by Todd Spehr
It was symbolism personified. Roughly an hour before the Thunder’s Game 6 match-up with the Lakers in the West first round last season, a determined media scrum was fixated on one thing: Kevin Durant. His stall is in the far left corner of OKC’s locker room, and no less than a dozen reporters were within close proximity, asking him questions ranging from Ron Artest to the kids who hang near his driveway to the growing bond between his team and his city. Two seats to the right sat Russell Westbrook, who was taking in some game film all by his lonesome, the spillover of media from Durant’s stall threatening to invade his space. A prominent writer/TV personality stopped by briefly, there was an exchanging of small talk, and he then went back to Durant. They always do. Unfazed, Westbrook went back to watching film.
Arguably Oklahoma City’s most effective player in that Lakers series (and unarguably their most efficient), Westbrook’s transformation from 9-minutes-per-game freshman at UCLA just three years ago to one of the League’s young stars is nothing short of remarkable. For observant folk, there’s a unique correlation between Westbrook’s place on this list and the amount of players who are selected to play in the All-Star Game every year. Yes, Westbrook is that good, even if he seems destined to remain under Durant’s suddenly immense shadow, a position Westbrook appears to be more than happy in.
One can’t talk about Westbrook without talking about his most important summer – not this one gone by, where he broke open games for Team USA at the World Championships with regularity, but the one that preceded it, in 2009. Thunder general manager Sam Presti asked Westbrook to participate in the summer league with hopes that the athletically gifted yet sometimes erratic rookie could further learn the point guard position. So Westbrook played – in Orlando, in Las Vegas. The Thunder sent out coaches regularly to his Los Angeles home to run him through extensive workouts. Westbrook attended a Team USA mini-camp. Then, perhaps most importantly, that August the Thunder hired Maurice Cheeks, a controlled point guard if there ever was, as an assistant coach. Oklahoma City’s intentions weren’t exactly subtle.
What followed was maturation. Westbrook found himself in the top 10 in the League for assists, including 28 games in double-figures, and nightly walked the tightrope that every (young) point walks of best knowing when to pass and when to score. He’s 21, and he’s learning.
Westbrook certainly isn’t the prototypical point guard, but for today’s game, he’s about right. Abnormally athletic – USA coach Mike Krzyzewski called him one of the elite athletes in the world this summer – and explosive, Westbrook is just as effective as a scorer as he is a playmaker. That’s the nature of the position now. The paint is where he makes his living, but he’s also developed something of a go-to move – his pull-up jumper with the defender on his heels, praying he doesn’t blow by.
Westbrook’s playoff debut was somewhat surprising – the bright lights didn’t faze, the Lakers had to adjust to him, and there were stretches where he was the best player on the floor (notably in parts of Games 3 and 4).
That carried over to this summer, where in the Team USA pecking order he began somewhere behind Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo and finished somewhere in front of them; games were changed when he entered, rims were rocked when he leapt, the crunch time minutes belonging to him. The end result was a gold medal and Westbrook certainly played a part.
It might even be enough to get some reporters to his locker.
|SLAMonline TOP 50 PLAYERS||OVERALL RANK||POSITION RANK|
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.