Caught in Durant’s shadow, Westbrook shines

Russell Westbrook(notes) wears a bright orange bracelet on each wrist during games. The same two words are printed on both: “Why Not?”

For someone who has repeatedly proven his skeptics and doubters wrong, Westbrook clings to that simple mantra.

The Thunder surprised some people by taking Russell Westbrook No. 4 overall in the 2008 draft.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

“ ‘Why not’ is how I think, how I go about things,” Westbrook said. “It goes with everything I do, how I play and off the court with the decisions I make.”

Whatever choices Westbook has made, they seem to be working. He has quietly established himself as one of the NBA’s best young point guards, averaging 16.7 points, 7.9 assists and 5.1 rebounds with 17 double-doubles in his second season. He and his young teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder have exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, contending not only for a playoff berth in the rugged Western Conference, but also home-court advantage.

Westbrook’s contributions are sometimes caught in the glare of Kevin Durant’s(notes) stardom, but that’s nothing new for him. Since the day he walked into Lawndale Leuzinger High School just southeast of Los Angeles International Airport, Westbrook has been overlooked.

Westbrook arrived in high school as a gangly 5-foot-8 teenager. He grew to about 6-2 as a senior, but still wasn’t listed among the top 100 prospects despite averaging 25.1 points and 8.7 rebounds his final season while leading Leuzinger to a 25-4 record. San Diego, Creighton and Kent State seemed to be his only serious college suitors.

“He was too small,” said Miami Heat swingman Dorell Wright(notes), a former Leuzinger teammate of Westbrook’s. “He worked on his body. He always had a good basketball IQ, always tough. But he was always too small, too.”

Westbrook says he was “real close” to committing to San Diego. But former UCLA assistant Kerry Keating, now Santa Clara’s head coach, had attended several of Westbrook’s games and begged him and his parents to be patent. The Bruins, Keating thought, could eventually have a scholarship to offer.

When UCLA guard Jordan Farmar(notes) departed early to the NBA, Westbrook went to Westwood the next day to sign, passing up another late pitch from Arizona State.

“I knew he could play,” Keating said. “The misconception on him was he couldn’t shoot, but he rebounded well for a guard. Every time something didn’t go well he’d look like he was hurt a little bit. [College scouts] would say, ‘What’s the deal with that? Is he soft?’ But I knew he was competitive.”

Said Wright: “People didn’t know how good he could be.”

At UCLA, Westbrook practiced daily against two other future NBA players, Darren Collison(notes) and Arron Afflalo(notes). He averaged only 3.4 points as a freshman, but improved his production during his sophomore season to 12.9 points, 4.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game. Primarily playing at shooting guard, he also was named the Pac-10’s Defensive Player of the Year.

“In high school not getting noticed as much was frustrating at times,” Westbrook said. “I just continued to work and got the opportunity.”

It was Westbrook’s defense that first caught the attention of the SuperSonics, who were in their final season in Seattle before moving to Oklahoma City. Westbrook also improved his stock after scoring a career-high 22 points against Memphis star Derrick Rose(notes) in the 2008 Final Four and by proving he could play well at the point during two games Collison missed.

Strong workouts pushed Westbrook into contention as a late lottery pick. The Sonics, however, held the fourth selection, and most draft observers predicted they would take Stanford center Brook Lopez(notes) to fill their need for a big man or opt for either Arizona’s Jerryd Bayless(notes) or Indiana’s Eric Gordon(notes) if they wanted a guard.

Sonics/Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver continued to push strongly for Westbrook, whom he felt best fit the franchise with his combination of talent, character and work ethic. Weaver, Sonics general manager Sam Presti said, had a “passion about Russell’s ability to grow with the organization over time.” The pitch paid off: The Sonics took Westbrook No. 4.

“I heard people say, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” said Durant, who was taken by the Sonics a year earlier as the No. 2 overall pick. “Coming out of UCLA, people knew him but didn’t know he would go that high. But I was excited.”

One year after winning just 23 games, Russell Westbrook has helped Kevin Durant lift the Thunder into playoff contention.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

He was one of the few. Several draft analysts thought the Sonics made a reach for Westbrook.

“We thought he was the best person for our organization and what we wanted to build,” Presti said. “You can’t please everybody and we’re not focused on that. We are more focused on what our staff thinks.”

Westbrook made a good first impression when he averaged 15.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds his rookie season after the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. He was named to the All-Rookie first team, but with the Thunder winning just 23 games, his contributions went largely unnoticed outside Oklahoma.

To get better, Westbrook often worked out three times a day last summer. The Thunder claim he grew a half-inch during the offseason and they don’t think his 6-foot-3, 187-pound frame is done expanding yet, either. Oklahoma City also hired Maurice Cheeks as an assistant coach, and the former Philadelphia 76ers point guard has helped mentor Westbrook.

“He’s a student of the game,” Cheeks said. “He’s just picking up all those little things it takes to be a good point guard.”

Example: The Thunder are 16-4 when Westbrook has a double-digit assist total. After the NBA named Westbrook its Western Conference Player of the Week in early February, he responded by scoring 40 points in the All-Star rookie-sophomore game then delivering his first triple-double a week later against Minnesota.

“I never thought I’d be put in this opportunity so fast,” said Westbrook, who turned 21 in November. “I’m just blessed to be in the situation I’m in now. Everything has come so quick for me.”

Some of his peers have taken notice.

“He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve played against besides Tony Parker(notes),” Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans(notes) said.

Durant’s ascent to stardom – he was named an All-Star and could finish in the top three in MVP voting – has overshadowed Westbrook’s own development. But Durant also credits Westbrook for serving as the Thunder’s “engine.”

“He gets me going every game,” Durant said. “Without him I’m sure I couldn’t do some of the things I’m doing now. People are going to start asking me, ‘Is Russell Westbrook starting to over-shine you now?’ ”

Westbrook’s anonymity is beginning to end and a strong performance in the playoffs could hasten that process. A year ago, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo(notes) used the postseason as his coming-out party. Westbrook could do the same.

As the two words stenciled on those orange bracelets say: “Why not?”

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010