For years I have been able to watch Russell Westbrook from afar. I remember when he was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, who were at that time still the Seattle SuperSonics. There was great interest in Russell Westbrook because of his crazy athleticism, but some pundits wondered if he could be effective as a point guard in the NBA, after coming out of UCLA being cast as a combo guard.
Throughout Westbrook’s career, there were some amazing moments that stood out, including an NBA Finals appearance, with now-Wizards coach Scott Brooks at the helm, back in 2012. This was, at the time, where the great Magic Johnson, who was an analyst on ABC, stated Westbrook’s performance in Game 2 was “the worst point guard performance in a Championship finals”. I remember nodding my head in approval because I also thought his style of play would not be suited for the point guard position going forward.
Here he was, playing next to perhaps one of the greatest collection of young talent that the NBA has ever seen on one team, with future MVPs Kevin Durant and James Harden, and he didn’t seem to grasp the ability to facilitate.
For years, I would watch much of the same performances, where it seemed like Russell Westbrook was taking too many shots or turning the ball over at critical points in the game. Over time though, Westbrook became a much better facilitator. It was clear that over time his skill as a point guard had grown. He became a much more skilled floor general. Players like Paul George, James Harden and now Bradley Beal have experienced some of their best statistical years playing next to Westbrook.
The results are undeniable, but what I learned through this season is what Westbrook provides may not even always show up on the scoreboard. Here are some key things I have observed about Westbrook that I believe has contributed to the Wizards turnaround this season.
That word seems so cliché. What does it really mean when you say someone is a leader? It’s not just about saying the right things, but it’s also about the actions that you put forth to back up those words. Russell has led this team by example by infusing his personality on the court.
From many reports, he’s the first player in the gym, he’s the player that is on the sideline talking to his teammates, and he’s the player that is still leaving it all out on the court, even while he’s hurt. Watching how he leads and how much he has been respected by his peers as well as his teammates has been an amazing sight.
As a long-time Wizards fan, I cannot tell you the number of times, we have had to experience, half-hearted effort on the court with this team. We have had players who simply did not try or even went as far as telling a coach that they are not going into the game. It says a lot when you have a player that is willing to put his body on the line every game and to play with maximum effort. It says, even more, when he’s a leader, a former MVP and as decorated a star as Westbrook has been. Sometimes that effort doesn’t always lead to positive plays, but the tone is set very clearly, a lack of effort will not be tolerated. It’s absolutely refreshing to watch.
Off the court, I have been amazed to get to know more about who he is as a person. He is a lot more than the eccentric outfits that he has been known to wear or the loud trashing talking foe yelling at the likes of Kevin Durant or Damian Lillard. He’s introspective, he’s a family man, he’s thoughtful and has a community mindset. Whether it’s walking around the city to meet people the first day he landed into D.C., or it’s his shoes that he seems to give away to fans on a nightly basis. He’s embraced this city, and it’s clear based on the home games that fans have been allowed to go to, that fans in DC have embraced him as well.
What has become clear to me more than anything is, this isn’t the same Russ that took 28 shots in an NBA Finals game. This was a player that understands his limitations a lot better, he understands how to set his teammates up, to take advantage of his teammates' strengths and most importantly he understands better when to defer and when to take over the game.
This Wizards team was undoubtedly heading in the wrong direction at the beginning of this season. They looked listless, not because they didn’t try, but because they simply weren’t good enough. We have seen this team fold very easily in times where the going gets tough, but this year, we saw a different team. Russ showed the value of his experience. He at times willed this team to win games they had no business winning.
Sure Westbrook is not perfect. He still takes shots that will cause you to shake your head, he will still have erratic moments, but all in all, he’s been the right player to put on this team for this season. It’s hard to say where this team’s ceiling will be or what the future of this team will look like in a few years, but this team needed more leadership, and with Westbrook’s growth as a player and a leader, this was the right time.
After trading away, the then-face of the franchise, it was important that this team found a player that could help the fanbase move beyond the dark cloud left from John Wall’s departure. Westbrook isn’t perfect, but his presence on this team couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.