Basements and Ceilings: Oden vs. Durant

courtesy of: and its writer Nick Prevenas

In a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, legendary rock writer Jon Landau penned one of the most famous lines in music journalism: "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

Thirty-three years later, nearly every basketball writer is paraphrasing Landau when describing Texas freshman phenom Kevin Durant.

The 2006-07 college basketball season has been the Year of Durant. Anytime his Longhorns are in action, there is a 70 percent chance they'll lead Sportscenter. People can't get enough of Durant's gangly, yet graceful crossover or his feathery jump shot with the release point seemingly higher than the rim.

When Durant is in a groove, it seems like there are no limitations on his game, only possibilities. He's averaging 25 points and 11.6 rebounds a contest, with those numbers jumping to 33 and 14 in Big-12 play. Those are video-game numbers.

His measurements have been reported to fall anywhere between 6-9 to 6-11 and 190-225 pounds. For the sake of this column, let's call him 6-10, 205. His NBA position will either be shooting guard or small forward. With range out to 25 feet and Rucker Park handles, there's no telling what he'll accomplish.

Is this enough to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft? We'll get to that.

Oden vs Durant

The yang to Durant's yin in today's college hoops landscape is an impossibly athletic center prospect in Columbus, Ohio. This 7-footer has been penciled into the No. 1-spot in the draft since he hit puberty. His name is Greg Oden, and he is why scouts invented the phrase "blue-chip prospect."

When Durant opened the season filling up box scores, Oden nursed a broken right wrist back to health. For seven games, Oden sat and watched this lanky kid in Austin steal his headlines and creep into No. 1 pick territory.

He finally made his Ohio State debut on Dec. 12, going for 14, 10 and 5 blocks against Valpariso with one hand-his off-hand.

Clearly, Oden is still playing himself into game-shape and figuring out how to adjust his offensive arsenal to his healing wrist. In the meantime, he simply serves as the most dominant college big-man since Emeka Okafor. He's averaging 15 points on nine shot attempts per game. I don't need John Hollinger to tell me how efficient that is.

While the regular season winds down and teams jockey for March Madness seeding, the Oden versus Durant debate has trumped every other possible storyline. Who should go No. 1? We'll get to that.

The two most overused draft nouns are "upside" and "ceiling." Scouts spend their professional lives trying to determine how great a prospect can potentially be.

What many scouts fail to realize is that only 15-20 percent of these prospects actually hit their ceilings. Players like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett fulfilled expectations and are playing at their ideal projected level.

Others like Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Gilbert Arenas, Shawn Marion and Carlos Boozer have burst through their ceilings and achieved a level few expected when they were drafted.

Young studs like LeBron James and Dwight Howard appear on track to hit their ceilings. Role players like Shane Battier can be considered ceiling-worthy, because they are performing to their projected abilities.

But lost in the upside/ceiling talk is a concept I believe is far more important when judging a potential draft pick's NBA impact: the "basement."

Barring injury, what is the worst-case scenario for a prospect's NBA chances?

The captain of the All-Basement Team is obviously Michael Olowokandi. The Kandiman is arguably the biggest draft bust of his generation and serves as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of drafting an unproven big man from a small school.

Another basement example: During the 2002 draft, every commentator was too busy touting Mike Dunleavy's alleged Larry Bird ceiling (too ridiculous to even comment on) without analyzing what his basement might be. Fact of the matter is there were legitimate concerns about Dunleavy's foot-speed and his ability to athletically adapt to the next level. Now, he's done underachieving for the Golden State Warriors and is continuing his struggles for the Indiana Pacers.

The basement takes a back-seat to the ceiling, simply because it's far more fun to project greatness than it is to project failure. We would much rather convince ourselves we are watching "The Next (fill in superstar)" than watching a possible underachiever.

What does this have to do with the Oden versus Durant debate? While everyone is eager to project, few are willing to take a critical look and ask what the worst-case scenario might be.

Before we project their basements, let's take a look at some of the players often compared to these two pheoms.

Possible Durant Ceilings:

Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, George Gervin.

Total NBA championships: zero !!!!

Kevin Durant
AP Photo: Harry Cabluck

Possible Oden Ceilings:

David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell.

Total NBA championships: seventeen !!!!

Greg Oden
AP Photo: Terry Gilliam

In Durant's case, I can't really see a circumstance where he doesn't become a top-notch NBA scorer. Barring injury, I don't see any way he doesn't end up at least as good as Rashard Lewis. When Lewis is feeling it, he's a match-up nightmare and a legitimate threat to drop 40 on anybody. Durant admits to patterning his game after Lewis' and is probably already at least that good right now.

On the other hand, Oden won't be any worse than one of the league's five-best centers. Even if his right wrist never heals properly, he will be a game-changing force on defense. He's averaging 3.5 blocks a game this season and has shown highly evolved shot-blocking skills. His timing is phenomenal and he has the unique Bill Russell-esque ability to block shots toward his teammates to kick-start fast breaks.

Oden's critics (and Durant's supporters) point to how the new rules have made the classic back-to-the-basket center less important than it was 20 years ago. Point taken, but it doesn't apply to Oden. With his outstanding open-court speed and unreal body control for his size, Oden's skills will translate effectively to a fast-paced environment.

So even if Oden never develops into an explosive scoring presence, he will attract attention and dictate the pace of the game as long as he stays healthy. Basically, his basement is Dikembe Mutombo.

Tell me, would you rather have Mutombo or Lewis on your team? I thought so.

