Posted Dec 15 2009 8:35AM
They have had the talk many times, the coach and his point guard.
Make the basic pass, Scott Brooks tells Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook listens and understands and even agrees.
"The simple play is always best," he says at another time, when Brooks is not around.
This has been going on for months. Brooks using his background to teach Westbrook, and the risky decision playing out.
The final major act of the Seattle SuperSonics -- before the most major act of hitting the lights -- was to use the fourth choice in the 2008 draft on a point guard who had never really been a point guard. About to begin a new life as the Oklahoma City Thunder, they projected that a mega-athlete who could rocket to the rim and potentially defend at an elite level would learn the position that more than any other is based on intuition over studying scouting reports. And general manager Sam Presti, at the time a year into his tenure as one of the bright young minds of the front-office world, has basically been proven right. Westbrook averaged 15.3 points last season without a perimeter game, along with 5.3 assists and an impressive 4.9 rebounds, and received the third-most votes in the coach's survey for the All-Rookie team. Vindication.
But Westbrook is also fourth in the league in turnovers heading into Tuesday's schedule and, worst of all, the numbers were not getting better -- from one every 9.7 minutes in 2008-09 (3.3 per outing in 32.5 minutes) to one every 9.5 minutes in 2009-10 (3.6 in 34.4 minutes). This after the Thunder stayed off point-guard alley in the '09 draft and took shooting guard James Harden over Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Brandon Jennings.
"It's going to take time," Westbrook reminded. "I'm going to take it game by game and try to get better from there."
The commitment to Westbrook continuing to have the ball in his hands is obvious, not to mention understandable given his potential as an electric two-way player. This was always going to be more patience than seamless transition and immediate payday. But the young Thunder have developed into playoff contenders a quarter of the way into the season on the wings of Kevin Durant and every outcome matters. Therefore, every possession matters.
"I'm not frustrated at all," Westbrook said. "It comes with the territory of playing the point guard. A lot of other players around the league turn the ball over as well. I'm just going to go out every day and continue to do what I do."
Indeed, the cluster at the top of the turnover list is welcome company: Monta Ellis was leading the league (4.3 a game), Steve Nash is second (3.8) and Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James and Westrook (3.7) are in a three-way tie for third. Durant is sixth (3.6) and a host of familiar names -- Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade among them -- round out the top 10 . Suddenly, Westbrook doesn't seem to have such a problem.
Ellis is playing nearly seven minutes more a night and averaging 24.0 points as the No. 1 scoring weapon on the Warriors and shooting 45 percent for a team that pushes the ball a lot more than Oklahoma City. Nash is No. 1 in assists. James is James. Arenas is averaging 20.7 points.
Westbrook, meanwhile, is at 16.1 points and 39.9 percent with a worse assist-to-turnover ratio than any of the top five except Ellis.
"What I talk to Russell about is, we just have to keep making it simple," said Brooks, the former veteran guard. "We can't do the risky passes. We can't pass it to a voice. We've got to make sure the player on your team is wide open. Just keep it simple. He's had a couple of bad-turnover games, but for the most part, I think he's done a pretty good job. You can't take away those bad-turnover games that he's had, but you can use it as a lesson. Those high-turnover games usually happen with the more-risky passes.
"His intentions are good, which I like. I like Russell passing the basketball. He's a terrific scorer. He can score, he's talented, he's gifted, he's strong, he's quick, he can jump, he has a nice little touch and he's doing a better job of finishing around the basket. I like the fact that he is an unselfish player. If you continue to try to make the right play, good things are going to continue to happen."
The commitment will carry on and so, undoubtedly, will the talks between the coach and the second-year player. Make the basic pass. The simple play is always best. Point guard stuff.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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