Previous Story

No, Really, Who’s That Guy?

All Features

Next Story

Parade’s End

Career Arc: Russell Westbrook

Best dressed in high school, NBA draft project, All-Star, irritant, folk hero.

Let’s start with the growth spurt. The transformation of Russell Westbrook Jr. from an uncelebrated 16-year-old shooting guard to a potential NBA draft pick happened during the summer after his junior year in high school, when he shot up five inches practically overnight. He already had speed and phenomenal athleticism, but that summer was the genetic Powerball, the first of his mind-boggling leaps. The previous year, at 5-foot-10, he’d managed to grit his way into the starting five at Leuzinger High in Los Angeles County; post-spurt, he turned his senior season into a vengeance romp through SoCal prep ball. He averaged 25 and 8.7, dropped 51 in one game, and got himself recruited by Ben Howland at UCLA.

He’d already spent a whole childhood devoted to basketball. He’d been trained up by his dad, Russell Sr., a pickup-ball obsessive at Ross Snyder Park at 41st and Compton. As a 7-year-old, Russ Jr. used to tail his pop to games and echo his moves on the sideline. Russ Sr. noticed his interest and refashioned himself into a kind of off-grid Svengali, running the younger Russ through years of daily drills that he’d invent himself, teaching him basketball strategy from a stock of mental notes on Magic Johnson. Still, though. If not for the growth spurt, that all leads nowhere. Five inches is the difference between Russell Westbrook, NBA All-Star, and Russell Westbrook, comet of wounded pride at your local rec center.

He dunked a basketball for the first time during his last start as a senior in high school. That was how strange it was, being in the new body — he could go for 51 when the mood struck him, but he wasn’t sure he could do that yet. Among many other fairly astounding conclusions, his late intro to life above the rim means that less than two years separated his first dunk from the moment he did this:

So from right there, from the very beginning, you see the Russ Paradox already in place. He’s going to play with an intensity that makes him erratic, that makes him hard to predict. He’s going to go so hard he becomes a danger to everyone on the court, including his own team’s game plan. Watch the video of that dunk against Cal: coast to coast, through three defenders, a nuclear bowling ball. Say your lifelong dream had moved within reach so late, after you’d gotten used to seeing friends picked over you, after you’d started to think maybe your chance wasn’t coming — don’t you think you, too, might have a tough time letting go of the ball? Might plant yourself on the axial line between not taking this for granted and going fucking crazy? He showed up at his senior prom in an all-white tux with a turquoise vest and white-and-turquoise Stacy Adams shoes; he won best dressed. He plays like a new superhero who’s not fully in control of his powers, because that, in effect, is what he is.

College Daze: 2006-08

love-russ

He put in the time, though. At UCLA, he showed up raw, a scorer who couldn’t shoot; his freshman year he got nine minutes a game and missed nearly half his free throws. Remember, this was a kid who’d learned from his dad and a couple of public-school coaches — no Jesuit hoops powerhouse behind him, part of an unheralded AAU program. As a sophomore, he molded himself into a weird hybrid of lockdown defense and highlight-reel dunking. This was the Bruins’ third consecutive Final Four team, the one that matched Kevin Love, in his breakout freshman season, with a Westbrook–Darren Collison backcourt and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Russ, mostly playing as a 2-guard, put up 12.7 and more than four assists per game; he also got featured in a New York Times piece on the rising popularity of players wearing the number zero, probably his first national-media exposure as a fashion presence. “You go with the zero when you’ve been through something and you are looking to get a new beginning,” he said. “It helps you get the swag back.”

UCLA entered the NCAA tournament as the top seed in the West and a championship favorite. In the second round, during a two-point game against Texas A&M, Westbrook broke away on the last possession and threw down an end-of-days dunk at the buzzer. It was waved off — he’d hung in the air so long that time ran out.

The Bruins would end up losing in a 78-63 blowout in the national semis against Derrick Rose’s Memphis team. Westbrook had 22, the most of any UCLA player, but the loss crystallized something. Heading into the draft, a player like Rose could be fetishized for his natural feel for the point position, just as, say, Chris Paul had been before him. Westbrook was by contrast too odd, too unbalanced. He was a project, a mess. People who got paid to use the word “upside” all agreed that he had tons of it. No one knew how or where he’d fit.

