Commentary

PER Diem: Feb. 6, 2009

Although Kevin Durant has made a bigger impact than Greg Oden in their first two seasons, tonight's Thunder-Trail Blazers game isn't a referendum -- it's a glimpse of the future.

Updated: February 6, 2009, 1:54 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Greg Oden and Kevin DurantJennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesGreg Oden was the No. 1 pick in 2007, but Kevin Durant has been more successful so far.
Get ready to see the future of the Western Conference.

Portland and Oklahoma City aren't there yet, and might not be for a few more years, but there is no question the Blazers and Thunder lead the league in stockpiled assets. And two of the most alluring assets will go head-to-head tonight for the first time: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the first two picks in the 2007 NBA draft.

With Oden sitting out all of last season, tonight's game in Oklahoma City is the long-awaited first meeting between two of the most celebrated collegians ever.

The conventional wisdom is that Durant is miles ahead of Oden, and that fact is born out by looking at their player efficiency ratings -- Durant's 20.47 ranks third among all NBA small forwards, trumping Oden's 17.42, which places him 12th among centers.

But the more interesting story isn't where they've been, but rather where they're going. They're mere pups -- Oden is 21, Durant 20 -- so they figure to be much better in coming seasons than they are today. In each case, the ascent continues -- both players have come on like gangbusters over the past month.

Durant averaged 27.8 points and 8.8 boards and shot 49.4 percent from the floor during a torrid January that rescued the Thunder from the Western Conference cellar.

Three items in particular stand out in his case. The first are the assists -- Durant had shown virtually no ability to create shots for others during his first season and a half, but in January he handed out 3.7 dimes a game. That more than doubled his November output (1.7) and crushed his rookie average of 2.4. He'll need to keep improving in this area because his scoring ability is going to earn him constant double-teams.

Second, Durant is getting to the line. In January he took 8.7 free throws a game, which would move him from eighth to sixth in the league if he kept it up for a full season. It also shows he's getting to the basket more instead of settling for jumpers -- last season and early in this one, Durant threw up a lot of slop. He's become much more refined as a driver.

Finally, check out those 3-point percentages. Durant is at 42.4 percent after making only 28.8 percent as a rookie, and is letting it rip with increasing confidence; he tried only 30 treys in the first 17 games but has taken four a game ever since.

Yet, as much as Durant has turned it on, it appears Oden is gaining on him. After missing a year because of microfracture knee surgery and getting off to a slow start this year, he's taken over as Portland's starting center over the past month.

Oden is finally showing some of the low-post scoring ability that had everyone salivating over him coming out of college. At his size, he can get deep position and turn into the lane for short flips at the basket, and in January he did that well enough to average 10.3 points on 59.8 percent shooting.

He's also an absolute beast on the boards. Oden ranks fifth in the NBA in offensive rebound rate and is in the upper tier of centers in overall rebound rate, as well. His average of 7.1 rebounds per game may not seem impressive until you realize it's come in 23 minutes per game.

For now, the biggest limitation with Oden is fouls. He's averaging one every six minutes, making it tough for him to stay on the court for extended periods. The fouls have also sapped some of his aggressiveness as a shot-blocker -- surprisingly, he averages barely one rejection a game, though that may also be a residual of the microfracture surgery and could improve as he continues to recover.

Additionally, we can't forget that Oden is a year behind. Durant displayed myriad weaknesses during his first season a year ago, only to come back much stronger for his sophomore campaign. It's very possible Oden does the same thing next year.

As a result, it's more than likely Durant outscores and outplays his 2007 draft counterpart tonight. But don't look at this game as a referendum on who should have been the top pick. Instead, watch it as a taste of the future. Portland and Oklahoma City will have plenty more chances to meet up in future seasons, and I have a feeling the stakes will be much higher down the road than they are tonight.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.