A cursory glance at individual stat leaders in the NBA finds a couple familiar names in unfamiliar places, such as Magic power forward Aaron Gordon owning the best 3-point shooting percentage among regulars.
Another name on the surprise list: Warriors small forward Kevin Durant, ranking No. 2 in blocked shots.
The four-time NBA scoring champion is behind only Utah center Rudy Gobert, but ahead of established paint prowlers Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol.
“It’s a very, very young season,” Durant told reporters Wednesday in San Antonio. “I can’t get excited about it. But it is pretty cool to be up there with so many great shot-blockers and rim protectors in the league.
“I’m sure the cream will rise to the top as the season goes on. But, hopefully, I’ll continue to just be there for my teammates.”
The high ranking may be a source of wonder for Durant, but it comes as more of a Eureka moment for the Warriors coach who knows him best.
Assistant coach Ron Adams has been in the profession for 45 years, the last three with the Warriors. He spent two years as an assistant in Oklahoma City (2008-10) during Durant’s second and third NBA seasons and addressed his defense this week on the NBC Sports Bay Area Warriors Insider Podcast.
“When I first was with Kevin as a 20-year-old . . . I thought, defensively, the sky was the limit for him,” Adams said. “He has been, over the course of time, a really great defender at times and then an inconsistent defender. He’s developing a real appetite for defense.”
Consider Durant’s shot-blocking numbers. He’s averaging 2.38 through the first eight games. He averaged 1.60 last season, ranking ninth in the league. His 1.18 blocks average in 2015-16 ranked No. 30. The year before that, Durant played only 27 games due to injuries but would have finished 44th if he had played enough games to qualify. The year before, 2013-14, Durant played 81 games and averaged .73 blocks, finishing 54th in the league.
As Adams pointed out, Durant’s evolution is of a four-time scoring champion now becoming more of a factor on defense.
Though Durant’s 105.4 defensive rating is unimpressive, it is the best among the five starters for a Warriors team posting sub-mediocre numbers on that side of the ball. His blocks indicate his greatest defensive impact has been as a rim protector.
Therein lies the surprise, at least to Durant, in his second season with the Warriors.
“I didn’t really know that that’s what they wanted me to do when I came here,” he said. “I knew that they’ll need me to pretty much show my full arsenal of my game, and I try to learn as much as I can on the fly, especially in the defensive schemes that we have here.
“I pride myself on just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can every time I’m out there. I’ve been learning a lot about help-side defense and team defense and not worrying about just (my) man all the time. I’m getting better at it.”
Adams likes what he sees, to a point.
“He’s had some really good (defensive) stretches this season, bordering on brilliant,” he said of Durant. “Other times, he does not do what I think he can do. That’s the battle.”
It’s not likely Durant will remain among the top five shot-blockers this season. But he clearly is getting better at that particular skill.
Yet he’s likely to lose a few percentage points on blocks, which he’d be willing to sacrifice if it means a better overall defensive rating.