much of the game is played in the pick-and-roll and how you're defending that and what your coverages are and how you're defending becomes very, very important."

The Thunder had been an elite defensive team for the last few seasons and they were for a while last season too. Injuries and constant lineup shuffling because of them led to lapses on that end of the floor after the All-Star break. 

The coaching change provided the perfect opportunity to get some new ideas flowing. 

"As a coaching staff we were trying to look at areas where we can help and I think when you watch film things reveal themselves," Donovan said. He's watched film of every game the Thunder have played over the last two seasons and he's broken everything down with the help of his assistant coaches and from the Thunder's analytic experts.

"I think in trying to come up with a system you have to look at lot of those numbers," Donovan admitted, "and lineups and film and those things to make those kinds of assessments and then it has to matchup philosophically with how we as a staff see the game."

With the entire summer to chart film, plot numbers and brainstorm Donovan and his staff have come up with what they believe will work best with the Thunder roster much of it is different from what most of the guys are used to seeing.

"It's new to all of us the stuff we're trying to do," said Collison. "It's not totally different or crazy, a lot of the principles are the same but it is a new way of doing a lot of things. So we have a lot of work to do."

And Collison says in this case, change seems to be good. He and the players are all in and ready to see how well the new ideas work.

 "I think there's a lot of energy, a lot of anticipation. When things are new you feel a little more energy with the group. There's a lot to learn so I think it's important we all come in with an open mind and be ready to go."