By RJ Young
Last Saturday, while playing against the best players Croatia has to offer, Russell Westbrook proved once again that if you give him chance, he’s going to impress you.
He came off the bench and immediately enhanced an already potent offense with his stellar performance. In just 16 minutes, Westbrook accounted for 10 of Team USA’s points, four assists and three rebounds.
Westbrook tied Team USA’s Rudy Gay for the third most points scored using only a third as many shot attempts. Gay shot the ball 12 times converting just four of his shots while Westbrook was a perfect 4-4 from the floor and 2-4 from the charity stripe.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that has followed Westbrook’s rise to the upper echelon of great NBA point guards that he had to work his way on to a team that is built around his friend and Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Kevin Durant.
In truth, he was an afterthought to be invited to Team USA training camp, let alone be one of the 12 players to make the team. Westbrook has always had to work twice as hard as the next guy just to draw the eye of those who hold the keys to basketball stardom.
Even going back to his days at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California, Westbrook wasn’t given a real shot to succeed despite average 25.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists his senior year. After he led the Olympians to a 24-5 record and quarterfinal berth in the California State Championships, the only top tier offer he considered came from Ben Howland, UCLA’s head coach upon the recommendation of, then UCLA assistant coach, Kerry Keating.
The Orange County Register reports during Westbrook’s junior year “Such schools as Creighton, San Diego and Kent State were aware of Westbrook. Keating quietly hoped no one else was.”
Keating had come to love Westbrook for reasons that would seem obvious to most basketball aficionados, scouts and coaches he told the Orange County Register.
“The kid had huge hands, huge feet. He had the grades. He had a great family background. Maybe if you saw him at the time you thought he had maturity issues, because he’d get knocked down, and the play would go the other way and he’d stand there like he was hurt. But it was a matter of him learning how to handle all that competitiveness.”
Sounds like a great find, no? Well, it was, however it did nothing to help remove the chip from Westbrook’s shoulder. He was only heavily recruited during the spring semester of his senior year, but ended up rewarding Keating and UCLA for establishing a good rapport with him as a junior.
While playing basketball in the house that John Wooden built, he felt slighted. Since his time at UCLA, Westbrook has worn his anger like a scarlet letter in the form of the jersey number zero.
Other notable players who have worn the number zero in the NBA include Orlando Woolridge, Gilbert Arenas and Robert Parrish.
He told The New York Times about the symbolic meaning behind his jersey number and it’s representation of his life on the court. ”You go with the zero when you’ve been through something and you are looking to get a new beginning. It helps you get going again. It helps you get the swag back.”
His “swag back” is exactly what he’s obtained since joining the Thunder as a rookie in 2008.
He went into the 2008 NBA draft as the most highly rated college point guard of his class. As fourth overall selection in draft that year, Westbrook fulfilled the hype. He was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month in December 2008 and February 2009.
In that same February he averaged 20.6 points, 5.9 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game. He finished fourth in NBA Rookie of the Year voting behind Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Brook Lopez. Of those players, Rose and Westbrook are the only players representing the United States at the 2010 FIBA World Basketball Championship.
After starting just 65 games in his rookie season, Westbrook showed enough in his maturation as an NBA point guard to start every regular season game for the Thunder in the 2009-2010 season.
He has shown himself to be a tenacious on the ball defender and great facilitator of the ball in Scott Brooks offense, going up from averaging just 5.3 assists per game in 2008-2009 to eight assists a game in 2009-2010.
In the first postseason appearance of his young career, Westbrook went 10-16 for 23 points and virtually shut down his counterpart, Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers.
He never once looked rattled when defending Fisher and at one point even frustrated Kobe Bryant, who remains the best shooting guard in the world today.
Westbrook averaged 20.6 points, six assists and six rebounds for the series and had a series high 27 points in game three of the series. The Lakers went on to win the series in six games and were eventually crowned the 2009-2010 NBA Champions.
As for this season, look for Westbrook to develop his shot from three-point range and to use his devastating quickness more in isolation.
If those two things become a strong part of his game, the Thunder will be more than formidable; they will be feared