Kevin Durant was oblivious to the glare from his fellow Sonics rookie. "He sucks," Jeff Green said with a snarl while sitting in the KeyArena...
Kevin Durant was oblivious to the glare from his fellow Sonics rookie.
“He sucks,” Jeff Green said with a snarl while sitting in the KeyArena locker room.
Don’t worry — this isn’t the final crack in the Sonics’ house. Not another cause for fan unrest on top of a franchise-record, 14-game losing streak and owner Clay Bennett’s attempt to move the team to Oklahoma City.
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It’s just more playful banter between two of the NBA’s next stars.
As the story goes, Green is so gifted at playing “NBA Live” it’s not even a competition with Durant, who, ironically, is a video-game cover boy.
At least that’s Green’s story.
“He talks a lot of trash about the Xbox,” said Green, still snarling in Durant’s direction, trying to get his teammate’s attention. “Last time I played Kevin, I won. And I don’t care who I pick — when I play Kevin, I can pick anybody and still beat him.”
Finally acknowledging Green, Durant retorted: “He beat me once, that’s about it — and that was in the summertime.”
And that’s as far as the digs will go between these two.
Many assumptions have been made about the duo, which will represent the Sonics at this weekend’s All-Star bash in Friday’s Rookie Challenge & Youth Jam. With a vast majority of the shots — and the attention — falling to Durant, it’s easy to assume a rookie rivalry.
But portraying Durant and Green as enemies is not accurate.
“That’s like a Shaq and Kobe thing, huh?” Green pondered. “We play together but we don’t like each other? [Laughs] I get along great with him. I don’t feel any tension between the two of us. That’s just a rumor trying to get started, especially the way our season has been going. But that is not true.
“We have a great relationship. We talk with each other and spend time with each other. I feel like we have a close relationship. We don’t have that Shaq and Kobe relationship … but I’m Shaq, though.”
Green stops before classifying the rookies as best friends, though.
Separated by two years, they first learned of each other through the fraternity of Washington, D.C.-area basketball as kids. They had no idea they would land on the same NBA roster on the opposite side of the country — Durant as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft and Green as the fifth, acquired via trade from Boston.
Now they’re both starting for the third-youngest team in the league. And with every experience, they say they’re just trying to get to know each other better in pursuit of making the Sonics a success.
“They like each other first and foremost; you can tell that on and off the court,” said New York Knicks guard Jamal Crawford, a Rainier Beach High School graduate. “I was with those guys this summer and they were always in the gym, always working together. They really respect each other and know they’re going to help each other. Keeping those two together is going to be great.”
Seattle has only to look 175 miles south on Interstate 5 for a glimpse at what could be ahead. Heating up Portland’s Rose Garden are Brandon Roy, the No. 6 pick in the 2006 draft and last season’s rookie of the year, and LaMarcus Aldridge, the second overall pick in ’06. Portland also drafted Greg Oden No. 1 overall in 2007, but he was injured in preseason.
They were brought in to be the cornerstones of the Blazers’ franchise, which was in a rebuilding mode similar to the Sonics’ situation. After wading through a 32-50 rookie season, Roy and Aldridge led the Trail Blazers to a surprising 13-game win streak in December and currently have Portland 7 ½ games behind Western Conference leader Phoenix as Roy prepares for his first All-Star appearance.
“The expectations are a little different,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said. “But they [Aldridge and Roy] were expected to save a franchise. They, too, were in an organization where there was talk of selling and moving it. They had to help get the fan base back and give this city hope that Blazer basketball was coming back to this city.
“There was more pressure on Brandon because everybody wants him. What helps is he understood the situation. It does end up that one rookie will do more than the other, and it depends on the player if that becomes a problem. But a lot of that is agent-driven. We communicated our plans and the direction of the organization before it became a problem.”
Sonics general manager Sam Presti has had similar conversations with Durant’s mother and Green’s father.
Presti, an assistant GM in San Antonio last season, made the bold move of trading Ray Allen and the 35th overall pick (Glen Davis) to the Celtics for Green and veterans Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. The trade cleared salary-cap space to rebuild around the rookies, who joined four other teammates with three years or less NBA experience.
