Russell works way harder than anyone else and as hard as he possibly can. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook has been facing some heat in recent weeks. Is he really a point guard? Why does he shoot so much? Does he have the decision making capabilities to be one of the best in the NBA? Why can't he just give the damn ball to Kevin Durant. If you read the mainstream media, lately it has seemed that Westbrook can't do right, even when he's scoring 40 points in a crucial triple overtime playoff game.
Mike Prada, from the SBN basketball hub, tries to provide some perspective though and for UCLA fans, it's not anything new. It's the story of Westbrook the high school freshman, onto his time in Westwood and then to the NBA where one thing is abundantly clear. He works and he improves.
Three years ago, Russell Westbrook was a college shooting guard and the third-best player on his team. While Kevin Love provided the scoring and Darren Collison provided the stability, Westbrook was asked to provide the jolt. That jolt came in the form of fast breaks, rebounding and mad dashes to the rim. UCLA would have been good without Westbrook, but with Westbrook, they became great before eventually falling in the Final Four.
That's at least the surface analysis of what happened to Westbrook in 2008. Peel back a few layers, and you start to realize just how adaptive the supposed selfish gunner really is. When Westbrook was 17, he was a 5'10'' point guard, placed in that position because he had to be. He was heading towards a different career, one where he maybe played high school and college, but never further. Then, Westbrook hit a growth spurt, sprouting five inches before his senior season. His coach, unsure of what to do with a 6'3'' point guard, moved him to shooting guard, and he thrived enough to get a UCLA scholarship.
Fast forward to his sophomore year. The Bruins got caught in a bind when Collison went down with an injury, and coach Ben Howland's only answer was to turn to Westbrook, who barely played as a freshman. So Westbrook went back to being a point guard and succeeded, leading his talented team to a 7-0 record. When Collison returned, Howland shifted him back to shooting guard, and he figured out ways to fit in. He even willingly accepted a bench role so Howland could work an injured player back into the mix. Ultimately, he led the team in assists despite playing most of the season off the ball.
To review: in the span of four years, Westbrook shifted positions four times and accepted a bench role, and still rose to the No. 4 pick in the draft. The Thunder adopted the Durant approach with him, handing him the keys and letting him grow. As a rookie, Westbrook was among the league leaders in turnovers, but they stayed patient with him. Now, Westbrook is putting up similar numbers to the league's MVP on a similarly-good team, all while continuing to provide all the energy plays they need. He outperformed said MVP in the World Championships in Turkey and earned his first all-star berth this season.
If he did that much in three years, who's to say he can't ultimately use these experiences to improve his decision-making?
There are a lot of Bruins to take a lot of pride in. It's absolutely amazing how many incredible athletes have passed through Westwood and Westbrook is doing everything in his power to join them. That's what has always stood out about him. He works and he doesn't just work as hard as everyone else or even harder. He works way harder than anyone else and as hard as he possibly can.
The stories about Westbrook at UCLA are legendary. Kevin Love talked about showing up early to get extra work in at some absurd hour in the morning and amazingly, Westbrook was already there. He wasn't just there, he was already drenched in sweat and when Love was done working, Westbrook was still going. This isn't practice work or work with a coach or getting weight work in. This was extra work on top of all of that and Westbrook did it daily.
UCLA fans remember Westbrook bouncing from position to position. He was a shooting guard who went to West Virginia as a one-game point guard and frankly, was terrible. He was overwhelmed and lost. He didn't stop competing in that game though and afterwards, he didn't make excuses. He took responsibility and next time he had to man the point, he was miles better.
Westbrook will continue to be criticized for the rest of these playoffs. He's not conventional and he does have some places to improve. He'll tell you as much, but he's still pretty damn good and for those who have followed him for years now there is no doubt he is going to get better and improve where he needs to improve. When he's getting blasted with criticism, it's important to remember a guy's history and Westbrook's history shows that there isn't really much reason for panic about his future. He'll take care of it.