It’s bracing, today, to go back and read his scouting reports. You want to believe in the perfectibility of human knowledge? Here’s something an expert wrote about Russell Westbrook in 2008: “knows his limitations and has no problem fitting in and being just another cog.” The DraftExpress report listed his “best case” as “Leandro Barbosa.” He was written about as a potential defensive stopper, as a guy who could give you a spark off the bench, as a lottery pick, as a bust, as a risk. Late in the season, people were still arguing that he should stay in school. He wound up catching one of those tailwinds you sometimes get heading into draft day and going fourth to the zombie-in-waiting Seattle SuperSonics, still a few months away from relocating to Oklahoma City. Sonics GM Sam Presti had reportedly tried to trade down the pick, but couldn’t work out a deal. The future Thunder needed a guard to take pressure off Kevin Durant in the backcourt. So — why not — Presti rolled the dice.

sonics-kd-russ

Giant Steps: 2008-11

The Thunder started 3-29 in 2008. Remember that? Their first win came three games into the season — it was against the Timberwolves; Westbrook hit the go-ahead shot — and then: smoke belch, engine failure. Durant, then in his second season and already pretty much unguardable, averaged 25, and Russ scored more as a rookie than he had the previous season with UCLA. But they made no sense together. Not that Westbrook was even seen as a star that year; if you read analysis of the Thunder from his first couple of seasons, you get a lot of “a solid core of young players, including emerging star Jeff Green and point guard Russell Westbrook,” tucked in after three breathless grafs on Durant. Maybe he’d get called “promising.” He was trying to learn how to play the point, live with an 82-game schedule, and adjust to life away from L.A., all while starting for a franchise so new in its city that it had to borrow a practice facility from Southern Nazarene University. He was 20 years old.

The next season, the Thunder finished 50-32 and took two games off the defending champion Lakers in the playoffs. It’s hard to recollect how shocking that seemed at the time, that Oklahoma City could hurt Kobe. This was the world’s introduction to the Fun Young Thunder team of Durant, Westbrook, James Harden’s Assyrian lamassu beard, and Serge Ibaka. This was also around the time when, if you hadn’t followed him before, you’d start noticing Westbrook in games, looking up when he bolted at the basket — holy shit, what did this kid playing point just do? He and Durant combined for 22 of the Thunder’s last 23 points in their first playoff win. Westbrook also took, and missed, the desperation shot at the buzzer that would have forced a Game 7 against L.A.

He’d never be a true point guard. That was clear early. Not because he couldn’t distribute the ball; his feel for the game got better year over year, as did his numbers. (5.3 assists his first season, then 8.0, then 8.2.) But a point guard lives in the calm at the center of the game, in the silent geometry of it. Westbrook lived in the roar. Build him a basketball game and he’d try to knock it over, like a toddler with a block tower. Build him another one and he’d knock it over again. The Russ Paradox: He was a creator whose medium was rubble. He lived here:

And here:

And, famously, here:

He’d win a gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in the summer of 2010, playing for Mike Krzyzewski, and this was maybe the turning point. People talked afterward about how he realized he could hang with guys he’d grown up watching on TV, how this just vaporized whatever fear was still present in his bloodstream. “He’s always had confidence,” was how Durant put this, “but I think playing in USA games really pushed it over the top.” In the media the next season you’d start to see him listed with Paul and Deron Williams among the league’s elite point guards. “Ascending” replaced “promising.” He was starting to mean something.

He was good enough now that the inevitable chatter started about whether he could coexist with Durant. The quest to uncover some submerged tension between them became both a minor pastime in the media and a stick that bounce-pass curmudgeons could use to beat Russ with. The Zapruder footage in this crusade for answers was shot during one of the most fascinating games of 2011, the Thunder’s triple-overtime win against the Grizzlies in Game 4 of their playoff series in May. At one point in the second half, with the Thunder’s offense looking totally out of joint, the camera caught Durant talking to OKC assistant Maurice Cheeks. “Why the fuck didn’t he get me the ball?” Durant asks. “He” didn’t necessarily even mean Westbrook. Thabo Sefolosha had been inbounding. But the damage was done. Westbrook went for 40 points, five assists, five rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, and hit 10 of 11 free throws in a game his team won; didn’t matter. White knights on the Internet lined up 50-deep to eviscerate him for not deferring to KD.

