by Jordan Hagedorn / pictures courtesy of Eastbay

Exactly one year ago, Russell Westbrook dropped 36 points, grabbed 7 boards, had 7 dishes, 3 steals and blocked 2 shots on his 22nd birthday in a 110-108 win over the Blazers. Westbrook was heating up the beginning of the season, averaging 24.3 points per, through the first eight games. After his birthday on November 12 last year, the Thunder rumbled off wins in five of their next six games and eventually got to the All-Star break with a 35-19 record. Russell was quietly becoming one of the best young point guards in the League.

For the very few hoops fans out there who are unaware, back in ’06-07 and ’07-08 Russell led UCLA to back-to-back Final Four appearances as a freshman and sophomore. After declaring for the 2008 NBA Draft, he was selected fourth overall by the Sonics. He has garnered attention around the League as a force to be reckoned with. He has improved his game drastically since his rookie year. With three years of pro play under his belt, he’s creeping on being a top-10 player in the League. His explosive first step, ball handling skills and quickness make him brutal to guard, especially when taking it to the rack strongly or dishing to one of the best players in the League in Kevin Durant, as well as some of the other nice role players on the Thunder.

Russell is a well-rounded player and a serious quadruple threat. Last year he had scoring games of 35, 36, 38 and 43. He averaged 21.9 points per game, which was 1.1 point per game away from cracking the Top 10. When it came to rebounding, he was fourth in League in boards per game for point guards behind only Dwyane Wade, Landry Fields and Kobe Bryant. He was top 10 in assists and finished fourth in the League in steals.

He had two triple-doubles in the regular season last year: one against the Magic in a 125-124 win on January 13 and the other six games later in a battle with the Wizards in a 124-117 win on January 28. He rolled out his third triple-double in a Game 7, series-clinching conference finals win over the Grizzlies on May 15. Last year in the regular-season games where Russell scored 25+ points, the Thunder went 22-5 with their only losses coming to the Grizzlies twice, the Melo-led Nuggets, the Lakers and the Spurs. In games where Westbrook scored 30+, the Thunder were 11-1, only losing to the Lake Show. In games where Russell had 10+ assists the Thunder was 20-8, showing that when he has big games, they usually win.

Although his partner in crime, KD, won the scoring title and may get more global attention, it’s evident that Russell has earned the title of co-leader of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The beauty of the situation in OKC is that Russell and KD are both extremely talented, driven individuals that continue to learn the game, improve their skills and become better team players. It should be noted that any beef that people have said Russell and KD have is simply not true. The media has made it a bigger deal than it is. It’s simply just two extremely talented, super competitive basketball players who want to win by any means necessary.

Westbrook and Durant are one of three duos in the top 12 of SLAMonline’s Top 50, with only LeBron/Wade and Melo/Amar’e joining them. That’s pretty good company. Thunder fans should be happy about the future considering as of today Russell and KD are both just 23 years old while LeBron/Wade and Melo/Amar’e’s average age is 27.5.

Last year Westbrook quarterbacked the young OKC franchise to a 4-seed in the Western Conference and led them to the most franchise wins (55) since the ’97-98 Sonics squad that picked up 61 regular-season wins led by Coach George Karl, Vin Baker, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, Dale Ellis, Hersey Hawkins and Sam Perkins. (Note: no Shawn Kemp)

In the first round last year, the Thunder knocked off a pesky Nuggets team with Westbrook averaging nearly 24/6/6. In the second round, the team advanced with an exciting series win over the Grizzles where Russell scored 40 points in Game 4—a triple-overtime thriller (one of the best Playoff games I have seen in a LONG time) and snagged that aforementioned triple-double in Game 7 to clinch.

The Grizzlies’ series was a great experience for a young Thunder team, but the battle wounds from that clash showed, when the buzzsaw that was Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks proved to be lethal in the Western Conference Finals.

