Posted Dec 4 2010 12:00PM
NEWARK, NJ -- Two-thirds of NBA general managers predicted that Kevin Durant would win the MVP award this season. But through 20 games, Durant hasn't been the best player on his own team.
In his third year in the league, Russell Westbrook's game has taken another step forward, putting his name among the top point guards in the NBA while helping the Oklahoma City Thunder survive Durant's early struggles and injuries.
Westbrook is the only player in the league in the top seven in both scoring and assists. There's still a lot of basketball to be played, but at this point, he's on pace to be only the sixth player in NBA history to average at least 24 points, five rebounds and eight assists in a season.
The other five: Oscar Robertson (10 times), Wilt Chamberlain (1967-68), LeBron James (2009-10), Michael Jordan (1988-89) and Gary Payton (1999-00).
Westbrook's 24.4 points per game is an increase of over eight from last season, and his 8.5 assists per contest are also a career high. Through Friday, he ranks third in the league in efficiency, behind only Pau Gasol and Chris Paul. And he's led the Thunder to a 3-1 record without Durant.
"He's playing like an MVP this year," Durant said Wednesday.
Part of Westbrook's increase in production is certainly owed to opportunity. Even when Durant has been in uniform, though he's leading the league in scoring, he's struggled with his shot. So the Thunder have needed an offensive boost from KD's supporting cast. Still, Westbrook's outburst is about more than a few extra shots per game.
When you notice Westbrook's increased confidence and aggressiveness, you can't help but think back to this summer's World Championship, when he was arguably the second or third best player on the U.S. Team that won gold in Istanbul. Among a strong group of point guards, Westbrook was thought to be on the roster bubble in the weeks leading up to the tournament. But his versatility allowed coach Mike Krzyzewski to play him at small forward, and in the end, he was the player who best represented the team identity: small, fast, and relentlessly aggressive.
In the same vein, no player in the NBA better represents a group of young point guards that thrives on speed and freakish athleticism more than court vision and distribution. Jason Kidd could dunk back in the day, but he never did anything like this or this.
Westbrook was a freak the day he was drafted, of course. And though he didn't fit the mold of an NBA floor general, Thunder general manager Sam Presti saw the kind of player he wanted to add to his young team.
"One of the reasons that we valued Russell through the draft process was his makeup," Presti said this week. "He's a guy that has great internal discipline about improvement. I think that he focuses on the work and really trusts his work ethic."
It's been through hard work and maturity that Westbrook has turned into a player that will deserve serious All-Star consideration this season. The hard work has produced sharper ball-handling skills and a much improved pull-up game. And with the maturity comes leadership and the knowledge that he doesn't need to make the play on every possession.
Though Westbrook has taken on a bigger load offensively this season, he's shooting much more efficiently, and his turnover rate (per possession) is down slightly from last year.
"He's learning the game," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "But the thing you don't have to teach him is the effort. He brings the effort every night."
The World Championship brought lessons from teammate Chauncey Billups on mental focus and decision-making. But it also helped Westbrook know that he's among the best players on the planet. He has always had a certain swagger about him, and his confidence was only helped by his performance in Istanbul.
"That was a big step for me to be able to play with a group of those guys throughout the summer and definitely to be able to come out with the victory," he said. "That was definitely a confidence booster."
Westbrook's still got a long way to go. His jumper needs refining, and his decision-making can still improve. But he just turned 22 in November and as each year goes by, the game will slow down for him even more.
"I think he's continuing to gain experience, continuing to understand what Scott wants from him on a night-to-night basis," Presti said. "That's an ongoing process, an evolutional thing for a young player, let alone a young point guard. I don't think there's necessarily a specific thing I'd point to [that Westbrook needs to improve most]. Our team is still evolving and our team is still a work in progress."
To some, the Thunder's start has been disappointing. Many thought they would be the second best team in the Western Conference this season. But as Durant gets healthy and finds his rhythm, Oklahoma City may be the scariest team in the league. Because now, they have two MVP candidates.
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