How OKC Thunder's Russell Westbrook Took the Next Step This Season

Bradlee RossCorrespondent IIJanuary 23, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22:  Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder react after a 109-97 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Russell Westbrook is not the traditional point guard that many believe is vital for a team to win a championship. Instead, he is taking the next step in his development as one of the NBA’s best combo guards.

Westbrook’s 100-mile-per-hour style of play frustrates basketball purists and wows basketball fans, but neither group can accurately deny that this young player is improving year-by-year.

The 2012-13 season has been his best year as a point guard yet. And despite what his critics have chided about, Westbrook has been able to improve as a point guard without having to sacrifice much of the scoring ability and high-flying athleticism that also makes him such a tough cover individually.

The biggest way in which Westbrook has really improved has been his ability to run an offense and find the open man with the right pass.

He is currently averaging 8.2 assists per game, which is good enough for fifth in the NBA. He has also done a decent job of controlling his turnover problem, as the only player in the top five in assists that averages fewer turnovers is Chris Paul.

A look at Westbrook’s advanced statistics tells a major story on how much better the Thunder are at taking care of the ball when he is on the court.

During the minutes he spends on the bench, the Thunder average almost three more turnovers per 48 minutes and more than one fewer assist. To compare, the Thunder’s numbers per 48 minutes in these areas during the 2011-12 season remained almost unchanged whether Westbrook was on the court or not.

Online Graphing
Create a graph

While part of that has to do with the loss of a talented ball-handler like James Harden, an equal part also must lie in the fact that Westbrook has improved his “point guard” abilities.

Westbrook has also made great strides in other parts of his game, such as rebounding and long-range shooting.

He currently leads the league (along with Rajon Rondo) in terms of point guard rebounding at 5.3 per game (a career-high).  Westbrook also ties for second in the league in terms of rebounds by a point guard per 48 minutes.

His effort on the boards has been majorly renewed this season, especially when it comes to getting offensive boards that keep possessions alive. His 1.5 offensive boards per game leads the league for all point guards and shooting guards.

One thing that has never been a strong suit of Westbrook is three-point shooting. That does not mean, however, that he has been shy about taking long-range shots.

He is shooting a career-high 34.5 percent from the three-point line this season, which he has used to his advantage by also shooting a career high 4.1 three-point attempts per game. While that stat is not a huge jump, it does show that Westbrook is trying to add to his game. That is an encouraging sign to see in any young player.

The biggest step that Westbrook has taken personally this season may be just realizing who he is, both on this Thunder team and in the larger scope of the NBA.

And it appears that he is content with being a villain.

Westbrook is an emotional player who does not apologize for his play. While he may make a boneheaded mistake here or there because of that emotion, it is also that emotion and guts that spur him to make many of the amazing plays he makes on a nightly basis.

He plays his game and plays it like the star he is. While many criticize him for doing so on a team that he shares with Durant, this tenacity and confidence is a huge part of why Oklahoma City is one of the NBA’s best.

Westbrook has taken the biggest step he could have this season by completely shutting off the part of his brain that would care what others think of his game. His timeout “performance” at Denver a short time ago was proof of that.

Despite what his critics say, Westbrook is a young player who is developing into a great combo guard who has the unique ability to score and play point guard. He has taken major steps this season to get better and shows no signs of slowing down in the years to come.

He is embracing his role in this NBA and is thriving in it.

Some will never give him his due as one of the best in the NBA.  Westbrook will never care.

 All statistics used in this article are accurate as of January 23, 2013.