OKC coach Billy Donovan on Russell Westbrook: 'He wants to win at the highest level'

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In his first interview of the post-Kevin Durant era, Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan tells Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical Podcast with Woj about how he envisions Russell Westbrook’s role on the Thunder.

“The first thing about Russell, being around him, is he wants to win at the highest level,” Donovan said. “I think the second thing about him is amazing, being around him he’s extremely bright and he’s smart and he’s got a great feel. And the third thing is he’s very, very well prepared. I think a lot of times what people can look to or point to is when you have Serge [Ibaka] leaving and obviously Kevin leaving is this idea that maybe Russell now takes over more, and I think that he really understands that he’s got to make everybody around him better.

“People wanted to talk last year when he led the league in scoring and Kevin was coming back, ‘How’s this going to work?’ Like Russell Westbrook’s too smart. He understands Kevin’s coming back and he’s a great scorer and I thought our efficiency on the offensive end [was excellent] — behind Golden State, those guys did a great job. He’s been one of the league leaders in assists, one of, if not the best, rebounding guards. He’s obviously proven he can score, but I think Russell’s also smart enough to understand right now that he’s got to take the group with him.

“I think from a style-of-play standpoint, we’ve got to maximize the people around him inside of a system where they can be effective, productive and they can help. I think if you go back — and I think it’s going to be totally different for Russell, in my opinion, because I think if you go back two years ago when Serge was out and then Kevin missed those 50 games and they’re on the cusp of making the playoffs, I think at that point in time where when you set up a system and style of play and everything’s geared towards Kevin Durant and Serge, and they’re such big priorities for you offensively and now they’re not there, well, you’re not going to be able to just plug somebody in Kevin’s role, Serge’s role and they’re going to be able to just fill in that late in the season. For Russell, he tried to put the team on his back and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get us to the playoffs.’ I think because we’re starting out without those players available, we’ve got some time to evolve and develop, I think, a style of play and a system, and certainly he’s going to be the catalyst and the key to it.”

The highlights of the discussion with Donovan:

0:38: The Thunder’s two meetings with Durant.

2:15: Donovan’s relationship with Durant and his focus on coaching every player on the roster without playing favorites.

7:19: How Donovan learned about the relationship between Durant and Westbrook.

9:05: The initial conversation with Westbrook after Durant’s departure.

13:40: Managing Ibaka’s desire for a larger role last season.

16:35: Rebounding from a blowout loss in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Spurs.

20:43: Losing Game 6 at home in the Western Conference finals against the Warriors.

27:13: Rick Pitino becoming Providence’s head coach during Donovan’s sophomore season.

44:24: Developing his voice as a head coach.

53:37: The differences in his role as an NBA coach compared to being a college coach.

57:16: The importance of this coming season to make Oklahoma City a free-agent destination.

Click here to download the podcast on iTunes, or listen here or on Yahoo Sports.

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