Golden State Warriors

Kevin Durant’s path to 20,000 points offers case study in efficiency


MILWAUKEE — Late Wednesday night, in the Warriors’ Oracle Arena locker room, Kevin Durant slipped on a black T-shirt with the words “Genetically Modified” emblazoned across the back.

It was an apt message given the borderline super-human stat line he had just posted in Golden State’s 125-106 loss to the Clippers: 40 points on 14-for-18 shooting from the field, including 6-for-7 from three-point range. Durant scored 25 points in the first half to become the second-youngest player in NBA history to reach the 20,000-point club.

“As far as his personal performance, it was a fitting metaphor for the kind of player he is,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Forty points on 18 shots? Nobody does that.”

Durant is arguably the league’s top one-on-one scorer; the rare player with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and 33½-inch vertical leap who is adept at reading defenses. More than his physical tools or ever-expanding arsenal of moves, what separates him from his peers is a keen awareness of what plays need to be made.

Durant can throttle his offense up or down depending on the situation. If he takes 15 shots on a given night, he tries to make sure at least 13 of them are no-brainer, wide-open looks. The other two are what he calls “heat checks” — gutsy shots like contested three-pointers or off-kilter, fade-away jumpers that test the limits of his improvisation.

In becoming the fifth player in NBA history to score 20,000 career points before his 30th birthday (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan are the others), Durant has showcased unparalleled efficiency for such a volume shooter. Only once in his 10½ NBA seasons has he not shot at least 46.2 percent from the field, 35 percent from three-point range and 85.4 percent from the foul line.

When he became the sixth player in league history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line in one season in 2012-13, he did so averaging 28.1 points on 17.7 shots per game. His true shooting percentage, an advanced stat that considers all types of shots, ranks No. 1 among the 16 multi-time scoring champions. If he stays healthy and continues to make the most of his touches, Durant could have an outside chance at eclipsing 38,387 career points, the current record, held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar .

“I never wanted to be a guy who just got shots up,” Durant said. “That’s not how I wanted to play. I just try to focus in on taking the best shot I can every time down. It’s a challenge. It’s like a game. You always want to shoot the best shot.”

Durant wasn’t always a case study in efficiency. In 2007, when he went No. 2 in the draft to Seattle, Durant was a gangly 18-year-old who had a tough time transitioning to the physicality of the NBA. Eager to keep his promising rookie along the perimeter, SuperSonics head coach P.J. Carlesimo used Durant largely as a shooting guard.

He did little offensively other than catch and shoot, finishing the season 43 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three-point range. The team relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. Thirteen games into Durant’s second season, Carlesimo was fired and Scott Brooks was named interim head coach.

Brooks immediately moved Durant to small forward, where he scored 30 points on 69 percent shooting against the New Orleans Hornets in his first game. It was around then that Durant started thinking more seriously about efficiency. He studied shot charts, learned that three-pointers and layups are far better shots than mid-range jumpers, and began to bypass open looks for wide-open looks.

As the years wore on, he added 30 pounds of muscle, which allowed him to bang more in the low post. Durant studied Dirk Nowitzki’s fade-away jumper and fashioned his own brand of fade-away suitable for any occasion.

“When someone with that amount of length and athleticism is shooting a fade-away, it’s almost impossible to defend,” Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams said earlier this season.

Durant has shot at least 50.5 percent from the field each of the past four seasons. Though many elite scorers would bristle at the notion of sharing the floor with two of the best shooters in NBA history, Durant realizes that playing alongside Warriors teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson only helps him be more efficient.

Curry and Thompson create space with the defensive attention they command. After setting a career high for true shooting percentage last regular season, Durant dominated the playoffs, averaging 35.2 points on 55.6 percent shooting in the NBA Finals to lift Golden State to its second championship in three years.

Now, in his second season in Kerr’s movement-heavy system, Durant is a master at deciphering when to be aggressive and when to defer to his teammates. When Curry missed 11 games with a sprained right ankle last month, he played with a renewed creativity and guided the Warriors to a 9-2 record. On Wednesday, with Curry sidelined by another ankle sprain and Thompson resting, Durant needed only 16 minutes and 10 shots to score his most points in a half this season.

“I was excited about the moves I made, but I was disappointed in my follow-through,” Durant said. “I wasn’t proud of myself for that.”


Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: cletourneau@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Con_Chron

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