Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

No Longer Just A Sidekick

It’s only apt that the Dark Knight Rises hits theatres later this year. After all, there is a new Robin in town -- and he goes by the name, Russell Westbrook. Of course, Westbrook might be offended at the comparison with Batman’s illustrious sidekick, for 2011-12 is fast turning into the season when the Oklahoma City Thunder’s elite point-guard is stepping out of Kevin Durant’s shadow and making a mark of his own.

Look at Westbrook’s numbers in recent games. 27 points in a blowout win against Chicago on Sunday night. Before that, he notched up 36 points against the Lakers on March 29 after pouring in a career-high 45 points in 50 minutes against Minnesota on March 23. Be it Orlando, Boston, Denver, Dallas or Memphis, the best in the league have suffered at the hands of the 23-year-old Long Beach, California native this season. Kevin Durant may have led the league in scoring for two seasons in a row while having made it to the All-Star game for three years in succession, but Westbrook’s transformation into an explosive offensive option has indisputably played as much of a role in OKC being crowned No. 1 for the first time ever in the latest installment of NBA Power Rankings.

More importantly, Westbrook’s 24.4 PPG this season mean that the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are no longer the most dangerous one-two punch on the offensive end like they were in 2010-11 (52.2 PPG combined in 2010-11). That distinction is now enjoyed by Durant and Westbrook whose 51.9 PPG in the ’11-’12 campaign is at least two points clear of the 49.3 PPG clocked by James (26.5 PPG) and Wade (22.8 PPG).

Westbrook, undoubtedly, has come a long way from the time he and his father, Russell Westbrook Sr., would practice for hours together on improving Westbrook Jr.’s game. According to an article written on ESPN.com in April 2010, sports writer Arash Markazi had quoted Westbrook Sr. on his son’s commitment to practice by writing, “If he had practice from 7 to 9 p.m., we would go shoot 9 to 11 p.m. We would shoot for hours and it was that extra effort that got him to where he's at. It's something he wanted to do. I remember one Christmas he caught me off-guard and said, ‘Dad, let's go shoot.’ He would want to shoot right after we got home from church, too. That's all he wanted to do.”

But that dedication to honing his skill was just one aspect of Westbrook wanting to become a better player. Markazi revealed another, more inspiring, influence on Westbrook’s life, which “triggered a fire inside of him [Westbrook] that continues to burn.”

Apparently, when Westbrook was growing up, his best mate was one, Khelcey Barrs. The two were inseparable from each other with Westbrook’s 5-foot-8, 140-pound frame at that time complementing Barrs’ 6-6, 200-pound, small forward role on the basketball court. The two even dreamt of being teammates in college, but, in a cruel twist of events, Barrs collapsed and died during a routine pickup game in 2004. Westbrook was only 15 at the time of Barrs’ death.

Since that tragic event, Markazi noted, Westbrook has wanted to be the “best point guard on the planet.” He realized that objective partly at UCLA where, in his sophomore season, Westbrook averaged 12.7 points and 4.3 assists and was also named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Westbrook’s tough-as-nails attitude, who didn’t back down in the eye of a challenge, impressed many, including Oklahoma City GM, Sam Presti, who subsequently drafted him fourth overall in the 2008 NBA draft.

Then, having come within the NBA fold, Westbrook stoked his inner fire to improve even more. From averaging 15.3 PPG and 5.3 APG in his first season, Westbrook had a breakthrough campaign in 2010-’11 when his 21.9 PPG and 8.2 APG had many experts commenting on him being selected as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. And even though Minnesota’s Kevin Love was the eventual winner of that award, Westbrook’s 23.8 PPG and 6.4 APG in the 2011 postseason ensured that the Thunder made their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since the franchise came into existence at the beginning of the ’08 season.

But where there is success, controversy is sure to follow. Despite Westbrook’s stellar improvement and OKC’s ascent in the league, there was speculation that all wasn’t well between the Thunder’s All-Stars. That Westbrook wasn’t content ceding the leadership role on the team to Kevin Durant. Yet, as the wins stacked up and OKC made its way to the top of the Western Conference standings, the Thunder were quick to sign Westbrook on to a five-year $80 million extension in January 2012. Westbrook even used the moment to do away with the rumors of the rift between Durant and him by saying, “Me and Kevin get along great on and off the floor, and now we're going to be together for at least five more years. Hopefully we can stay together.”

However, even if the issues with Durant have been sorted out, if they ever existed in the first place, Westbrook still has work to do on his game. He is among the top three players who turn the ball over the most in the league this season. In Oklahoma’s most recent defeat against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, Westbrook alone accounted for five of the Thunder’s 18 turnovers. Also, Westbrook’s 5.4 APG this season underscore his inclination now to shoot the ball first, which is fine if you are averaging 24.4 PPG, but can hurt the team if the OKC point-guard has an off night shooting from the field.

Yet, as Sekou Smith pointed out, “It’s been a season filled with signature moments from the Thunder star (not named Kevin Durant) that has forced many of us who were critical of Westbrook’s game in the past to reconsider our evaluations of what work he could do in a tandem with one of the league’s other bright young stars. Westbrook’s already made his way into the Top 5 on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. And for whatever it’s worth, his usage rate this season ranks slightly above Durant’s.”

Never mind Batman, Khelcey Barrs would have been proud of his friend.

All stats are after games played on April 3, 2012 (IST)