OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Those who doubted Russell Westbrook’s potential only served to fuel his drive.
On a wristband, he wears his response to those doubters: Why Not? It’s also the approach he has toward all the challenges ahead of him, just halfway through his third season in the league.
“Why not become the best player? Why not get better?” said Westbrook, who on Thursday will find out if he has been selected as an All-Star reserve.
Westbrook is averaging 22.6 points (13th in the NBA) and 8.5 assists (eighth) per game. Just as important, he has turned into a legitimate second threat alongside NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant as the Thunder have established themselves as a contender for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
His All-Star competition at the guard spot in the West includes San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Phoenix’s Steve Nash, Utah’s Deron Williams, Golden State’s Monta Ellis and Eric Gordon of the Los Angeles Clippers.
“It’s a good accomplishment. It’s a great thing to be named an All-Star,” Westbrook said. “We’ll see what happens. But if not, I’m going to continue to work and continue to get better.”
So far, the 22-year-old has been improving in leaps and bounds.
In an age of high school studs who are pegged for immediate NBA stardom, Westbrook was lightly recruited out of Leuzinger High School near Los Angeles. He envisioned going to UCLA along with Khelcey Barrs, a close friend who was also Leuzinger’s best player.
But one day, Barrs collapsed during a break from a pickup game at a junior college and died. It’s a moment that still today makes Westbrook think that he can’t take anything for granted. He wears a “KB3” band on his other wrist in memory of his friend.
Instead of tagging along with Barrs, Westbrook got noticed after going through a camp at UCLA that the Bruins’ staff wasn’t allowed to watch. Assistant Kerry Keating heard about him as the kid with long arms and big feet who played really hard. He went to check out Westbrook and came away believing he’d found a special player hidden by sometimes reckless play.
“It was like watching Bambi on ice out there,” said Keating, now the head coach at Santa Clara. “You just had to see past that and see where it could go.
“What I was able to figure out was he had a competitiveness and a willingness to get better,” he added.
Keating couldn’t offer a scholarship until Jordan Farmar left early for the NBA as expected, but there wasn’t much competition. Creighton, San Diego and Kent State were among the top schools pursuing Westbrook until Wake Forest, Miami and Arizona State got in on him late.
Westbrook came off the bench as a freshman and scored in double figures just three times as UCLA went back to the Final Four, then took another big jump forward as a sophomore. He was the team’s third-leading scorer, behind Kevin Love and Collison, with 12.7 points per game, and averaged a team-best 4.3 assists.
It was still largely on potential that the Seattle SuperSonics drafted him fourth overall in the 2008 draft, just days before it was announced that the franchise would move to Oklahoma City.
Scott Brooks thrust him into the starting lineup shortly after being named the interim head coach, amid an infamous 3-29 start to the season. Westbrook led the NBA in turnovers, leading to calls for Oklahoma City to take Ricky Rubio or some other point guard in the next year’s draft.
Instead, Westbrook has cemented his place and even earned playing time on the U.S. team that won the world championships last summer.
“He’s a really tough cover because not only is he so quick, but he’s so strong. He’s got shoulders like a doggone linebacker, and he’s so quick with the ball that he does a great job,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.
A fierce rebounder, Westbrook is the leader of the Thunder’s prolific fast-break offense and has turned what used to be reckless aggression into a powerful asset when he charges toward the hoop.
“If he has room in the open court,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, “he’s virtually unstoppable at getting to the basket and he can really finish.”
Westbrook still has higher aspirations to be an all-around player who can score, pass, rebound, block shots, grab steals and lead his team. It’s all those qualities that Brooks, a former NBA point guard, seeks from Westbrook instead of him finding a single niche.
“You gradually get the command of your team as the seasons go by,” Brooks said. “He’s in his third year, which is still a young NBA player, especially when he’s only had two years out of college. But our team is built with a lot of young players. They see what Russell is about and he brings it every day.”
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