That Mavs series was tough, but the Thunder’s run made the team stronger for the long haul. Not many 22-year-olds lead their team that deep into the Playoffs.

There’s no doubt the best is yet to come for Russell and OKC fans.

Less than three months after the season ended, Russell met up with the Eastbay crew in Los Angeles for a photo/video shoot to capture the November cover of the iconic sports catalog. Russell grew up getting the Eastbay catalog and has been buying from Eastbay since elementary school. He was generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us and throw down some crazy dunks for the photo team (See cover above).

In talking to him, we found out that Russell is close with his family and likes to just hang out in L.A. He enjoys playing video games, his favorite movie is Blue Chips, he would like to go to Brazil or Paris, he drives a Jaguar and if he could play any other sport professionally, he would be a bowler. Read below to see what else he told our friends at Eastbay:

Eastbay: What does it mean to be on the cover of Eastbay?

Russell Westbrook: Oh it’s an honor man. Especially growing up, me and my little brother definitely always looked to see who was on the cover of the next issue. It’s definitely an honor to be on the cover of it.

Eastbay: We’re here in Los Angeles. Tell us about your decision to play at UCLA.

RW: My decision to come play at UCLA was a big decision in my life. Ya know, I’m a hometown kid and love to stay home. UCLA was a great choice for me. So many great players played here. Ya know, it’s kinda hard to come in and try do what they did, but ya know, my team was one of the best teams I think we had. Went to the Final Four back-to-back years and that was a great experience for me and it definitely helped me prepare my game for the next level.

Eastbay: How does March Madness compare to the NBA Playoffs?

RW: The experience between March Madness and the Playoffs is very similar. The March Madness is definitely a win-or-go-home, more intense but the Playoffs everyone is watching you, it’s kinda worldwide. Ya know, you get a few games to get a chance to win the series—it’s more of a series, but the intensity of both games is very similar.

Eastbay: What have you learned from the past three seasons?

RW: After three years in the League man I’ve learned a lot. I’m steady learning—ya know, how to become a leader of a team and how to run a team and just how to learn the game of basketball. There’s a lot of things I don’t know about the game and that I’m learning and watching film. It’s been a good three years for me; I’m just trying to get better each and every year. Ya know, my personal goal is just become a better team player. Just come out and try to help my team win. That’s my main focus every night. Whatever I have to do to do that, ya know that’s what I’m going to do. Wanting to get to that next level, gotta be the extra push. We all together as a team have to come closer and push harder and try to make that next jump because a lot of teams in the League are trying to do the same thing.

Eastbay: Tell us about your mentality on and off the court.

RW: My mentality on the floor definitely changes for me on and off the floor and I think it’s kinda normal, ya know, for players to do that. Personally, myself I just kinda try to zone in and, like I said, just try to do whatever I can and help my team win. There’s been a lot of adversity I’ve faced throughout my life to get to where I am now. I’m very blessed to be in the position I am now and I’m just thankful.

Eastbay: What advice would you give to student athletes?

RW: First, ya know, stay in school. I think school is very important. I loved school growing up. I think that’s very important for kids to be able to get that in your head that you need to have the grades to get to where you need to go.

Second is staying focused. I think a lot of kids get distracted and get sidetracked on what their goals are to succeed in what they want to do.

The third thing is just continue to work hard. I mean sometimes it’s not gonna go the way you think it may go and if you continue to work hard and keep striving for better it’s gonna work out.

Eastbay: Are there training tips you could give?

RW: Get as much work in as you can. When guys are out at their house, you can be in the gym working out. I’ve been working out since I’ve been small just trying to continue to work hard, work out and get better.

Eastbay: What are you passionate about off the court?

RW: I’m very passionate about staying close with my family. I think that’s very important. Especially throughout the year, ya know, you have a lot of things going on on the floor and off the floor and I think if you stay close with your family it definitely helps you out regardless of what’s going on.

Eastbay: What is on your bucket list?

RW: I just try to live my life one day at a time and basically just see what happens.