Russell Westbrook had an interesting quote last week. He said something to the effect, “I know what I’m doing wrong and I know what I need to improve on, but with 82 games and playing every night, it’s not easy to change and learn on the fly.”
Nailed it, young fella. That’s why players get better year-to-year. They have a summer to reflect and take a breath. They can watch video, slow down and focus on details. Instead of just watching a little tape and getting an earful from a coach and then turning around and playing that night with all those thoughts running through their head, they can take time and progress naturally.
Some have been grumbling lately about Russell. He’s not a point guard. He’s a two trapped in a point guard’s body. He’s solid but he’s not the point guard of the future. He takes too many bad shots. He forces it all the time. Way too many turnovers. He’s not getting it. And on. And on. And on.
I can understand those gripes sometimes, especially when he tosses up seven and eight turnover games. I’ll admit to having headbutted my coffee table on more than one occasion when Russ forces a pass or takes a quick shot. The fact that he’s shooing 39 percent with over four turnovers a game this month is understandably frustrating.
But sometimes while we watch, it’s easy to forget what’s going on. He’s a rookie that’s never exclusively played point guard, even in college. Most didn’t think he was worthy of being the No. 4 pick. Most thought he would be a “project” or just a defensive stopper. And now look at him – possibly the Rookie of the Year and averaging 15 points, five assists and five rebounds, something not too many rookies have ever done. Seriously, that list is pretty thin – just nine other rookies have ever done it with names like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson on it. Uh, that’s pretty good.
He does have his faults though. Sometimes it seems like he goes tunnel vision and completely forgets he has four teammates on the floor with him. He knows he can get by almost anybody, so he’ll penetrate and force a bad shot. Or he’ll drive and try and squeeze a bounce pass through a crowded lane. I don’t get the same feeling when he has the ball in his hands as I do when I watch Tony Parker, Deron Williams or Chris Paul. I don’t get that, “He’s in total control” feeling. With those three guys, you know they are looking for a teammate to set up and shooting is kind of their Plan B. With Westbrook, I feel like right now he kind of has to pick one or the other. Am I going to score? Or am I going to pass? Score! OK dribble-drive! The game is moving so fast that I don’t think he’s been able to really visualize plays and slow things down. It’s all in the moment.
It seems like Westbrook goes Point A to Point C, totally skipping B. Point A is getting around the man guarding you and into the lane. Point C is the choice of passing or taking a shot. But Point B is the crucial part that hasn’t slowed down and entirely clicked for Russ. It’s the part where you actually make your decision. I’ve gotten around my man, now what do I do? I’ve got Krispy popping at the top of the key, KD on the wing and Uncle Jeff cutting to the bucket. Or I could throw this lob to Thabo. What to do, what to do… Instead, Westbrook seems to skip Point B. It’s straight from A to C. Shoot or pass, right now!
Chris Paul is the master of Point B. Get into the lane, take your time, assess the situation and then make your offensive move. Westbrook starts to the cup and either finishes at the rim, gets it stripped or gets fouled trying. As easy as it is for him to get aroud defenders, he just needs to slow down and survey his options. He does this sometimes and it results in easy buckets and good kickouts. But it needs to be something he does everytime, all the time. Once that happens (and I really, really think it will) he’ll be in the company of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Devin Harris and anybody else. Westbrook can be a great point guard. He has every tool necessary. He’s just learning right now and the results are coming, albeit sometimes painfully slow.
Some people are obsessed about the so-called “rookie wall” and they think Westbrook may be hitting it with his last two games. Just seven and 10 points on 2-10 and 2-11 shooting. And he’s gotten to the line considerably less than he did last month. But one thing about Westbrook – he always seems to do at least one thing well every night. He never has a completely bad game. Against Minny where he had just seven points, he had 10 assists and eight rebounds. Against the Lakers he had just 10 points, but had six assists and five boards. The guy brings it every single night, and that’s something you have got to love.
And despite the poor scoring, I saw some major improvement in just the last two games. He went airborne with an idea of what he was doing. Instead of attacking the rim like he was on fire, he slowed down and dished to a cutting teammate (I specifically remember a sweet pass to Nick Collison for a dunk against L.A.). And while he’s a combined 4-21 in his last two games, two months ago he might have been 4-21 in just one of those. He didn’t force the issue late and try and make up the difference all on his own. He took just two shots in the fourth quarter against the Lakers and just three shots in the second half against the Timberwolves. (And one thing about Westbrook’s shooting percentage is so many times – I’m estimating three or four times a game – he is stuck with the ball in his hands after a failed offensive set with four on the shot clock and he has to take a tough, contested shot. So instead of being 6-13 for the game, he’s now 6-17 and it looks bad. Granted, maybe if he had executed the set better that situation wouldn’t have happened, but I digress. Whatever that means.)
You almost have to keep reminding yourself he’s a rookie. Alright, bad pass. He’s a rookie. Stupid shot! He is a 20-year-old rookie. Geez dumb foul! He’s just a rookie you know. Serenity now, serenity now. He’s started 54 games and we’re kind of getting used to him being the starting point guard. But as some have noticed, his rookie year is strikingly similar to Dwayne Wade’s. Wade averaged 16.2 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.2 rpg and turned it over 3.2 times a night in 35 minutes a game. And I think he turned out alright. Tony Parker averaged just 9.2 ppg, 4.3 apg and 30 minutes a night his rookie year. Deron Williams averaged 11 points and 4.5 assists in 29 minutes as a rook. Chris Paul put up 16 and eight in 36 minutes as a rookie. And Russell Westbrook is averaging 15.7 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.8 rpg in 34 minutes a night.
Sure his shooting percentage is low (40 percent from the field and 29 percent from three), but remember, he is a rookie. Paul shot 43 percent from the field and 28 percent from three his first year. Parker 42 percent and 32 percent. Williams 41 percent. Now they’re all above 45 percent. The game started to slow down for them and I would assume Westbrook’s shooting percentage will too once he starts to settle. (He has some basic mechanic issues that I want to get into in the future though.)
I don’t know if Westbrook is the point guard of the future. I think he can be. But the future will just kind of have to determine that. I do know that he’s far exceeded expectations this year already and he’s made rapid improvement each month. His shot selection can drive me nuts at times, like when he’ll pull up from 20-feet with 19 on the shot clock, but think back to Kevin Durant’s shot selection his rookie year. Think back to Jeff Green a year ago. Both have come a looong way in their development. By next year, Westbrook may be right behind them. I want him to be this team’s point guard because I think he has every tool he needs to be a good one. We just have to be a bit patient with him. But if he wants to turn out like Dwayne Wade, I’m cool with that too.