kd-russ

Pillar of Fire: 2012-14

Rumors of a Durant-Westbrook Cold War may have been exaggerated. But even as Russ made his second and third All-Star teams in 2012 and 2013, even as he and Durant reached the Finals together and won Olympic gold medals together and showed up in press conferences together dressed in haute-poindexter lensless glasses and suspenders over short-sleeved printed work-smocks from Maui Jim’s Paris runway collection — even as the Thunder pretty much rolled on as the most reliably fun team in the NBA — the narrative of Westbrook as a berserker whose aggression stifled KD didn’t quite die. It would rear its head seasonally, like pollen allergies or Kendrick Perkins’s smile. It became a kind of shadow conventional wisdom, one that could be drawn from whenever Westbrook took a few bad shots, whenever Durant was caught looking glum after a loss. Fair or not, it’s contributed to both mainstream and basketball-nerd interpretations of Westbrook in midcareer.

The version of the Russ Paradox that you’ll run into now, if you listen to Charles Barkley or hang out on basketball Twitter, is basically that Westbrook is so talented that his talent hurts him. He flies too close to the sun, then winds up bobbing in the Aegean surrounded by feathers. It’s not just that he’s selfish or that his shot selection is borderline psychotic or that his fight-or-flight instinct keeps screaming “four-point play!” It’s that he can do anything, so he tries to do everything. The whole idea of #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook is that watching a spectacularly gifted, idiosyncratic player operate without constraints is more fun than watching a clockwork offense — even his misfires are going to be tremendous. But everybody, including his defenders, acknowledges that the misfires are going to come.

And here we are. In 2014, Westbrook embodies a 50-foot inferno of basketball contradictions, some of them innate and some of them imposed from the outside. How you think about system vs. improvisation, how you think about team-building, how you think about position vs. flexibility, how you think about superstardom, how you think about winning vs. entertainment vs. beauty, how you think about green plaid Capri pants — your read on Westbrook is an index to your opinion on all of this, in a way that, say, your read on LeBron doesn’t have to be. No one in the NBA runs (screaming, with his arm upraised for the tomahawk jam) so directly to the heart of so many big open questions about the sport.

Last year, in the playoffs against Houston, Westbrook was sideswiped by Patrick Beverley and came up holding his knee. In a way, sitting out the Thunder’s second-round loss to the Grizzlies, the first games he’d ever missed with injury, was a better answer to his critics than any on-court heroics could have been — it proved Durant couldn’t do it without him. But Westbrook even did injury in the most Westbrookian way possible: from indestructibility to three knee surgeries in less than a year, followed by a comeback in which he somehow still gives every indication of being made of adamantium and rubber.

russglasses

When he’s hurt, OKC feels not just worse but smaller. Durant is a glorious basketball player in just about every way. He’s glorious partly because he’s capable of playing the game in exactly the way he imagines it. But no one is capable of playing the game in exactly the way Westbrook imagines it. He raises the stakes just by walking into the arena. Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see; Westbrook sees a target no one else would even recognize as a target. And once you’ve looked at the moon, how are you supposed to aim at anything else? He’d be the only player in the NBA to vote for an 11-foot rim.

The Thunder will win a championship with Westbrook and Durant or they won’t. Westbrook and Durant will stay together or they’ll move apart. (Can you imagine either one without the other, though, at this point?) Either way, Westbrook is going to fuck up a lot. He’s also going to do things that make you fall out of your chair with pure happiness. Dynasty or no, pairing KD’s unstoppable force with Russ’s profoundly movable object will go down as one of the coolest looks in the basketball cosmos — memorable in ways I suspect won’t become clear until later, when the league has had time to figure out what Westbrook meant. With Ibaka out because of a calf injury, OKC is pretty clearly going to lose this year’s Western Conference finals to the Spurs. Russ had 25 and 7 in Game 1. But watch how this plays out. He’s the most quantum player in basketball. Whatever happens, it won’t be his fault, and whatever happens, it will. 

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Russell Westbrook, Brian Phillips, Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant, UCLA, Kevin Love

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay