‘I’m still the Slim Reaper’: Kevin Durant inspires new era of excellence for Phoenix Suns as leader of Big Three

Kevin Durant’s relentless pursuit of excellence and his impact on the team’s preparation are making a definitive difference in the Phoenix Suns’ preparation for the 2023-24 NBA season. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – After a grueling team practice Tuesday afternoon, NBA superstars Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal stayed behind, taking mid-range jumpers in an extra workout. Most of the Phoenix Suns roster had left, but the Valley’s new Big Three couldn’t pass on putting in more reps together ahead of the regular-season opener Tuesday in the Bay Area against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

It’s a mentality that Durant packed and brought with him from Brooklyn and has infused within his teammates since arriving in February. The ‘Slim Reaper’ is driven by his constant desire to prove he’s still one of the best in the league at age 35 and living up to his nickname in Year 16. The nickname is a reference to his slender frame and cold-blooded approach to his offensive production. As Durant gets older, some observers wonder whether he can produce at the same levels of his younger self.

“I think I’m still the ‘Slim Reaper,’” Durant said. “I think I can rep that nickname. I am still skinny. Playing almost 1,000 games I know what physicality is like in the league. I know what I need my body to succeed out there. I just got to play as hard as I can.”

Durant, a two-time Finals MVP entering his first full season in the Valley, was traded to the Suns from the Brooklyn Nets before the 2023 trade deadline. He averaged 27.7 points per game in both the regular season and playoffs with the Suns in 2023.

This is not the first time Durant is in a new building to start a new season. He is on his fourth NBA team, so managing new expectations is a familiar sight for the future Hall of Famer. He’s also accustomed to acclimating himself to new teammates, including superstar-level talent, so putting in overtime after practice was nothing new.

“Just try keep it at the preparation,” Durant said. “I need to prepare the best that I can and just do my part. Do my job the best that I can do and everything else will fall in line after that.

“It’s always nice putting in work with some of the best players in the world. It is like iron sharpening iron. We hold each other to a high standard. It is always nice to get some post-package work. More days we stack together the better.”

As Durant’s career progressed, he has been taught the masterclass on managing expectations. From being a young prodigy to an established veteran, he remained resilient, embracing changing roles while continuously raising the bar for his own performance.

With two championship rings in four NBA Finals appearances, Durant brings a fierce pedigree to Phoenix. Both rings were won in Oakland as a member of the Golden State Warriors, whose teams in that span are considered to be some of the greatest ever. The Warriors were expected to win the NBA Finals by most fans, oddsmakers and analysts. Given the different sceneries, Durant is not interested in playing the comparison game.

“I try not to compare teams, man,” Durant said. “The championship teams I’ve been on, I don’t think any team in the history of the league can compare to that. It is hard for me to compare teams before the start of the season.”

Earlier in his career, the phenom was paired with James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, the franchise that drafted him. In Brooklyn, Durant led another Big Three unit when teamed up with Kyrie Irving before reuniting with Harden in 2021.

With the addition of Beal to the Suns’ lineup, the offense could likely cause a problem for most NBA defenses. Durant, Booker and Beal form a trio that will keep opponents searching for answers with their combined scoring ability and versatility.

“You can’t guard all of us at once,” Durant said. “Guys like Booker command a double-team. Myself, Bradley, commands a double-team so it will be tough on the backside. We just have to play fundamentally sound ball.”

Durant’s main focus is finding the right mix of chemistry and talent in practice sessions, in wake of the massive team turnover this past offseason.

The Suns let go of head coach Monty Williams in the offseason, replacing him with Frank Vogel, who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship in 2020. More changes came when Phoenix shipped beloved guard Chris Paul, Landry Shamet and picks to the Washington Wizards for Beal, a three-time All-Star.

Former first overall pick Deandre Ayton was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-team trade involving Damian Lillard, with the Suns receiving center Jusuf Nurkić and guard Grayson Allen in the deal. The new-look team is adjusting to new faces overall, not just Durant.

After losing Paul, the team is looking for a new point guard, or a way to replace one. A “point guard by committee” has been one way to approach it, as the team has many ball handlers at other spots.

“I feel like things are flowing very well,” Allen said of the offense. “The point guard-by-committee pushing the tempo has been great. Just having multiple guys bringing it, multiple guys in the corner, in lanes. It’s been very dangerous in transition.”

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Ryan McClure expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. McClure has interned with Sun Devil Athletics and Arizona Sports as a digital media intern.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.