One player is 6′ 11” without shoes, with a 7′ 4.25” wingspan. One player is 6′ 9” without shoes, with a 7′ 4.25” wingspan. These are both very tall men, even for basketball players. In college, the slightly taller guy averaged 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds. The slightly shorter guy averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds.
The former was selected above the latter, due to both being and playing bigger. Greg Oden didn’t quite have Kevin Durant’s college production, but he did have a large frame and a game that rarely strayed far from the rim. He was a “big man” whose job was to inhabit a small space and dominate it with just a few skills. Greg rebounded, blocked, and got post position. There was the occasional hook shot.
Durant inhabited a large space and applied a broader skillset. Kevin rebounded, drained threes, dribbled coast-to-coast, and unfurled finger rolls with the grace of a growing fern. There was the occasional everything.
Looking back on how the decision went, Chad Ford told Bill Simmons: “There’s a mystique around big guys in the NBA, where people just get irrational about it…There’s this deep-seeded belief among every GM in the league, that, if I can get a dominant big man, I am going to have a team that competes for a championship.”
The NBA understanding of “dominant” doesn’t allow for a nuanced game, because, why should a dominator adjust to any opponent? GMs want the platonic ideal of the tallest position, which means 1994 Shaq, catching and dunking over defenders who slide off his arms like sweat beads. The dominance quest is how Andrew Bogut gets selected over Chris Paul. It’s how Hasheem Thabeet gets selected over, well, anybody. Oden wasn’t a better college player than Durant, but he was similar to the idea of what someone like Oden should be. It was an idea that demanded he successfully leverage his body in the most basic of ways. The romance of that idea is in how he can make skills irrelevant, not in how his skills make him transcendent.
The 2007 Draft did indeed have a dominant big man. He just happened to shoot threes and dribble around the perimeter. Kevin Durant measures at the same height as Dwight Howard. He’s skinnier than Howard by a good measure, but so is “big man” Anthony Davis. What defines Durant as not a big man is less his height than his role, a role that was bigger than what men his height traditionally do. There was no archetype for this kind of player, because Kevin Durant was the prototype. Maybe Durant would have gone No. 1 had he put up 26 and 11 on all two point buckets, playing down low like a nimble Marcus Camby. But this big man was better than “big man,” and scouts are more comfortable with “powerful” than “all powerful” when it comes to men of a certain height.