An A-OK from OKC

Durant, Thunder brass give Cheeks hiring a big thumbs up

Maurice Cheeks
Kevin Durant of the Thunder gave the Pistons hiring of Cheeks a big thumbs up.
Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)
Kevin Durant was on his way to greatness before Maurice Cheeks joined the Oklahoma City coaching staff four years ago. But Cheeks helped to accelerate the process, says a source close to the situation. That source: Kevin Durant.

“I loved being around him,” Durant told me in Las Vegas last week, where he showed up on the final practice day of Team USA’s four-day minicamp in which Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond participated. “He’s helped me so much as a player. There were nights I’d be playing so terrible and he calmed me down and I turned my game around. He was a great teacher for us and he’s going to do so well with those younger guys in Detroit.”

A consistent theme I’ve heard in talking with more than a half-dozen NBA sources who’ve crossed paths with Cheeks over the years is that he has a way of instilling confidence in his players. Durant added to the chorus.

“He instilled confidence in me every night,” he said. “I’ve been in the league for six years now. Everybody needs that extra push. He’s going to give it to the younger guys. It’s a little different when you’re the assistant coach and not the head coach. He talked a lot, but not as much as a head coach would. But you could feel his presence. He’s a great leader, he was a great player when he played and he’s going to be a really, really good coach for Detroit.”

One of the storylines when Cheeks became known as a prominent candidate in Detroit was the impact he could have on Brandon Knight, based on the credit Oklahoma City insiders gave him in the development of Russell Westbrook. Durant saw it firsthand and believes Knight will similarly take to Cheeks’ methods.

“He helped Russell grow a lot,” Durant said. “He kind of pushed his game over the top. Once we got Mo Cheeks, we knew he was going to grow Russell into the type of point guard he needs to be. It’s going to hurt us, him leaving, but we’re very happy for him.

“Brandon’s going to love him. Will’s (Bynum) going to love him. Those guys are really going to love his attitude, his demeanor. He’s always calm. No matter what type of game it is, he’s always calm and he’s easy to play for.”

Cheeks was drawn to Oklahoma City by Scott Brooks, whose relationship with Cheeks goes back to 1988 when Brooks signed with the 76ers as an undrafted free agent and went on to a 10-year NBA career.

“I was his rookie,” Brooks said. “We had a connection. They happened to be my favorite team growing up in California and he was one of my favorite players. The way he played point guard is one of the very best to ever play the game at that position. I had to prove myself every day in practice because I was guarding one of the best players and learning from one of the best players at the position. It was a great advantage I had.”

Brooks, like Durant, believes Cheeks will connect with Knight.

“Maurice will work him every day and show patience that every player needs,” Brooks said. “You don’t get better overnight. He’s going to help Knight. He’s going to help him be a better player, make better decisions. There’s so many layers of that position that a lot of people don’t talk about and he understands those little intricacies it takes to be a successful point guard in this league.”

Sam Presti, Thunder general manager, sees a good fit with the Pistons for Cheeks.

“What I’ve seen from Mo Cheeks, getting to know him as a coach and as a person, is that he’s got an unbelievable sense of how to work with everybody. He’s an incredible person and coach and he was a tremendous asset for us as an organization both on and off the court. I think he’s going to do a wonderful job in Detroit.”

The Thunder and Pistons wrapped up their season series before the 2012-13 season was two weeks old, so it’s been a while since Durant had seen Monroe and Drummond before getting a glimpse of them in Las Vegas last week. But he likes what he sees of the team Cheeks will get the chance to mold.

“I love it,” he said. “I love Drummond, Greg Monroe, Brandon. Of course, it’s going to take time. It’s all a process. It’s not going to come overnight. There are so many great teams and great players in this league that you’re not going to be good just quickly. It takes time, but I’m sure they’re going to get it.”