I think you would be completely shocked if you rewound three years ago and watched the rookie version of Russell Westbrook running the Thunder compared to the current version that was an All-Star and second-team All-NBA player.
The improvement he’s made has just been incredible. Not surprising though at all, as Westbrook truly is one of the most committed, hardest working players in the league. He never stops working at his game, improving on the littlest things he can. And at just 22, he realizes just like everyone else that there are still places he can get better. He cited leadership and controlling emotions in his exit interview, but he’s far from a finished product in a lot of ways.
But one area that’s taken Westbrook’s game to another level has been his improvement shooting the basketball.
Now, in terms of pure numbers, there’s not a big suggestion to say that Westbrook has improved all that much as a shooter. He shot 38 percent from 16-23 feet his rookie season and 36 percent from that spot this year. From 10-15 feet, he shot 32 percent his rookie season and went up to just 35.8 percent this year. Westbrook has raised his overall field goal percentage from 39.9 percent his rookie season to 41.8 percent his second season to 44.2 percent this past season. The biggest reason for it is that Westbrook finished much more frequently at the rim when he got there (47 percent his rookie year, 60.7 percent this year).
However, it’s obvious to anyone that’s watched Westbrook play all 246 games that he’s improved a lot as a shooter. That mid-range jumper is a consistent weapon now, whereas in his rookie and even second season, was something that really tended to fluctuate game to game. Now Westbrook has to be guarded anywhere inside the 3-point line. Which makes him that much more dangerous to get to the rim.
(And even his 3-point shot has come along. He shot 27.1 percent his rookie year, 22.1 his second year and 33 percent this year. In fact, since January, he shot 41.8 percent from 3 to finish the regular season and even had a stretch from January to the end of March where he went 20-41 from deep.)
Clearly, repetition makes you a better shooter. Get in the gym and shoot the basketball for a living and I’m sure over a three-year span, you’d improve. Well, most players would. But when Westbrook entered the league, he was sort of a mess mechanically. David Thorpe of ESPN.com wrote this on Westbrook in March of 2011:
One of the biggest keys to being a good perimeter shooter is making sure your shooting motion is directed straight at the target (the rim). This is much harder than it would seem. Golfers spend lots of hours trying to get “lined up” correctly so their swing can produce the correct ball flight. Shooters in basketball can relate.
If you stand behind Westbrook, you can see that sometimes his shooting hand strokes the shot a foot to the right, which typically is the direction the ball takes, clanging off the side of the rim. This can be caused by poor alignment from his lower body, or not getting enough leg drive because of inadequate knee flex before the shot, or just a bad arm mechanic.
I’ve written quite a bit in the past about Westbrook’s shooting technique as well and the thing I’ve always noticed, especially when he missed, is that he rushes. He’s a total “rhythm” jumpshooter. Off a catch, he struggles. He doesn’t get his feet set in time and his motion of bringing the ball up happens so quick that everything is out of whack. The only reason he makes some is because he gets his released straightened out just in time sometimes.
I went back and looked at the difference between Westbrook’s form as a rookie and compared it to now. Pretty interesting.
Here’s what I notice from the two pictures. As a rookie, Westbrook’s right elbow is extended away from his body a great deal. That kills your consistency as a shooter. With that elbow that far out, producing the same stroke every time is difficult and it can cause the ball the to hard left or right on any given shot. Compare that to this season’s Westbrook. He’s completely squared, his elbow is tucked in neatly and everything is in line. Exactly as Thorpe point out. It seems to me Westbrook has improved all those areas — arm mechanic, flex in the knee and elevation. What was once kind of a broken, erratic jumper is really kind of pretty now.
The other thing to point out is Westbrook’s off-hand. As a rookie, he had it all over the ball. Last season, he used it for it’s purpose — to just steady the ball before you shoot. The less you touch the ball with the other hand, the better. He still uses it — because you have to — but he’s not really “gripping” the ball with it as much. Minor adjustment, but important.
Also, these pictures don’t really illustrate it, but as a rookie, Westbrook tucked his off-hand thumb in on his release. That’s a minor thing but any shooting coach will tell you to keep that thumb sticking straight out when you release.
Point is, clearly Westbrook has made some adjustments to his form and mechanics. He doesn’t hurry jumpers near as much. He elevates a lot more on them than he used to. In fact, on that elevation is typically where he squares himself, because Westbrook is a ridiculous athlete that can do those type of things mid-air.
Westbrook has always been a bit of a work in progress. His point guard skills, decision making, vision, passing, ball-handling and shooting have all undergone a lot of transformation in his three years in the league. And obviously, it’s working. He was second-team All-NBA and an All-Star at 22. So just imagine what he can do with another offseason in the gym honing in on all these things. Or in another three years.