Stars may have aligned if NBA hadn’t hooked Horns

ORLANDO, Fla. — Kevin Durant was 16 years old the day he committed to play college basketball for Rick Barnes at Texas, full of hope and vigor and youthful naïveté.

He signed with UT a few months later, in June 2005, eager to join a cache of talent — led by imposing big man LaMarcus Aldridge — that later that season would carry the Longhorns to the Elite Eight.

What happened next would alter Durant’s vision, as well as the course of a program and, perhaps, the perception of a coach. Aldridge declared for the NBA draft in the spring of 2006, months before Durant landed in Austin, and took two other starters with him.

The first time Durant and Aldridge will play together will be in Orlando, in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. It will come as former Longhorns.

“I was sad he left early,” Durant reflected Friday in Orlando. “We didn’t get to play together. I’m happy he’s an All-Star this year, and I’m glad I get to play with him now.”

In the big picture, life worked out for both short-term Longhorns-turned-Western Conference All-Stars.

A two-time NBA scoring champion with Oklahoma City, the 23-year-old Durant is set to appear in his third consecutive All-Star Game and make his second straight start.

Aldridge, at 26, is in the middle of his best pro season, averaging 22.3 points and 8.3 rebounds as Portland’s centerpiece, and he’s eager to make his All-Star debut.

“It’s something I’ve worked for my whole life,” Aldridge said.

Viewed through burnt orange lenses, however, Sunday’s All-Star extravaganza at the Amway Center will provide a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Certainly, the 2006-07 Longhorns would have at least been favorites for the Final Four, if every player eligible to stick around for Durant’s arrival had.

Barnes’ roster that season could have featured not only Durant and Aldridge, a pair of future All-Stars, but three other future NBA players in Daniel Gibson (Cleveland), D.J. Augustin (Charlotte) and Damion James (New Jersey).

There was also P.J. Tucker, the 2005-06 Big 12 Player of Year, who surrendered his final season of eligibility but did not stick in the NBA after Toronto took him in the second round. That’s not to mention C.J. Miles, who committed to UT in 2005 but was drafted by Utah straight out of high school.

Asked Friday how often he thinks about what that pipe-dream roster could have accomplished in Austin, Durant answered “all the time.”

“We would have challenged Florida, I think, in the championship game,” Durant said.

It wasn’t to be.

Gibson and Tucker also left early after the Elite Eight, following Aldridge out the door and leaving Durant to spearhead a talented but freshman-laden group the next season. UT went 25-10 in Durant’s lone season, which ended with a loss to Southern California in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Like Durant, Aldridge admits he ponders the national titles that could have been, but never for long. Even with all that assembled talent, Aldridge says, it’s difficult to predict how it all would have meshed.

“Sometimes, you can have too much talent, and a coach can’t use everybody right,” Aldridge said. “I’m glad things worked out like they did.”

In the time since Durant left to become the No. 2 overall pick, the Longhorns have advanced past the Sweet 16 just once. This year’s team is 17-11 and in danger of snapping a 13-season streak of tournament appearances.

For UT fans tuning into Sunday’s All-Star game, the showcase will provide a bittersweet look at what got away.

When Western Conference coaches added Aldridge to the roster, perhaps no opposing player was as excited as Durant.

“I think he should have been an All-Star last year,” Durant said.

Instead, Durant had to wait another year to play with Aldridge. After all this time, he’s grown used to it.

Yet when the two finally take the floor together Sunday in Orlando, fully immersed in the All-Star present, it will be difficult for either to shake the memories they never got a chance to make in Austin.

“We would have had a good team,” Durant said. “But that’s what if.”

Too bad for early entries

Notables who could have played on the Texas Longhorns’ 2006-07 team:

• Kevin Durant, Thunder

• LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers

• Daniel Gibson, Cavaliers

• D.J. Augustin, Bobcats

• Damion James, Nets

• P.J. Tucker, 2005-06 Big 12 Player of the Year

All-Star Weekend

All-Star Game

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Amway Center, Orlando, Fla.

TV: TNT (pregame coverage starts at 6:30 p.m.)

All-Star Saturday

When: 7:30 p.m. today

What: Shooting Stars, 3-point Shootout, Skills Challenge, Slam Dunk Contest


Leave a Reply