Monday, July 13, 2009 | 2:20 a.m.
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Today, the NBA is more of a young man's game than it's ever been.
That said, it may be tougher to find an older soul in the league than baby-faced, rail-thin 23-year-old Shaun Livingston.
Before even hitting the age where car insurance begins to come relatively cheap, the 6-foot-7 point guard has been a prodigy, a budding star, the victim of a horrific freak injury and then the comeback tale everyone is hoping is completed with a happy ending.
Livingston's road to redemption has brought him to Las Vegas this week, where he's attempting to solidify his spot on a young, vibrant Oklahoma City Thunder roster.
"As far as my health goes, I feel like I'm just at the bridge, getting ready to make it across," he said Sunday following OKC's first of five games this week. "This is important to get me over the bridge.
"I definitely am an old soul on a young team."
This year's Thunder summer league roster is highlighted by two of those promising youngsters -- guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
In town next week working out as part of the next generation of Team USA basketball is the cornerstone of the Thunder franchise -- 20-year-old forward Kevin Durant.
Livingston was looked at in the same light within the Los Angeles Clippers organization just a few years back.
Coming out of the hoops hotbed of Peoria, Ill., in 2004, Livingston committed to play college ball at Duke, but ultimately opted to head straight for the NBA, where the Clippers took him fourth overall.
At 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and natural point guard skills that so few are blessed with -- essentially with eyes in the back of his head -- he was dubbed by some as the next Magic Johnson.
By early 2007, Livingston was coming into his own, enjoying a career year with averages of 9.3 points and 5.1 assists per game.
Then, on Feb. 26 of that year, he missed a layup in transition against Charlotte. As he landed, his left leg snapped laterally, shredding virtually everything in his left knee.
He was carted off the floor on a stretcher, his head in his hands. Footage of the injury is easy to find on YouTube, but will make even the strongest of stomachs flip upside down.
One afternoon under the knife repaired a torn ACL, torn PCL, dislocated patella and torn lateral meniscus, among other damaged parts.
"It happens, you know what I mean?" he said, looking back, pointing out that a self-imposed pity party only lasted for a couple of days following the operation. "I'm young enough. I was only 21 at the time, so I was still at the age where I could compete.
"I didn't expect it, so obviously when it happened it was more shock than anything. Afterwards, it was just tough. It was unfortunate, but that's life. You just deal with it."
On top of rehab, the road back to an active NBA roster was not an easy one.
Livingston was ultimately cleared to play again in June 2008. He signed a two-year deal with Miami that October, and after playing in just four games for the Heat in January, he was dealt to Memphis and later waived on the same day.
The Thunder's NBA Developmental League affiliate in Tulsa picked Livingston up two months later, and after three weeks, he inked a multi-year deal with the Thunder.
In eight games with Oklahoma City toward the end of the season, Livingston averaged 7.8 points per game.
At age 23, he comes across calm and matured in the way he speaks -- like a true veteran -- and even carries a more grown-up image, having shed his tightly wound braids for a closely cropped 'do.
But nothing is guaranteed in terms of safety on a roster. No one knows that quite like Livingston. That's what makes this week in Las Vegas that much more important.
"I think this is that time period, right here, where people can see me, see me move, see me move without restriction and just go out there and play," he said. "It's a big week, as far as this season goes, and a big opportunity for me, so I'm just looking forward to making a splash."
Livingston emerged from the makeshift locker room in the corner of the Cox Pavilion on Sunday evening less than pleased with his summer league debut, going 1-for-5 from the floor with four points, two rebounds and just one assist to his credit in an 86-57 loss to Memphis.
But the fact that he feels his knee -- covered by a soft-yet-sturdy pad -- held up well is just as important.
He started the game at point guard alongside Westbrook, and his 23 minutes were the second-most played by anyone on the Thunder roster. He'll continue to get a fair shot this week.
"I'm about 90-to-95 percent," he said. "Today, I was effortless out there. I feel like I'm 90-to-95 percent as far as my cutting and bouncing."
The fact that Oklahoma City went 24-58 a year ago -- the fourth-worst record in the NBA -- doesn't de-rail Livingston's excitement for being simply in the mix again.
His teams were never that great in Los Angeles, and now healthy, he's getting a second chance to be help build something from the ground up.
Having already overcome so much, he couldn't ask for anything more
"The youth and the opportunity to go out there and play through the mistakes, the opportunity to grow and show people what I'm made of -- we can build together, we can grow together," he said. "There's always the what-ifs and different scenarios, but at the end of the day, I'm only thinking about what's ahead right now."