Wiedmer: Kevin Durant still a cheerleader for Vols' Rick Barnes

Wiedmer: Kevin Durant still a cheerleader for Vols' Rick Barnes

April 16th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes watches play against Loyola-Chicago in the final seconds of the second half of a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Photo by Tony Gutierrez

Rick Barnes hadn't heard the quotes. The Tennessee men's basketball coach didn't need to in order to say something nice about his former one-and-done star at Texas — Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant.

"One of the great things about Kevin was that he wanted to be coached," Barnes said Friday when asked about Durant's praise of him in a recent Bleacher Report story. "He had great respect for his God-given talent and always displayed an unbelievable willingness to work."

For background, BR's piece centered on the one-and- done culture in college hoops and whether it was good or bad for both the few players gifted enough to skip college altogether on their path to professional riches, as well as for the sport in general, both at the collegiate and pro level.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant scores during Saturday's NBA playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs. Durant's lone college season was at Texas in 2006-07, when current Tennessee coach Rick Barnes was still in Austin.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant scores during...

Photo by Ben Margot

For those opposed to the NBA-mandated rule, the article offered up this bit of firewood from former Duke star J.J. Redick, who played four years for the Blue Devils before graduating to the pros: "People talk about education. Those kids aren't getting educated. How does that help your culture? I don't think it does."

And this from a guy whose college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, has become face 1-A of the one-and-done blueprint for success, right behind its originator, Kentucky's John Calipari.

But Durant made a slightly different argument, at least concerning his experiences with Barnes throughout his lone Longhorns season.

"Back in college, I didn't know how to watch film," Durant said. "I didn't know what a pick-and-roll coverage was. I didn't really know how to work on my game individually and take it seriously. I learned all that stuff from Rick Barnes. I learned a lot in that year."

Barnes said Durant — who will lead the 2017 NBA champion Warriors into Game 2 of their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series with San Antonio tonight — never even discussed being a one-and-doner during his 2006-2007 season in Austin.

"Kevin never talked about it," he said. "His parents never brought it up. They said that they wanted me to coach him like he'd be there four years. They just wanted him coached hard, and Kevin was the hardest worker I ever coached. Even then he was saying, 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.'"

Of course, Barnes was also quick to say, "He's given me way too much credit. He was an exceptional talent from day one. As coaches, we don't have some magic dust we can sprinkle on you and get you to the NBA. If we did, every player we've ever coached would be in the NBA."

Indeed, for all of Durant's kind words about his college coach, he was the No. 2 prospect in his class behind Ohio State freshman Greg Oden, and he left as the college player of the year after averaging 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.9 blocks per game.

Barnes recalled a video session to discuss his defense.

"You've got to always tell the truth about a player's game," he said. "We had a two-hour film session one day, and most of the comments were directed at Kevin. It was pretty tough. But he never complained. For days after that, he was constantly asking me, 'How's my defense? How's my defense?' He always just wanted to get better."

It also helped that Durant was as grounded off the court as on it.

"He lived in the dorm; I don't think he even had a car," Barnes said. "He had a 3.0 GPA his second semester. Even with everybody talking about how great he was, he always seemed oblivious to it. He just wanted to hang out with his teammates, and they loved him."

Nor does Barnes think Durant has changed much, despite winning league MVP honors in 2014, NBA Finals MVP last year and two Olympic gold medals, plus being named an All-Pro seven times.

"I had a chance to work his fantasy camp last fall," said Barnes of the camp for businessmen in their 30s and 40s. "In so many ways, he's the same Kevin Durant I first met on the recruiting trail. He gives back so much to the community. I'm so proud of him."

Durant gave $3 million to Texas to support the basketball program and its Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation. In a statement released by the school, he said, "My time as a Longhorn helped build the foundation for who I am today as a player and a person. It's important to me to continue to give back to the university and ensure that future student-athletes have all the opportunities they need to succeed."

This is why Barnes believes one year in college is better than none for every player.

"In that one year, he is exposed to so many things," he said. "How to deal with the media. How to follow a schedule. How to live on your own. And a lot of these kids come back for a degree. You can't tell me that college isn't beneficial to them."

But whether they're there for one year or four, Barnes believes his responsibility is the same to all of them.

"You have to teach them, coach them and love them the way I love my own daughter," Barnes said. "Their parents have entrusted them to you. That's a huge responsibility."

It was a responsibility he apparently executed to perfection regarding his most famous player.

Or as Durant told Bleacher Report, his words sure to find their way into all future Tennessee Vol recruiting pitches: "I'm so grateful (to Barnes). I realize that all that stuff was very, very important for me and my growth as a player, and if you have a good coach and a good staff, that's vital for you. It was perfect for me."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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