- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2020

Washington’s Russell Westbrook wasn’t expected to play in Sunday night’s preseason opener against the Brooklyn Nets — the Wizards are taking precautions with their newest star, preferring to build his workload gradually. But that doesn’t mean Westbrook hasn’t been busy.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks and the guard’s teammates say the 32-year-old has, after a week of practice with the team, quickly established himself as a vocal leader — a reputation that preceded his arrival to Washington and one that the Wizards were eager to see.

In a video clip from training camp released by the Wizards, Westbrook can be seen directing teammates down the floor, encouraging them to play with pace and involving them in small activities like using the basketball to play soccer in a down moment.

There are plenty of examples, teammates say, of Westbrook making an immediate difference.

“Russ, he’s contagious,” center Robin Lopez said. “That’s a bit of a dirty word right now. But he’s somebody when you feel that energy around him, it’s palpable. It passes onto you. It spreads to the whole team. He lets his voice be heard and lets his energy be felt.”

“You have no choice but to feed off his energy,” guard Bradley Beal said. “It’s been nothing but positive vibes. The energy has been through the roof.”

Beal and Lopez are two veterans who are both established professionals. But they’re learning to play with Westbrook for the first time and seem to be enjoying the process. On Friday, Beal lit up as he recalled Westbrook’s passing ability and awareness on the floor. “He can pass the (heck) out of the ball,” Beal said.

When Washington traded for Westbrook, general manager Tommy Sheppard said that Westbrook’s character would rub off on the rest of the group. Washington has 13 players under 25 years old, many of whom grew up watching Westbrook. Brooks said the nine-time All-Star would “demand their attention.”

Westbrook takes pride in setting the tone. He’s called himself one of the best leaders in the NBA. And in a new situation, Westbrook said there would be no “sugarcoating” his personality.

“Leadership is not what you say and all that [expletive] that people see and all that,” Westbrook said, “but it’s actually what you do and how you impact and better your teammates as men, as people, as they kind of grow in their relationships outside of basketball. Leadership to me is defined differently.”

Westbrook said that with the Wizards, he would have to be consistent. NBA teams, he said, often have good energy in the first week of the season. But Westbrook said it’s his job to make sure that maintains throughout the year.

Westbrook’s playing style can be polarizing. He led the league in shot attempts in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and finished in the top 10 of that category in each of the following two seasons. He can control the ball and sometimes takes ill-advised shots.

Westbrook, though, has been praised by teammates for his leadership. Appearing on Showtime’s “All the Smoke” podcast last week, Paul George said he had the best year of his career in 2018-19 thanks to Westbrook when they were with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That year, George finished third in MVP voting and credited Westbrook’s attitude for bringing out that version of him.

“I can play with [somebody] who’s going to leave it on the floor every night,” George said. “It pushes me, it challenges me to play hard every night.”

Beal, who was also out Sunday in Brooklyn, believes Westbrook can have that kind of impact on his game. He said he thinks Westbrook will “propel” him to a new level.

“You can see what he was able to do when he played with P.G., Vic and K.D.,” said Beal, referring to former Thunder stars Victor Oladipo and Kevin Durant. “He elevates these guys’ games. He helps push guys to another level. I’m expecting the same thing.”

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