Longhorns not shy about featuring star freshman

Originally Published: October 19, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Earlier Thursday, Texas coach Rick Barnes credited Bob Knight for his honesty.

He said, during an interview about Knight, how much he respected that Knight speaks his mind. He commented that maybe more people, including himself, should.

Well, Barnes was honest with his actions Thursday -- he brought freshman Kevin Durant with him to Big 12 media day.

Too often, schools have policies that freshmen can't speak until they play in a game, sometimes not even during their first semester. Bringing them to a media day is completely taboo. That's why you won't see or hear from Ohio State's Greg Oden, regardless of his right wrist injury, anytime soon. Oden won't be talking until he plays in a game, which might not be until 2007.

Barnes, though, isn't hiding from the reality. Durant is going to play. He's going to start. He's going to be the team's best player, and maybe the top freshman in the country.

So, why hide from the truth?

"The fact is that at media day, that's who you want to talk to, and for us to help him fully reach his potential, media day is important," Barnes said. "He needs to handle this part of it."

It's true that Texas is light on returnees, with only four coming back from an Elite Eight squad after three key players -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and Big 12 player of the year P.J. Tucker -- bolted early for the NBA draft. Still, Barnes could have jetted over from Austin with point guard A.J. Abrams alone and no one would have said anything. Kansas State only brought Cartier Martin, so having multiple players attend wasn't mandatory.

To underscore the point, Big 12 communications director Rob Carolla said he surveyed other conference offices and couldn't find another example of a coach bringing a true freshman to media day.

"If everything goes perfect for him, then at the end of the season, people will say he's one of the best [this year]," Barnes said.

And with good reason, considering the 6-foot-9 swing forward has a chance to be the team's leading scorer and rebounder.

"He's a 6-9 guy who can come up and pull up from NBA range," said Abrams, a sophomore who will start at the point. "He can go inside and he's got some monster dunks. He's got a low-post presence, he can pass the ball and get his teammates open for shots."

And how has he handled being anointed as the Longhorns' chosen one for this season?

"He's ready," Abrams said. "He's handling it well. There is a lot of pressure on him but he'll be successful."

You could tell that from the moment he sat down in an interview chair. Durant was comfortable with every facet.

"I've been a leader all my life, on all the teams I've played on," Durant said. "It's a challenge for me, but one I'll handle head on."

Barnes reminds him that he doesn't have to shoulder the entire season by himself, that the Longhorns don't need him to carry the team. There is plenty of talent at Texas, albeit mostly all young. Still, few players in the country will be able to come in and have the type of impact Durant could have.

"He's got great God-given talent and a great work ethic," Barnes said. "He was raised by his parents to do things the right way. He knows he's not perfect, but we want him to work on things in all areas. In terms of saying he'll have the greatest impact, I would like to sit back and wait."

Barnes said he recruited Durant with the intent of helping him grow in all facets. That meant also dealing with outside issues like the media.

Durant said he would have gone to school even if the NBA didn't have the new rule banning high school seniors from going directly into the league. It sounds good, but does Barnes really believe Durant could have passed up being a possible lottery pick?

"The rule probably kept the family from making a tough decision," Barnes said. "In all reality, he's telling you the truth. His mom and dad are two wonderful people. What was never lost on them was Kevin's development as a person and a player."

Durant is respectful of his classmates. He already is bestowing plenty of praise on Oden, saying he could be the best ever once his defense catches up with his offense.

"I've never seen anyone stop him down low," Durant said.

Still, Oden doesn't face the same pressure Durant does this season. The Buckeyes return two key players in Jamar Butler and Ron Lewis. The Longhorns essentially have Abrams and that's it.

"I knew I would have a good chance to play early with coach Barnes," Durant said. "He allows his players to do whatever they need to to score. Coach Barnes is a great coach, he pushes you to your limit and gets you every day. He's like a father."

Well, beginning Thursday, Barnes started promoting his surrogate Longhorn son better than most coaches have ever done for a first-year player. And with good reason -- Durant could be the best he's ever coached.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com