Rookie Spotlight: Russell Westbrook
A Q + A with December’s Rookie of the Month.
SLAMonline’s Rookie Spotlight series features exclusive interviews with the top first-year players this season. SLAM spoke with Russell Westbrook before a 107-100 home win against the Warriors, on Dec. 31.
Things have been tough for the No. 4 overall pick Russell Westbrook in his first year in the League.
First coming to a team in the midst of a relocation, then learning how to play the point guard position at the NBA level after playing the off guard spot most of his life. Now Westbrook has seen his first NBA coach fired a month into the season, all of this while learning how to cope with having one of this year’s better rookie seasons overlooked by the possibility of his team making a run at the worst record in NBA history.
The promising Oklahoma City Thunder rookie and former UCLA standout is handling it all in stride, and he sat down with SLAM to talk about the highs and lows of his young NBA career.
SLAM: Coming in from UCLA, what did you expect the NBA game to be like?
Russell Westbrook: I knew the game was going to be a lot faster. I knew the players were going to be a lot stronger and better, stuff like that. It’s been about what I expected, especially after playing in college for a couple of years.
SLAM: Everyone thought you were the best premiere defender coming out of the draft, but no one really expected your offensive game to flourish like it has at times this season. What did you work on offensively to prepare you for your rookie season?
RW: I just wanted to continue to work on everything and every aspect of my game, like shooting and ball handling. I’ve just tried to put everything together, you know, to try to make the pieces fit.
SLAM: You learned a lot from a former UCLA point guard in Earl Watson. Now you are the starter and he’s you’re backup. What is that relationship like now?
RW: We are always going to have a relationship. I mean, he has been in the League a lot longer than me, so he can always teach me stuff. Me and Earl go way back. We are always communicating. He is a really good guy. I know him well enough to talk about things away from basketball, and we can talk about personal issues as well. He talks to me a lot and teaches me things, on and off the floor, about how to be an NBA player.
SLAM: You had to learn how to make the adjustment from being a combo guard to being a point guard. Now you’re a starter at the point, but when Watson comes in the game you move to the two. What’s that process been like?
RW: Yeah, I still can play the two, but I try to concentrate on playing the point now, because that’s where the team needs me at. It’s not a hard adjustment because I feel like I can play both, but I’m still learning how to play the point.
SLAM: What do you think your experience on the USA Select Team did for your game?
RW: It helped a lot. I mean, those are the best players in the world, and all of those guys are playing great. It really helped to go out and play against the best to prepare myself for my rookie season.
SLAM: How hard has it been for you going from a winning tradition and program, like UCLA, to playing on a team with the worst record in the League?
RW: Yeah, it’s difficult. But at the same time, you have to work with it. It’s a process, so you just have to keep working.
SLAM: Guys like you, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green are young guys with a lot of responsibility on your shoulders for turning this franchise around. What’s it been like for you to have to be a leader your first year?
RW: I mean I have to do that as the point guard anyways, so I have to be aggressive when I’m out there and show some type of leadership regardless of whether it’s my rookie year or second year. I’m not trying to tell people what to do, but at the same time I am running the team.
SLAM: Do you pay attention to what other rookies around the League are doing to know how you stack up?
RW: I do a little. I look at a few of their games and their stats, and stuff like that. I know that a few other rookies are doing real well, but I’m more concerned about what I’m doing on the court.
SLAM: You are receiving a lot of recognition around the League as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. Was it a personal goal of yours coming into this season to win that award?
RW: I just try to go out and play every night, and try to put myself in position to where my name is even in the conversation. I think if you just go out and play then everything will take care of itself.
I mean, it’s a long season. It’s a learning process and everyday I’m learning. And I’m just going to try to continue to do that.
SLAM: How hard do you think it would be for you to get the notoriety on a team that is at the bottom of the standings?
RW: It’s a lose-lose situation. I mean you are playing good, but at the same time you aren’t winning any games. It’s kind of like you can’t really be too happy about it, but at the same time you have to feel like you are having some kind of progress yourself.
SLAM: KD won Rookie of the Year last year while playing on a 20-win team. Has he giving you any advice on how to handle playing well on a struggling team?
RW: Yeah, he just doesn’t want me to put too much pressure on myself. He said just continue to play my game and don’t worry about all of that, and everything else will just take care of itself.
SLAM: Do you consider this a rebuilding year in OKC, even though it’s the team’s first season in the city?
RW: I think we are just building each game. I think once we figure out how to win games that are close at the end, then we’ll be alright. For the most part, we’re in every game. So, the biggest thing is that we learn how to get those big stops and those big scores.
SLAM: What was the coaching change like for you personally?
RW: I mean, that was new for me. I had three coaches since high school. I had a high school coach, college coach and then P.J. (Carlesimo), and then now the switch. I mean it’s difficult, but at the same time, it’s just something you have to work with.
SLAM: Now that you’ve seen what the NBA lifestyle was all about, how have you handled the constant traveling and all of the media attention?
RW: It’s a big difference. I’m used to waking up and going to school and going to class. But now when I wake up, I go to practice, do media stuff, travel every night and stuff like that.
I mean, my little brother is still in high school, so my family can’t come to watch me play. They come whenever they can. So, when I go out there, I’m representing my family and where I came from every night.
SLAM: What do you personally have to do to keep from hitting that ‘rookie wall’?
RW: You won’t run into ‘the wall’ if you continue to keep working out and keep getting better. Of course your body is going to get tired–I mean, that’s expected. It is my first year, so I’m still in the process of getting in a rhythm.
SLAM: As a PG in the Western Conference, you are going to be going up against guys like CP3, DWill, Nash and Kidd every night. What has that been like for you, while you are still learning the position?
RW: No matter who I am playing, I’ve tried to go out there and play the same every night. Of course you have to defend all of those guys differently, but I still have to play my game regardless of who is on the other side.
SLAM: OK, so we see you are one of the three rookies that are up for that final spot in the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend. What made you want to enter the dunk contest?
RW: I was asked to do it, so I mean, why not? I’m not doing anything else. No, but really I’ve never done one before, and I think I could bring something special to it. It can’t hurt me, so it can only help me put myself out there more.
SLAM: Give us a sneak preview. What types of dunks would you show us?
RW: I can’t tell you. First, I have to see if I’m gonna be in it before I start planning stuff like that.