Although the Sonics are headed to the lottery with a 13-37 record, they’ll have just about $30 million committed in player contracts by the 2009-10 season. That leaves plenty of room to either re-sign players or lure prime veteran pieces to complement Durant and Green.
“When he [Presti] was our assistant GM here, he really did a great job of looking into the future,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. “Always trying to keep tabs on where the money was going and spend it in the right places — not getting intimidated into giving the wrong players big salaries, which is what happens with a lot of teams. Presti and [general manager R.C.] Buford don’t fall prey to that sort of thing.”
But the lack of continuity — four Sonics players have played for four different coaches since 2004 — makes the environment inside the locker room a little like the youngsters who are ruling the house.
And forward Chris Wilcox has the perfect nickname for them.
“They’re like ‘Ren and Stimpy,’ ” said Wilcox, cracking a wide smile at the thought of Green and Durant being the cartoon characters. “That’s not what we call them, but it could be a good name for them. Jeff is the quieter one [Stimpy] and Kevin is definitely the more vocal one [Ren].”
Durant, 19, is the one who’ll tsk at a throng of photographers and reporters swarming his locker on the road, preventing Green from being able to get to his.
“Why don’t you tell them to move?” Durant whispers once the media clears.
“It’s OK,” Green says in return.
And Durant is the one offering Green encouragement through a bumpy season.
Green was a versatile player in college, averaging 14.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists and leading Georgetown to its first Final Four appearance since 1985. But he has slumped as a shooter in the pros. In 20 games as a starter, Green has shot 42.2 percent from the field and averaged 9.0 points and 3.8 boards.
It has been a performance that Green thought was so awful, he didn’t believe he’d make the nine-player Rookie Challenge team. Meanwhile, Durant has been the Western Conference’s only selection for rookie of the month this season.
“I told him, ‘Man, what have you got to worry about?’ ” said Durant, who, along with Green, is one of seven rookies averaging 25 minutes or more.
“He’s the type of guy that’s modest. That’s another aspect we’re kind of similar in — we’re both modest people. Very humble. I had to tell him, ‘Man, you’re going to make the rookie game, you’ve got nothing to be worried about.’ “
Green, 21, appreciates the support.
“In case I fall, he’ll be there to pick me up,” he said of Durant, the Sonics’ leading scorer (19.4). “You’d never know he’s the type of player he is by the way he acts. It’s good that he is like that so that I don’t have to bring him down. No, he’s a very humble guy and outgoing. You can never be stressed around that guy because he’s always playing, keeping you stress-free.”
If they’re not mocking coach P.J. Carlesimo’s raspy voice, another favorite target of the Sonics rookies is 13-year veteran Kurt Thomas.
Acquired to help buoy the team’s interior and turn Durant and Green into quality professionals, Thomas, 35, takes the jabs about being an “old man” in stride. Durant recently joked with media that he tried to find footage of Thomas playing college ball at Texas Christian, but “I don’t even think they were making film back then.”
Green even quips about the dunk contest Thomas is having with Szczerbiak to see who can get the most this season. Szczerbiak leads 4-2.
“I don’t think Thomas is going to get any more,” Green said. “He’s too old.”
The exchanges are much different from what other members of their 2007 draft class are experiencing across the league. Like Florida phenom Joakim Noah, who was benched by his Chicago teammates.
“There are a lot of things you have to do for the veterans,” Noah said. “It’s always good to have an extra hand, especially when it comes to bringing out the gear and getting the doughnuts and all of that. You definitely form a bond.”
Durant said that bond with Green will continue to develop during the All-Star festivities in New Orleans. Then it will be back to Seattle and their rapid rookie learning curve.
“When I came in as a rookie, they expected nothing from me,” said NBA legend Walt Frazier, who made the all-rookie team in 1967-68. “They were looking at Bill Bradley [also a rookie that season]. He had all of the pressure and all the money, so I had a chance to hone my skills.
“One rookie is always going to suffer because you can’t feature them at the same time. They have similar games, and right now, Durant is the man and Green has to be secondary. The main thing is that they don’t allow their egos to destroy their combination. That’s always possible with younger players, you never know.
“That could still be a problem for those two guys, but they have good personalities and are very positive role models for the game. I can see them working out together.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com