Russell Westbrook is a member of the Washington Wizards. I’m still getting used to that. Maybe you are too.
Russell “Brodie” Westbrook is here and he’s about to change the Wizards forever. There will be plenty of points-rebounds-assists and triple-doubles to count. Yet it’s his intangibles and how they fit what this roster and franchise need that most that excites fans. How will that manifest on this year’s team?
“The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win. Everyone wants to win but not everyone wants to prepare to win.” Bobby Knight.
What Knight, the legendary college basketball coach knew is that what separates similarly talented players/teams is preparation. In a league brimming with ultra-athletic, uber-talented players it takes more to win at a high level. Westbrook prepares to win. He’s already resetting the clock for the team, arriving hours before practice to get his work in.
As coach Scott Brooks pointed out, this is not a day one thing, this is an everyday thing. Soon, we hope, it’s an everyday thing for his teammates as well.
Some of that can be traced back to his experience on the USA Select team prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. You may have heard stories. This is when the NBA stars and young bucks like Russ (then a recent draftee of the Thunder) and Kevin Durant learned preparation from the master, the late Kobe Bryant. Before Mamba Mentality was a Sports Academy, Kobe was setting the bar for the current generation of NBA stars.
“Wade was the first player to join (me). He met me in the gym at five, and then LeBron started showing up at five, and then they all started showing up at five. And then next thing you know, most of the guys were in the gym at five getting some work in,” Bryant said.
Those sessions are largely credited with bringing that group aka the “Redeem Team” closer and launching the next generation of NBA champions. The next five title winners included a player from that team. The sixth was the Spurs, which had plenty of Olympians, just not any from Team USA. In fact we have yet to see a Finals that doesn’t include a member of the Redeem Team or Select Team.
Ok-ok, turning back to this roster...
These Wizards have put the time in. They’ve rebooted the team’s culture. They've largely gone away from treadmill vets and hired guns. Even for a group known for putting in work this is going to be a sea change. I can’t think of a better way for a rookie like Deni Avdija or second year forward Rui Hachimura to learn elite level commitment to preparation. Establish this level now and let it feed your entire career.
Westbrook’s intensity is next level. Most importantly it’s infectious. Growing up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Russ was already emulating the Lakers’ star before he understood everything that went into his game.
Russ is wired differently, says everyone who has ever competed against him. Westbrook credits his mindset to his original dream of playing professional football. Hit or be hit. When the Wizards’ podcast asked about the players he watched growing up Russ first mentioned his football dreams before eventually circling back to Kobe.
The current Wizards roster features three players (Isaac Bonga, Thomas Bryant and Moritz Wagner) who coincidentally spent some formative time in the South Bay, although in their case it was playing for the Lakers G League affiliate. Of those, I’d wish the most for an intensity upgrade for Bonga. I don’t think even he knows how good he can become if he can maintain fifth gear instead of throttling between third and fourth. Of course the rest of the roster can always be better too.
But JH3, you say, aren’t all pro athletes pretty intense? No.
Not like Russ.
To paraphrase one of the best HBO Specials ever (by comedian Larry Miller), the intensity difference between Russ and most players is “the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it.” Don’t take my word for it. Here are Kobe’s words.
Kobe Bryant asked this in 2015:— Carson Cunningham (@KOCOCarson) January 26, 2020
"Anybody have that same fire, that same passion that you have for the game?"
Kobe: "Westbrook plays mean. He plays mean like I did." pic.twitter.com/Ii74gLdzIc
My experience as an instructor has made me a big believer in peer learning at pretty much every level above “Intro to...” At the professional level it’s a must. Players, even the best, tune out their coaches at times.
GM Tommy Sheppard referenced that in the post trade media availability too. Guys’ ability to be locked in on Brooks’ words will ebb and flow. Every team needs player leaders, a coach on the floor, and peer to peer accountability to get the best performance out of them.
It’s not like the Wizards are unaware of this. Over the years the franchise has tried to fill in the periphery with “good guys” and example setters. Rasual Butler, Jared Dudley, Roger Mason, Maurice Evans, and more were signed to bring more than what shows up in the box score. As professional as those guys were, they weren’t All-Stars and they didn’t have an MVP trophy. They can’t compare to the effect a STAR player can have on young teammates.
It should also be noted there were vets who spoke up in past seasons but were met with resistance from the team’s star point guard. The core players weren’t always on the same page and the front office abdicated its role in bridging those gaps. That could be why Brooks said “sacrifice” will be the key word for this Wizards team.
Ultimately the leadership piece will only serve to help Bradley Beal. With such a young roster the team looked to him for everything last season. He literally shouldered the load into a sore shoulder. Now he has a partner who naturally assumes a sizeable leadership stake without ever a question of whose team it is. Beal doesn’t have to play the heavy, Russ will beat him to that. My bet, and seemingly that of the Wizards front office, is that this duality fits Brad’s personality too.
We can’t leave out Brooks. Always known as a players’ coach, he’ll benefit from having a no BS vet leading the team. In Westbrook, Brooks will have a nine-time All-NBA and former league MVP that he can chew out without risk of losing the player or the locker room. The whole team will see there is no preferential treatment or kid gloves for the best on the team. They shouldn’t expect anything different.
The Washington Wizards needed to reset their back court following a trade demand by the star PG. They also need to stay competitive or risk souring their All-Star shooting guard in the process. In trading for Westbrook the franchise raised the bar on their competitive standards and preparation while adding a natural leader by word, deed and demand.
Sheppard went looking for a breath of fresh air and came back with gale force winds. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the most of what Westbrook brings or risk being left behind.