The Finals was widely perceived as a battle between the super-nice Durant and bad-guy James. In the past week, Westbrook has become No. 1 on the most-wanted list.
But Westbrook is only 23. He’s among the fastest-rising players in a league full of them. He’s the engine that powers a team built to win (big) for a decade or so.
That’s why UCLA Coach Ben Howland chuckles when he hears all the anti-Westbrook stuff.
Westbrook played under Howland at UCLA. In only two years, Westbrook skyrocketed from a lightly recruited high school player, to a college star and top NBA draft pick. The past two seasons, Westbrook has been second-team all-NBA, “and that means he’s one of the top 10 NBA players the last two years,” Howland said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That’s an incredible accomplishment.
“What it says is that he’s one of the best players in the world. He’s only 23 and he keeps getting better and better. He really does a nice job of keeping positive, because if he worried about all the negativity that’s constantly being thrown at him, it would be very hard for him” to do his job.
Westbrook competes as if he must win to eat. He practices harder than many players play. He attacks the rim as if it said something rude about his mother.
“We just wouldn’t be where we are without Russell,” Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti said recently. “So much of our team’s personality, and what we want to become, comes from Russell’s drive and competitiveness.”
During an era in which everyone capable of operating a computer is an expert, Westbrook’s brilliance is often misunderstood.
“It’s not just the constant media attention when you’re talking about Twitter and all the social media sites,” Howland said. “Anybody can get on the Internet, then all of a sudden, they have a voice. Then they know it all.”
Although Howland is one of Westbrook’s biggest supporters, even he acknowledges Westbrook has room for improvement. No less an authority than Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, who set the standard for the point guard position the way Johnny Unitas defined playing quarterback in the NFL, was hypercritical of Westbrook after the Thunder dropped Game 2 at Oklahoma City.
“No one is perfect,” Howland said. “Russell understands that. That’s why he works so hard.
“Just like LeBron has, Russell is getting so much criticism. But when you see how they’ve played . . . it’s really doesn’t add up.”
At this stage of his nascent career, Westbrook is not a finished product — were you at 23? But he’ll probably need to win a championship to end (reduce?) the barrage of arrows directed at him. James is one victory away from doing just that.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/reid.