Though he’s one of the best and most exciting players in basketball, Russell Westbrook has simultaneously become one of its most polarizing based solely on his breakneck style of play. Evoking the bygone “Manny being Manny” mantra assigned to former baseball superstar Manny Ramirez, basketball bloggers and the like will implore you to “Let Russell be Russell” — as in, don’t worry about how many shots he takes, or what kind of shots they are, since he’s so darn good at what he does.
And honestly, it’s tough to argue that the athletic and dangerous Westbrook — a three-time All-Star, a Jordan Brand ambassador and an Olympic gold medal winner — isn’t a net positive for any team, regardless of how many wild shots he puts up that might otherwise belong to superstar Thunder teammate Kevin Durant. Not to mention, his sartorial choices are, to say the least, endlessly fascinating.
One impressive part about Westbrook’s ascendance to NBA elite status is his modest origins. Westbrook didn’t even start on his high school team until he was a junior, but after averaging more than 25 points as a senior, it was obvious he had arrived.
Westbrook would elect to stay close to home in California, playing for Ben Howland at UCLA. Much like in high school, Westbrook did not make an obvious immediate impact, averaging less than four points per game as a freshman. But when he took over for injured point guard Darren Collison as a sophomore, he was a revelation, averaging 12.7 points while winning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, leading UCLA to its second consecutive Final Four and putting himself in the conversation to be a top 5 NBA Draft pick by virtue of both performance and potential.
Westbrook was taken fourth overall in the 2008 NBA Draft by the then-Sonics, and he immediately made an impact, averaging right around 15-5-5. The only reason he finished just fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting was an overwhelmingly good class that included Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Brook Lopez.
He continued to build on that success as a second-year player, leading the Thunder to a surprising 50-win season, though they lost in the first round to the Lakers. The following year, Westbrook and KD led the Thunder to the West Finals, though they bowed out to the eventual champion Mavericks. And their logical progression continued with a berth in the 2012 NBA Finals, where they lost to LeBron James and the Heat.
Though Oklahoma City was the No. 1 seed in the West the following year, a collision with pesky point guard Patrick Beverley caused Westbrook to injure his knee, ending his season, limiting the Thunder and requiring a trio of surgeries. This didn’t prevent OKC from winning 59 games in 2013-14 and earning the No. 2 seed, though they succumbed to the eventual champion Spurs in six games in the West Finals.
The whole time, the paradox with Westbrook was whether his amazing offensive gifts outweighed his tendency to turn the ball over in bunches. But he brings such outsized athleticism and talent that he somewhat blurs the lines of what an elite point guard can offer.
“Some people have this old-school picture of what a point guard should be,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said during the Thunder’s run to the NBA Finals in 2012. “He is not it. But he is so important to us that he can’t be.”
What Brooks meant is that Westbrook is more than a mere point guard, a whirling dervish of offensive creativity and defensive intensity, created through years of painstaking hard work and determination. Like the great players — and like his marketing avatar, Michael Jordan — Westbrook feeds on the constant scrutiny about his game and his role.
“Russell is an overachiever,” his high school coach, Reggie Morris, told Sports Illustrated. “He never takes days off; he’s never short on effort. He’s always trying to prove himself, and he feeds off the fact that people don’t believe in him.”
Similarly, people tend to harp on how he interacts with Durant. Never mind that the two are close friends, or that Westbrook often defers to his more heralded teammate late in games.
The fact is, winning is the perfect salve. And with two of the absolute top players in the NBA, the Thunder are always a solid bet to be right around a championship level. Perhaps at that point, the scrutiny will lift; if someone is instrumental in winning an NBA title, it’s difficult to dispute his methodology. Until that point, Westbrook will have to be satisfied to be one of the top players in the game today, with the potential for even more.
When I hear (criticism), I revert to what my parents told me,” Westbrook has said. “Stay focused. Stay positive. The talk isn’t going away. The better you get, the more stuff you are going to hear.”