Oklahoma City Thunder Roster Evaluation and Player Breakdown: Russell Westbrook

xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxCorrespondent IOctober 25, 2008

Continuing with the breakdown of PGs, we have Russell Westbrook. Westbrook really opened my eyes with his impressive play in the Orlando Summer League. I couldn’t find them televised anywhere, even with NBA TV, but I read the reviews from people that were there.

Having only seen Russell play maybe three times last season at UCLA, I’ll leave this evaluation up to some experts. The guys at Draftexpress saw all the Orlando games, and also evaluated him repeatedly at UCLA.

Jonathan Givony on Day One at Orlando

For the record, Russell’s line was 31 min., 7-13 FG, 1-3 3FG, 3-5 FT, 4 Rebs, 5 Assists, 1 steal, 1 turnover for 18 pts. This was against Indiana’s summer league team, which didn’t have a lot of NBA talent. Nice line!

Givony’s take on Day Two where Russell went for 19 points, three assists and only one turnover

You get the idea. Game Three he had 10 points and three assists, Game Four he went for 19 and three, Game Five he did not play. He was named to the Orlando “first team,” as was Jeff Green. Mario (Pothead) Chalmers was named to the second team, and Derrick Rose was not named after getting hurt.

So, pretty impressive against his peers at the beginning of the curve of NBA life. Prior to the draft, the Draftexpress guru’s gave Russell this breakdown:

Westbrook is especially impressive, despite his tweener status. He has solid size at 6'3", an excellent wingspan, and huge hands, and is one of the most explosive players you’ll find anywhere in the country. Featuring an outstanding first step and terrific strength once in the lane, Westbrook’s ability to elevate off the floor has made his highlight reels the stuff of Youtube legend.

Offensively, Westbrook’s biggest source of production (nearly 30 percent of his offense) curiously comes in transition. He plays a fairly small role in UCLA’s half-court offense (only eight percent of his offense comes from either pick and roll or isolation plays), mostly as a complimentary piece—moving off the ball trying to find holes in the defense to get to the rim with his tremendous strength and leaping ability, or shooting wide open jumpers. It’s pretty clear when breaking down his footage that he lacks quite a bit of polish on this end of the floor, even if he is extremely effective at the few things he does well.

Westbrook’s ball-handling skills are fairly limited, as he has the ability the beat players off the dribble with his tremendous first step going left or right, and is solid getting to the rim in a straight line, but he struggles when trying to do much more than that. He lacks the advanced dribbling skills needed to create his own shot and change directions sharply in the half-court (for example at the end of a shot clock), and thus often looks a bit out of control when dribbling in traffic, forcing him to flip up some awkward shots at the rim. It’s not uncommon to see him called for various violations in the rare occasion that he tries to go out and make something happen on his own, be it traveling calls, palming or offensive fouls.

As far as his jump-shot is concerned, Westbrook is mostly a catch and shoot player, hitting only 18 three-pointers on the season (on a 34.6-percent clip), usually on open looks, in rhythm and with his feet set. His release is not the quickest or most fluid around, and he lacks accuracy when rushed or forced to shoot off the dribble. He has the potential to improve here, but his touch at the moment looks fairly average. In terms of his mid-range game, Westbrook doesn’t show great polish here either, as his shot is a bit flat, and he doesn’t always take advantage of his terrific leaping ability to create separation from his defender with his pull-up jumper. He seems to be showing more and more sparks as the season moves on here, though. He plays within himself, rarely forcing the issue, and thus has done a very good job of not exposing his weaknesses within his team’s system.

As a point guard, Westbrook is not an instinctive play maker, but is very much capable of bringing the ball up the floor and getting his team into its offense. He is smart, patient, and highly unselfish, and possesses the court vision needed to find the open man without hesitation, picking up quite a few assists just by getting the ball to the right place in UCLA’s half-court sets. He lacks some creativity when it comes to improvising outside of his team’s offense, though, and it’s here that his inexperience running the point guard position, along with his average ball-handling skills, seem to show the most. It should be noted that despite his very high assist totals (4.6 per game on the season, compared with just 2.7 turnovers), when taking into account only the most competitive games UCLA was involved with (the eleven which finished within a 10 point margin), his assists per game drop to 3.2, while his turnovers remain at 2.7.

Defensively, Westbrook is nothing short of outstanding, as evidenced by the phenomenal work he did locking down the three top scoring guards in the Pac-10 this season, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, and James Harden. He is long, strong and very fundamentally sound, getting into a terrific defensive stance on every possession, moving his feet incredibly well, and being absolutely tenacious getting after his matchup. His wingspan, combined with his huge hands and outstanding anticipation skills make him a terror in the passing lanes, and this is a big factor why he spends so much time in transition offensively.

So essentially, we have two defensive-minded PGs. Russell is a bit taller than Earl, and is more athletic with longer arms for playing the passing lanes. He sounds like a true team guy with great character. He is more of a tweener guard than a true PG, but really you could make that same argument with Earl as well.

Earl played with Baron Davis at UCLA, and Baron played both guard spots with Earl. Earl has suspect offense—and according to Givony, so does Russell. Russell excels at driving to the rim and finishing, and in the first breakdown I mentioned the same for Earl.

This, along with the pickup of Kyle Weaver—who played some PG in a three guard offense at WSU, and who also excels at defense—and the departure of Luke Ridnour, shows that Presti is doing what he can to reshape the roster with Carleisimo’s favorite dish—defensive-minded players.

Our PG situation has improved with the sendoff of Luke simply because Luke and Earl both wanted to be the starter. Now a hierarchy has been established with Earl as the incumbent starter/mentor for the newbie Russell.  Both are UCLA alums and reported to be very good friends.

My guess is that Kyle will be the No. 3 (just in case) PG behind those two, and that Russell will be given somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes per night.