We’ve been high on the Thunder all season, but even we were impressed to see just how fast the young guns in Oklahoma City have put the pieces together. Coach Scott Brooks, GM Sam Presti and everyone in the organization have managed intelligently â€“ and drafted high-character guys â€“ to build a team that will challenge in the Western Conference for years to come. And after last night’s 101-96 statement win against the defending champs, they look poised to make some noise right now. Kevin Durant is going to consistently drop near 30 points a game, Jeff Green is far better than he’s given credit for and rookie Serge Ibaka is emerging as a defensive force in the post. But the key to the Thunder’s success is their second-year point guard, Russell Westbrook.
Three games into his first playoff series as a pro and Russ is averaging 23 and 5 â€“ including the 27 and 4 he dropped last night. With the Thunder’s impressive win, it gave us an opportunity to highlight the young floor general a little more. In Dime #56, which is on newsstands now, I caught up with Westbrook and his confidants from high school, college and the pros to show just why the Thunder â€“ and nation â€“ are so giddy about this kid’s upside.
Humility is a rare trait to finding swimming in the surplus of fame and NBA dollars. This is never more evident than in the City of Angels, where wealth and power is glorified to the masses. For second-year guard Russell Westbrook, a reserved and humble guy in his own right, L.A. is home. Gone from the West Coast only in body, Russ has now set up shop in a land far removed from the warmth and media monsters of Cali: Oklahoma.
Growing up in Los Angeles, you can either learn to adapt to its hustle and thrive, or be eaten alive by its people and by its streets. Life in L.A. runs on a sunshine state of mind; no disrespect to Jay, but this is the real concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Entertainment isn’t just a side project, it’s ingrained in the very fiber of the city. In what might as well be damn near across the globe, one of Hollywood’s own flesh and blood, Russell Westbrook, is turning Oklahoma â€“ yeah, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains â€“ into the NBA’s next hottest place to ball.
@russwest44: La La land goodmorning…..
It’s nearly Christmas and Russell has just arrived back home to face off against the Lakers for the third time this season; he’s been blowing up his Twitter feed with travel updates all week long. This is where he’s most comfortable, as this is where his family was built and where his passion for the game started. From high school in nearby Lawndale to college at UCLA in Westwood, Westbrook is more than proud to lay claim to his Southern California roots.
“I love L.A., I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” says Westbrook halfway through our conversation. Only immediately after we started jawing about life on the Left Coast, did I realize just how much Westbrook is truly passionate about this place.
He’s a fun and mellow guy for the most part â€“ it’s pretty tough to rattle him â€“ mirroring his attitude and demeanor on the hardwood. He’s also kept his nose clean in both the private and public eye, not always the easiest task coming up in L.A. where distractions lie on every street corner. Although Westbrook wasn’t raised on one of the city’s famous slew of rough blocks â€“ he didn’t grow up in Watts or North Compton, nor in the thick of Inglewood â€“ it was hardly tourist-friendly. But despite attending high school in a town that boasts itself in the 80th percentile in violent crimes statewide, Westbrook managed to keep his focus goal oriented and was able to bypass the negative temptations of his peers â€“ thanks in large part to his tight-knit family.
“I would say Russell grew up the majority of his life, probably in South Central,” says Reggie Morris, his coach at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, Calif. “Yeah, he grew up in a rough part [of town] but he had his mom and his dad and they always steered him straight.
“Russell’s always been probably the nicest kid I’ve ever been around. He’s a really tough kid, but he was really nice at the same time. That, and he’s the most coachable kid I’ve ever had too.”
“Just living with my parents and making the right decisions,” says Westbrook. “I mean that’s basically not going into different things, like going out too much. Just stay humble and continue to work on your game and get better.” At Leuzinger, Russell was able to do just that, while coasting largely under the national recruiting blanket.
As Morris remembers, Westbrook came to him a frail 5-9, 140-pound freshman who clearly had the potential for the collegiate level, but his outside package deterred possible suitors from taking a chance. (Kent State, San Diego and Loyola Marymount were the only schools recruiting him before senior year.) And in what everyone from Morris to former Bruins teammates Darren Collison, Kevin Love and Arron Afflalo all point to Westbrook as his greatest attributes, his attitude and work ethic, have helped evolve Russell from overlooked into NBA star.
“Russell has never really been a high profile guy, [until] now of course,” says Afflalo. “Anybody that loves the game and works at it like he does, is going to have some success.”