Now, I am of the opinion that Oden's right wrist will heal, and this extra time spent with his left hand will make him an even more intimidating offensive presence. I also believe Durant is more explosive and consistent than Lewis. Those are just possible basement theories.

Another facet of the Oden versus Durant debate is the misleading nature of statistics.

If one were to look strictly at the numbers, Durant is kicking Oden's butt. In fact, Durant currently sits in the pole position for the National Player of the Year race, and he's dangerously close to lapping the second-place player (probably Alando Tucker).

But Durant's unfathomable statistics are slightly skewed. First, he's the first, second and third offensive option on the (extremely) young Texas Longhorns. Approximately 80 percent of Texas' set plays are geared around Durant. He has carte blanche to shoot it anytime he feels like he's open, which is pretty much all the time.

At the college level, a 6-10 shooting guard with range past the NBA three-point line should be compiling mind-boggling statistics. It also helps that he has a progressive, forward-thinking coach in Rick Barnes who has no qualms allowing a freshman to dominate every offensive possession.

Would Durant be given this level of freedom with Bob Knight or Coach K? Doubtful.

Two games this season tell the Durant story better than I ever could.

On Jan. 16, Durant engaged in an epic scoring battle with Mario Boggans from Oklahoma State. Both men went back and forth, with Durant pouring in 37 points in one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12.

In his last game on Feb. 5, Durant scored 28 and grabbed 15 boards against Texas A&M, one of the nation's finest defensive ballclubs.

During both games, there were stretches where Durant was completely unstoppable. If someone was to compile his highlights from those two games and post them on Youtube, basketball fans around the world would be convinced that Durant would make 20 All-Star teams, win five NBA titles and be inducted into the Hall of Fame while he was still playing.

In a related story, Texas lost both games.

The A&M game was especially troubling. There was a five-minute stretch in the second half when Texas was still within striking distance when Joseph Jones was saddled with his fourth foul and Acie Law IV twisted his ankle. With A&M's top-two players off the floor, they proceeded to roll up a 10-point lead until Durant finally hit a leaner with 3:50 left to play.

Granted, A&M did a terrific job denying Durant the ball, but superstars never have a problem getting the ball when it matters. Can you imagine a circumstance where Karl Malone and John Stockton both sat out for a significant stretch in the fourth quarter and Michael Jordan didn't score?

Superstars are like sharks. When the opposition is bleeding, superstars smell that blood and attack mercilessly. Durant let A&M grab a Band-Aid and win by 18.

Oden, on the other hand, genuinely discourages his opponents. He's like that kid in eighth grade who was able to grow a moustache before everyone. He's simply too big and strong. The attention he attracts on the low block creates ample driving/shooting lanes for Mike Conley, Jr., Daequan Cook and Ron Lewis.

While Oden's supporting cast is clearly superior to Durant's, it's safe to say that Oden's presence makes his teammates better. Durant's presence makes Durant better.

At this point, I will concede that Durant's best game is maybe slightly better than Oden's best game, simply because Durant's electrifying nature galvanizes the crowd and everyone around him. But Oden's worst game is significantly better than Durant's worst game.

If Durant's jumpers aren't falling, he can't make up for those lost points on the defensive end. His phenomenal length allows for many weak-side blocks and opportunistic steals, but his man-to-man defense needs serious work.

It's especially frustrating, because Durant clearly possesses the physical attributes to become a shut-down defender. But I have yet to see him get himself into a proper defensive position this season. I'm talking a "legs shoulder-width apart, weight on the balls of his feet, butt down, palms up, one hand hawking the ball, the other preventing passing lanes, eyes up, feet moving from side to side" defensive position. Seriously, how many times is Durant going to try to defend someone while standing straight up and down before Barnes and the rest of the Texas staff have him running wind sprints?

Meanwhile, Oden can be the best player on the floor without even taking a shot. His basketball IQ is highly advanced for a center prospect his age. He already knows how to properly pass out of double teams and move without the ball. His footwork is already at an NBA level. He could enter the league today and place in the top-five in blocked shots. When he finally rounds into shape just in time for March Madness, expect Oden to thoroughly dominate everyone he faces, on both ends of the floor.

While both players are franchise cornerstones, Durant will require more talent around him than Oden. A team can definitely win with Durant, but Oden fills more gaps.

How will Durant handle being in an NBA offense when he's not the sole option? Will he continue to play as hard as he's currently playing? I saw Spencer Hawes consistently out-work him two years ago in a Las Vegas summer tourney when Durant was frustrated with an inconsistent jumper. During the second half of this AAU game, Durant mailed in the second half to a degree that would've made Vince Carter (Raptors version) look like Allen Iverson. I've never seen that with Oden.

Of course, it's impossible to accurately judge anyone's attitude when they're 17 years old. But anytime an elite prospect mails it in with a few dozen scouts in the gym, it sends up a red flag. I believe he's cleared that up with his inspired play this season, but that image of Hawes beating Durant to every loose ball is still in the back of my mind.

Essentially, Oden and Durant are two winning Powerball tickets, with the jackpot amount to be determined in 10 years. But while Durant's otherworldly talent and jaw-dropping play-making skills might make him the popular pick right now, Oden simply has fewer flaws, therefore making him the stronger investment.

So, who do I draft No. 1 in 2007? If I'm running a television network, Durant is the clear choice. If I'm running an NBA franchise with the desire to win championships, Oden is the pick.

Case closed.