Point to Prove

March 16, 2009
March 16, 2009

Table of Contents
March 16, 2009

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
  • Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game

  • For years Nate Robinson was seen as little more than the Knicks' 5'9" slam-dunk novelty act. But after his recent string of 30-point games, height is no longer his defining measure

Mykal Riley

Point to Prove

Rookie guard Russell Westbrook is the future leader of the Thunder's attack—if he can curb his appetite for turnovers

MEET RUSSELL WESTBROOK. Both sides of him. One side is a dynamic point guard with oh-no-he-didn't athleticism and the rebounding ability of a forward. That Westbrook is the Western Conference's reigning Rookie of the Month and one of just 14 players who was averaging at least 15 points, four rebounds and four assists at week's end. Now, meet the other side of Westbrook, the turnover-prone tweener who has the Thunder (as well as the rest of the league) wondering what position he is best suited to play.

This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue

After just two seasons as a part-time point guard at UCLA, the 20-year-old Westbrook—a surprisingly high pick at No. 4 overall—has been handed the keys to a young Oklahoma City franchise, which has small forward Kevin Durant, 20, and power forward Jeff Green, 22, up front. Since taking over for P.J. Carlesimo on Nov. 22, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has made Westbrook's development a top priority. (Brooks knows something about the challenge facing Westbrook: He also went from being a combo guard at UC Irvine to playing the point as a pro.) One week into the job Brooks installed the 6'3" Westbrook as the starter and scaled back the playbook in an effort to make him more comfortable. Brooks has also asked Westbrook to focus on learning his teammates' tendencies, so he can get them the ball in good scoring positions. "Russell is never going to be a Mo Cheeks, set-'em-up-type point guard," says Brooks. "He's going to score and get others involved when he attacks the basket."

Westbrook has already established himself as a scorer, averaging 15.8 points through Sunday. Since November his numbers have gone up every month, peaking in February when he poured in 20.6 points per game. More impressive, Westbrook has demonstrated the ability to take over games. With Durant and Green sidelined on March 2, Westbrook had the Thunder's first triple double in its 1½ seasons in Oklahoma City with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over the Mavericks. Many of those dishes went to center Nenad Krstic, who has developed into a solid pick-and-roll partner since signing with the Thunder on Dec. 30. "Russell's growth into the position and his ability to grasp concepts are all positives," says Thunder G.M. Sam Presti. "And he's really hard to keep out of the paint."

But Westbrook's greatest strength may also be his weakness. His aggressive mentality—the reason Westbrook led all rookies with 5.4 free throw attempts per game at week's end—also results in a lot of mistakes. Westbrook ranked last among point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.55), and only Dwyane Wade has more total turnovers. This leads some to wonder whether he can succeed at the position. "I don't see him as a one," says a Western Conference scout. "Scoring and athleticism are great, but you need to have more of a playmaker's mentality to be a point guard. I haven't seen that yet."

While Westbrook sees himself as a point guard, Brooks still plays him off the ball at times. Defensively, Westbrook can handle both spots: His nearly 80-inch wingspan helps him pester two guards, and he has the lateral quickness to stay with ones. Brooks would like to see Westbrook, already a physical defender, cultivate an in-your-face style similar to that of the Hornets' Chris Paul. "Paul will bump and bang with you," Brooks says. "We want Russell to play like that."

Oklahoma City values versatility: Durant swings between the two and the three, and Green has played both forward spots. With about $15 million in cap space next year and four first-round picks in the next two years, the Thunder will look to acquire the best players available, regardless of position. For Westbrook the opportunity to seize the point is there. He just has to make sure to put his best side forward.

Chris Mannix's NBA Power Rankings, every Monday.

Scout's Take

On which elite team helped itself the most with its recent free-agent signings:

Everyone got an impact player. For Cleveland, Joe Smith can pick-and-pop and do the dirty work inside. Drew Gooden gives San Antonio a low-post threat when Tim Duncan is out of the game. But the real winner is Boston. Stephon Marbury (above) is a bona fide point guard, which the Celtics desperately needed. If something happens to Rajon Rondo, Steph can step in, plus he gives them points off the bench—outside of Eddie House, their second unit didn't have a scorer. And while Mikki Moore was atrocious in Sacramento, in Boston he'll be an energy guy who can contest shots, which backup big men Leon Powe and Glen Davis do not do.

PHOTOGREG NELSON (WESTBROOK)UP AND UP The 20-year-old Westbrook has lifted his scoring average every month.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (MARBURY)