Success to date is an understatement. After finding his way to UCLA, it took only two years for the NBA to snatch Westbrook up from Westwood with the fourth overall selection in 2008 to Oklahoma City â€“ the team’s first draft pick since displacing from Seattle. Used primarily as a shooting guard in college, few thought Russell could make such a smooth transition to successful League point guard; alas, the doubters were unaware of Westbrook’s relentless pursuit of improvement. As a rook last season, Westbrook averaged just over 15 and five a game, while also being named to the NBA All-Rookie team. As of press time in his second go-round, he is putting up 16 and 7.5 a game for the 31-22 Thunder. Growing up in Southern L.A. was one thing, but Westbrook’s new home would prove to be a much bigger challenge. To live and die in O.K.L.A.
@russwest44: On the bus ..omw too play the lakers…time too get it… Hit y’all after…
Russ rocks a new tune these days, one that’s more rooted in cowboys and tumbleweeds than the rhymes of Blu and Pac. In a state more associated with tornado drills than layup lines, the Thunder have created a loyal fan base and national identity thanks in large part to Westbrook and Co. Centered around a core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, rookie James Harden and Westbrook, Oklahoma has gone from a virtual Lottery-lock, to potential playoff spoiler this season. Before GM genius Sam Presti gambled on selecting Westbrook over more coveted options in Eric Gordon and Jerryd Bayless in ’08, little connected the Oceanside guard with the nation’s 45th largest media market other than Route 66.
“Uh [there was] a little culture shock yeah. I mean the weather â€“ I’ve never been in any snow â€“ so that was a little different for me,” laughs Westbrook. “You know I had never witnessed cold weather like this.”
Cold aside, Westbrook has become a cornerstone of the Thunder’s franchise and a face to the community of Oklahoma City â€“ which is more of a tech-savvy metropolitan than it’s given credit for (i.e. some writer claiming cowboys and tumbleweeds). That’s not to say he doesn’t try to bring a little West Coast flavor into the jugular of Middle America, “I mean I got to keep it West Coast,” he says. His entertaining personality is infectious and has spurred his teammates to become online video stars with multiple self-produced Twitter music lip syncs.
“He’s just a goofball, but Russell’s been great for us â€“ especially off the court because he’s so laid back, so chill and considerate of other people; he’s just a nice guy,” says Durant. “And that’s something that you just don’t see in a lot of people, especially superstars in this league.”
The unique chemistry of the Thunder is evident in its production on the court; through 32 games last season, the Thunder went 3-29. They won 18 games in that same span this year. Before being drafted, the 6-3 Westbrook had never been to Oklahoma; now, it seems like he couldn’t envision himself anywhere else.
“My thought was to go in â€“ it was a new opportunity, new city, great fans â€“ and just go in there and try to get better,” says Westbrook. “I mean, we’re all young and they’re real cool guys and that’s big for us. That’s getting better as a team, as teammates and especially on the court.”
And OKC is only going to get better. Westbrook plays with a real passion and desire for the game of basketball that is fueled by his elite athleticism. A monster in transition and beyond affecting the passing lanes with his length, Russell moves effortlessly through traffic and off the pick and roll. His main weakness coming into the League was his jump shot â€“ something that he must continue to improve â€“ but his strong core enables him to get better looks at off-balance jumpers and when finishing in the lane. While transitioning to lead ball handler, his passing has increased tremendously (already 14 double-digit assist games at press time, compared to nine all of last season). But what probably stands as Westbrook’s greatest asset, is his defense; both perimeter defense and on-ball work is a direct result of that relentless pursuit.
“He’s a tremendous player and has a really bright future,” says Love. “I think in time he will be a triple-double guy who gets them consistently.”
When the Thunder finally did make it to the Staples Center on December 22, the hometown kid delivered nothing short of spectacular; Westbrook collected 21 points, seven boards and 13 assists against the reigning champs. With OKC down 111-108 and the clock waning in its final seconds, Russell was green-lighted with the game-tying three; however, fortune would send it off the rim in an un-homely like bounce. His team would soon respond: winning 11 of its next 15 games after leaving Los Angeles.
Through both his team’s successes and his own personal triumphs, Westbrook has been able to consistently show another coveted trait: resilience. There’s no question that in time we may be seeing Westbrook near the top of the point guard food chain in the NBA â€“ he certainly has the ability and work ethic to do so. But no matter where his career goes from here, the sensation from sunny L.A. is just truly happy to be a part of the show.
“Honestly…honestly I didn’t [think I’d be here]. Just trying to continue to work and try to continue to get better you know and God’s willing I mean, I’m here now.”
Follow Jack on Twitter at @jensenjack.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DIMEMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.