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WATS-ON MY MIND: Former Bruin, current Thunder point guard Westbrook proves a naysayer wrong
By BRANTLEY WATSON
The Daily Bruin
Published April 19, 2011, 12:01 am in Men's Basketball Sports
There is no greater feeling than the moment when you know you’ve transformed a naysayer into a believer.
Except if you are the naysayer, that is.
But in this instance, as I contradict myself for the second time so far, I am fine playing the role of the foolish naysayer in the case of Russell Westbrook.
The former UCLA Bruin is having the best season of his career, and coincidentally, the time of his life in the process.
Westbrook finished the regular season ranked No. 13 in points per game, with 21.9 per contest, and No. 9 in assists, averaging 8.2 per contest. He also made his first NBA All-Star Game appearance, and has helped lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the top of the heap in the monstrously competitive Western Conference.
But somehow, just three summers ago, I was the guy who didn’t see any of this coming. I was under the pretense that the then-Seattle Supersonics had wasted a pick on a kid who had proved nothing in college – apart from the fact that he could jump like he was shot out of a cannon.
UCLA in the NBA Playoffs
Russell Westbrook is one of seven former Bruins in the NBA Playoffs, which started on Saturday and run until June.
Player Years at UCLA Current NBA team, playoff seed
Matt Barnes 1998-2002 Los Angeles Lakers, West No. 2
Russell Westbrook 2006-2008 Oklahoma City Thunder, West No. 4
Arron Afflalo 2004-2007 Denver Nuggets, West No. 5
Trevor Ariza 2003-2004 New Orleans Hornets, West No. 7
Jrue Holiday 2008-2009 Philadelphia 76ers, East No. 7
Jason Kapono 1999-2003 Philadelphia 76ers, East No. 7
Darren Collison 2005-2009 Indiana Pacers, East No. 8
Compiled by Ryan Menezes, Bruin Sports senior staff.
Well, when Westbrook jumps today, he still evokes the cannon reference, but that same cannon has also shot him into the discussion of best point guards in the league.
Coming into the 2010-2011 season, the Thunder were thought to be the biggest challengers looming to confiscate Western Conference supremacy from the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.
But after finishing the season with the fourth-best record in the conference, Oklahoma City may not have lived up to its preseason hype. However, that doesn’t bother the calm young point guard, who says his team simply had to adjust to opponents being prepared for a dogfight when facing OKC.
The days of the Thunder sneaking up on its opponents are over. It’s arrived and the league knows it.
“I didn’t really mind,” Westbrook said of the media’s lofty expectations for the Thunder coming into this season. “We didn’t really get a chance to surprise teams this year like we did last year. That’s the different thing. That can be a good thing and a bad thing, but this year, I think we handled it well. We’re not worried about it at all.”
I got a chance to speak with Westbrook on April 10, the day his Thunder were set to take on the Lakers in a game crucial to Western Conference playoff seeding.
But you could not tell the magnitude of the game from Westbrook’s pregame demeanor, as he attempted a few trick shots in a pregame shooting session after completing his shooting drills.
Westbrook then stopped to acknowledge a few fans and sign a few autographs, before going to the locker room for pregame media availability.
Upon arriving at the locker room, Westbrook asked a camera crew setting up outside if it needed him for an interview.
“No, unless you want to, Russ.”
Russ, with a smile, quickly dipped into the locker room door before the camera people could change their minds.
Westbrook is not the only former Bruin who is having a great NBA season. Kevin Love led the league in rebounding, Arron Afflalo has emerged as a star for a young Denver Nuggets team, and Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday are both starting point guards for Eastern Conference playoff teams.
“It’s great, man,” Westbrook said of the success for the new batch of Bruins in the NBA. “I talk to those guys a few times, mostly to check on them. I talk to Kevin more, just because we’re a little closer. It’s just great to see guys doing great things and representing UCLA.”
Along with a young group of Bruins in the league, you would think that a little competition would arise between the guys. But Westbrook, after a quick laugh, made it clear that only congratulatory conversation is shared between his guys.
“Not really,” said Westbrook with a laugh, when asked if he makes it a point to talk a little smack to his fellow Bruin alums. “Just always congratulating guys on what they’re doing and congratulating guys on their success.”
Russ is cool, so I let him slide by taking the easy way out.
I know some smack-talk has to go down on occasion.
Possibly Westbrook’s most noticeable characteristic, aside from his Space Jam jumping ability and Sonic the Hedgehog speed, is his humility.
Westbrook has surfaced as a premier NBA talent: Many compare him to the likes of Derrick Rose, who is the favorite to win the NBA Most Valuable Player award this season.
However, Rose only averaged three more points than Westbrook, and Rose dropped 7.7 dimes per game, falling short of Russell’s 8.2.
The two are certainly similar in many departments, including athleticism – they both are still perfecting their outside shooting, and they both are nearly impossible to guard off the dribble and in transition.
Westbrook often finds himself a bit in the shadow of teammate Kevin Durant, the league’s back-to-back scoring champion, but if ever you’ve watched a Thunder game, you know that both are equally valuable to that Oklahoma City franchise.
Despite making his first All-Star appearance – about which he says “he took every moment in” – the 20-plus points per game scoring average and the large amount of attention he has received throughout the season, Westbrook maintains that a “breakout season” has little to do with him.
It’s a team game.
“I base it on the ending,” Westbrook said when asked if he considers this his breakout season. “I’ll base it on how we do as a team and how we develop as teammates. I think based on how far we go in the playoffs, I’ll be able to better judge that.”
Being a lifelong Laker fan, it’s hard for me to root for Westbrook, considering he carves up my favorite team like scissors through construction paper. So part of me hopes that he doesn’t realize how incredible his potential actually is, that his humility gets the best of him during these playoffs.
Because sooner or later, Westbrook will see in himself what I see in him now.
And that day will be a scary day for Laker fans, NBA point guards and basketball rims alike.