I was wrong.
In this case, I am ecstatically happy to be wrong, but that does not change the facts. To elaborate, I was convinced that Russell Westbrook was not a point guard. This flawed belief was a huge catalyst in my full-throated lobbying to select Ricky Rubio with the #3 pick in last Summer’s Draft (along with my belief–which continues to this day–that Rubio was one of the two players in the draft pool with superstar capability).
My impression of Russell Westbrook after his rookie season was that he was either a selfish player more interested in his own scoring statistics than setting up teammates, or else he just lacked the instincts to be a point guard meaning he had no feel for where his teammates were and when they had a better shot. Obviously, those snap conclusions were incorrect. Despite some inconsistency this season, he has blossomed into a serviceable floor general and, at times, one of the best in the NBA.
Over his past nine games, he has had double digit assists in five and zero turnovers in two. For the year, his assist-to-turnover ratio is a respectable 2.4, far better than the 1.6 he recorded as a rookie. While no one is confusing him for Chris Paul, yet, his decision making has improved exponentially. If his outside shooting shows as drastic an improvement over the next few years, he will be an all-first teamer before we know it.
So, how did this light bulb go off for the Thunder’s ultra-athletic point guard? It could be natural maturing…but I think it probably has more to do with all the role models that the franchise has surrounded him with. Head Coach Scott Brooks was a cerebral point guard who won a ring with the Rockets and made it in the NBA only because he understood the game so well. His career ast/to ratio was 3.57.
That, in itself, is a good mentor. But, in the off-season, Sam Presti made only one true free agent signing: minimum salary veteran journeyman Kevin Ollie. Ollie is a guy who has managed to stick in the league, much like Brooks during his playing days, simply by being a steady presence on the floor. Going up against him in practice early in the season, as opposed to Earl Watson and his flash without sizzle style, has likely been a major factor in Westbrook’s development.
Of course, the biggest influence has probably been the new Assistant Head Coach Maurice Cheeks. Most Oklahomans who knew about Cheeks before this season probably knew little more than that he helped an embarrassed little girl finish the “Star Spangled Banner.” In all actuality, however, he is very likely the player team management would like to see Russell Westbrook become.
Known as “Mo” in his playing days, Cheeks was a bad mamma jamma. Playing primarily with the 76ers, he earned four all-star invitations, was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team four times, and played in three NBA Finals, including a championship as the starting point guard of the 1983 team. Like Westbrook, Cheeks couldn’t shoot a lick from the outside (although, unlike Westbrook, he only tried a three once every four games), but he was able to influence the game with his quickness and decision making. What really makes him a perfect mentor for the blossoming star is that Maurice Cheeks knows what it was like to be mentored.
When he came into the NBA as a second round pick in the 1978 draft, he became part of a very cerebral team. The star of that team was “Dr. J” Julius Erving, but his teammates included former USC (and Oklahoma City Calvary) coach Henry Bibby who taught Cheeks how to take his spot in the starting line-up. Doug Collins, who coached Michael Jordan to become Michael Jordan, was the starting small forward and current Boston College head coach Al Skinner was another guard on the team. (edit. On a completely unrelated note, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant was on the roster and during Cheeks’ rookie season, he brought his son, Kobe, home from the hospital.)
While Mo Cheeks was cutting his professional teeth along side a plethora of future coaches, he was also learning several lessons that could be of import to Russ. First and foremost was winning. Cheeks’ was perenially leading the teams he quarterbacked to the playoffs. The second bit of wisdom he can impart is learning to play in the shadow of superstars. “Dr. J” was only the first big name to eclipse Cheeks. As his career progressed, he also dished off to Moses Malone, and in his waning days in Philadelphia, Charles Barkley.
So far, it seems like the mentoring program is working. Now if only they could bring in Jeff Hornacek to teach the guys on this team how to shoot.