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Steve Aschburner

Can anyone be next year's Kevin Durant?
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Who's next in line to be the league's breakout player?

Posted Mar 4 2010 2:02PM

Kevin Durant has been this season's breakout player, blowing up like a Macy's parade balloon, statistically, even though he could stand to eat a sandwich or two, physically.

In this insatiable, forward-pushing culture of ours, however, what's happening now never seems quite as interesting (to some anyway) as what's going to be happening next.

With that in mind, we set out to identify the NBA's breakout player of 2010-11. Fellow writer Scott Howard-Cooper and I set up a gauntlet at the players' hotel during All-Star Weekend. Our question was simple: Who do you think will be next season's Kevin Durant?

One obvious answer, of course, is: No one. What Durant has done in his third season just doesn't happen on an annual basis. When he scored at least 25 points in 29 consecutive games, spread across more than two months, the Oklahoma City small forward accomplished something no other active NBA star has done, something no one has done since Michael Jordan ran off 40 straight in 1986-87. These days, Durant is locked in a scoring race with Cleveland's LeBron James and Denver's Carmelo Anthony that could turn into some sort of Roger Federer-Andy Roddick-Rafael Nadal three-way tiebreaker.

He leads the NBA with 34 games of 30 points or more (the Thunder are 23-11 on those nights), including seven in a row, and 14 in which he scored 30 and grabbed 10 or more rebounds. He is amonf the top four candidates for Most Valuable Player in most experts' view, which ought to make him a shoo-in for the Most Improved award, considering there's no actual trophy for Blow-Up Player of the Year.

"Each year I've gotten better at knowing the game," Durant said at All-Star. "My teammates have done a great job of helping me out. ... I just need to keep doing the things that I'm doing but do them a little better: Pass the basketball. Play good team defense. Ball-handling. Being more of a facilitator in our offense. I think I'm doing a decent job, but I can get a lot better. I've just got to continue to work and stay humble, and bring that focus every day."

Said San Antonio's Tim Duncan, who knows a thing or two -- 2001 and 2002, specifically -- about Durant's MVP chances: "For the MVP [award] you're going to ask somebody to do a little more than he does -- rebounding numbers, assists numbers, whatever it may be. Also with the MVP race, it's going to be hard to do anything while LeBron's still alive. But he's definitely pushing the envelope right now."

But who'll be pushing next season? Some answers came quickly, some not so fast.

"I'd like to think myself," Miami's Michael Beasley said.

"Kevin Love," said Minnesota's Kevin Love. Let the record show that both Love and Beasley laughed after nominating themselves.

Toronto rookie DeMar DeRozan said he couldn't choose just one breakout star for 2010-11. "A lot of players, especially in our class, they've got the ability that once they get that one full year behind them, there's no telling what they could do," DeRozan said. "I can't name just one."

Many others did, though, creating something of a consensus -- and thoroughly unscientific poll -- on five guys who seem positioned to be next year's breakout candidates. Not surprisingly, some essential Isaac Newton was in play: Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, which explains the heavy support for both this season's Rookie of the Year favorite and the 2009 winner.

Tyreke Evans, Sacramento

Who better to boost his game to a new level than someone who's doing that right now? Utah point guard Deron Williams said of most folks' top choice for 2010 ROY: "I didn't know much about him coming out of college, but the things he's been able to do on a basketball court have been amazing. He's a big guard who can do everything well."

He even gave the Kings the confidence to trade away Kevin Martin, their top scorer and anchor guy before Evans arrived. "There's a reason for that [trade]," Williams said. "It's because he [Evans] is playing so well."

Evans has averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 37.1 minutes, which turns Michael Beasley's comment into something of an understatement. "I'd like to see him do something special,'' Beasley said, "after he's got a whole year under his belt."

Derrick Rose, Chicago

Chicago rookie Taj Gibson is biased toward another University of Memphis product. But then, he's a daily eyewitness to what Rose can do. "He's just so unselfish," Gibson said. "That's rare in a player that great. I get to work out with him every day and I see so much potential."

Rose has banged up his right knee twice this week, and he began the season hobbled by an ankle injury. In between, though, he earned an All-Star spot, has averaged 20.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists and led the Bulls to a 13-6 mark from Jan. 22 through February.

"He's so strong and he's athletic and he can score," Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings said. "He can get to the rim and he can get guys involved. I feel like what he did his rookie year was awesome. He didn't lead rookies in scoring or nothing like that. He just led his team to the playoffs. To me, I think he's a superstar in the league just because of what he did last year and also he has a chance this year to make the playoffs again."

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City

Durant made a statement and gave us all a sign of things to come last year at All-Star weekend, when he dominated the Rookie Challenge game. "You could just tell that Durant was like, 'I deserve to be in the Sunday game,' " Minnesota's Kevin Love said. Going by that criterion, Durant's teammate on the Thunder is a possible blow-up selection.

Westbrook scored 40 points to help the rookies beat the sophomores, 140-128, on All-Star Friday. And in the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately department, he had 30 points and 13 assists -- keeping pace with Durant's 39 points and 10 boards -- in OKC's victory this week over Sacramento. It's the first time in NBA history two teammates age 21 or younger had 30-10 games. He had double-doubles in six of seven games before the Thunder lost at Denver Wednesday, is considered to be one of the top pure athletes (if not pure point guards) in the league and is averaging 16.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 7.9 assists.

Stephen Curry, Golden State

The Golden State rookie guard got the endorsement of no less than Chris Paul, who mentally shuffled through the likeliest suspects before landing on him. What's not to like? When Curry went for 36 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds against the Clippers last month, he became only the sixth NBA rookie to post a 35-10-10 game. The others? Jason Kidd, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor. Nice peer group.

Curry, who had a head start on what it means to be an NBA pro (thanks to dad Dell), has combined with Monta Ellis to average 64.3 points, nearly eight more than any other starting backcourt. His numbers include 15.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.3 apg and 1.83 steals, while hitting 41 percent of his 3-pointers.

Kevin Love, Minnesota

Every starting five needs at least one big man, right? Love is our choice here for the craftiness he shows on the floor while playing in an overlap tandem with Al Jefferson. The one-and-done UCLA star has come off the Wolves' bench in 17 of his last 18, despite that team's need for rebounding. Love has grabbed 21.4 percent of rebounds available while he's been in games this season, a single-season share that -- among players age 22 or younger -- ranks behind only Dwight Howard, Danny Fortson and Mose Malone (twice). He has had 27 double-doubles and 30 games of 10 rebounds or more, has added 40 percent shooting from the arc as a wrinkle this season and, with his play overall, has thrown gas on those Jefferson trade rumors.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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