LAS VEGAS – With Kobe Bryant(notes), LeBron James(notes) and the rest of the Beijing Olympic team taking the summer off, USA Basketball's roster is wide open for next month's world championships in Turkey. There is one prospect, however, with better odds than anyone to be wearing the red, white and blue.
Three years into his NBA career, Durant still doesn't lack for humility. Since his arrival as the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft, he has insisted on being treated as just one of the guys. He has never yearned to play in a bigger market, instead signing a five-year, $87 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer. True to form, he quietly announced the new contract on his Twitter account. Even after winning the NBA's scoring title this past season, Durant chose to practice with the Thunder's summer league team.
Still, with the U.S. roster missing all of its superstar gold medalists – and All-Star forward Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) now out because of an insurance issue with his contract – the team is desperate for a leader in the world championships. Chauncey Billups(notes), Lamar Odom(notes) and Rajon Rondo(notes) have won NBA titles. And point guards Derrick Rose(notes) and Russell Westbrook(notes) should someday be stars in their own right. But if Team USA intends to win the world championships for the first time since 1994, then Durant will likely need to help lead it – even if he refuses to acknowledge he's been assured a spot on the roster.
''It's not one guy going out there and representing the U.S.,'' Durant said on the first day of Team USA's minicamp. ''That's what I really like. Not one guy on that last team [was the face of the team]. Kobe Bryant wasn't. LeBron James wasn't. Everybody was equal.
''Outside of the locker room, everyone says I'm the face, which is really untrue. But once we step in between these lines and in these team meetings, I think everyone is equal. That's a great feeling to have and a lot of pressure off my back as well.''
Durant believes that, but at just 21 years old, he's also now one of the five best players in the NBA. And Bryant, James and Wade won't be in Turkey, so the spotlight will shine brightest on him.
Said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo: ''Is he the centerpiece? Absolutely.''
Having a couple of veterans like Billups and Odom should help Durant and Team USA's other young players.
''I'm not a champion like Lamar Odom or Chauncey Billups,'' Durant said. ''I'm not a Finals MVP like Chauncey Billups. I haven't played as many playoff games as some of the guys here. Those guys have one up on me. I just had the most points in the NBA. That's all. It's one year. That's about it. I just want to learn from those guys and get better.
''Any day this can be taken away from me. I won't take it for granted.''
Durant hasn't forgotten that just two years ago, he was turned down for a spot on the Beijing roster.
''I always wanted to be on the Olympic team and I always wanted to be a part of something like this no matter what,'' Durant said. ''If I was a free agent and I didn't get my deal done or whatever, I'd still be here. I just want to play the game and wanted USA across my chest.
''It would have been cool to see a lot of veterans here just to help us out a little bit. But it's a new team and we're looking forward to moving on.'' During the 2008 Olympics, Jason Kidd's(notes) role was to help bring leadership to a team loaded with young talent. But with Bryant, James and Wade already USA Basketball veterans, Kidd never had to be extremely vocal. Kidd is attending this week's minicamp as a consultant, and he thinks Durant will only benefit from this summer's experience.
''He just has to grow and be the leader,'' Kidd said. ''When you want to be the best in the league, in these types of situations you step up.''
Durant received a lot of attention when his Thunder challenged the Lakers in the first round of this year's playoffs. Few people had even expected the Thunder to qualify for the postseason, let alone win 50 games and give the Lakers a fight. Expectations, however, have risen dramatically, and they arrive early for Durant this summer with Team USA.
There is nothing Durant faced in high school, with the Texas Longhorns in college or in his first three seasons with the Thunder that's placed more pressure on him than wearing a USA jersey this summer. So far, the only thing anyone has questioned about Durant's game is his ability to win big. Delivering a gold medal in the world championships would go a long way toward putting those concerns to rest.
And if the U.S. needs a last-second shot or big offensive spark in Turkey? The ball will probably be in Durant's hands.
''I have to sacrifice and tone it down a little bit more,'' Durant said. ''I'm willing to do that and can't wait to do that and be the leader.''