by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning

This past spring I felt sorry for an All-NBA superstar that was in the process of leading his team farther than his city had ever witnessed. This guy was already a top-20 talent, all at the ripe age of just 22.

No, my sympathy for this precocious newbie was not that he was learning the toughest position in basketball, the point guard. A life-long, slashing springboard of a two-guard was suddenly put in charge of one of the League’s most up-and-coming teams. Hard to really feel sorry for the guy, considering he went through his brief two years of college ball as maybe the fourth or fifth option on his own team. He has never really had to deal with major stardom, until now.

But here was Russell Westbrook this past May, suddenly the ire of 99 percent of basketball fans (and unfortunately several “experts”) for being a “ball hog” and for not getting the ball to teammate Kevin Durant enough. The bulk of sporting fans that had seen limited, if any, Oklahoma City basketball, were wondering why was this guy still shooting the ball? They were perplexed as Westbrook made daring drives into highly-stocked enemy territory. And for this, I felt bad for the SoCal native, because contrary to the “popular” belief, this was nothing new for both Westbrook and the Thunder. This style of play was how the young squad had become a 50-win team.

Check the records.

Yes, Durant has quickly become a 30-point a night scorer, but he is not the most dangerous, complete and/or valuable player on his team.

All of those distinctions, like it or not, go to Westbrook. The OKC offensive attack begins and often ends in #0’s hands. Defensively, Russ has the ability to both slow down the opponents’ desire to run or lock up a dominate 2-guard with his mix of length and athleticism. Westbrook is a way-above average rebounder and will often control unfathomable caroms amongst the tall trees. He has not missed a game in his three-year career; he is money at the free-throw line, all while logging almost 40 minutes per game. Westbrook is obviously still learning to come to grips with the need for a “pass-first” mentality in his role as the primary ball-handler, but his team needs him to score, as well. They need him to score a lot.

In fact, due to Westbrook’s rare talent, I would encourage Head Coach Scott Brooks to encourage his young leader to shoot more. To trust his lighting-quick first-step and off-the-charts athleticism and take over games when needed. While the Thunder have a bevy of riches assembled by the brightest young (not sure if we can still call him that, but…) mind in GM Sam Presti, there isn’t a lot of on-the-ball wizardry. The frontcourt is full of role players (Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins) and the backcourt isn’t necessarily loaded with creators. James Harden is the perfect compliment and Eric Maynor is much like Westbrook (a converted college scoring 2-guard) only a little less awesome in every department.

I am leaving Durant out of most of this discussion because of the old NBA-adage that you need multiple stars and more than one go-to-guy. I don’t want or expect less from KD35, but I do want to see continued maturity and partnership between the pair. There did seem to be a little dissension between Westbrook and his team during some key moments of the Western Conference Finals series with Dallas. Keep in mind, again, though, Westbrook could have just as easily stayed at UCLA and been just coming off his rookie season. He is still 22. And Durant is just 23.

Roll through our distinguished list and see how many teams have multiple players in the top-15. Westbrook is deserved in this spot and quite possibly might leapfrog his teammate in the next few years. Scouts talk about ceilings often and with Westbrook’s still developing skill-set, I feel Durant’s roof might not be as vaulted as that of his teammate.

Personally, I live in a Northwest Division city and the Thunder not only eliminated the team I have watched closely since the mid-80’s but they are blatantly the class of the division. Funny thing, is after watching this Thunder team closely for the past few years, I wish they called the Pepsi Center their home. I wish this very roster wore the powder blue and gold of the Denver Nuggets. This team is just that exciting and fun to watch.

Sympathy is not something I think most of my fellow basketball fans will ever feel for Westbrook, but I just wish sports fans had watched the Thunder before last year’s playoffs. They might understand why I felt this way.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6
25John WallWizardsPG7
24Danny GrangerPacersSF5
23Monta EllisWarriorsSG4
22Joe JohnsonHawksSG3
21Paul PierceCelticsSF4
20Steve NashSunsPG6
19Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF8
18LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF7
17Chris BoshHeatPF6
16Kevin LoveTWolvesPF5
15Rajon RondoCelticsPG5
14Blake GriffinClippersPF4
13Pau GasolLakersPF3
12Russell WestbrookThunderPG4

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.