Coach K lauds Westbrook's athleticism, versatility

LAS VEGAS – USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski wants the calling card of this summer’s Men’s National Team to be its pressure defense.

And when it comes to ball hounds, Krzyzewski ranks Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Boston’s Rajon Rondo among the game’s elite.

Only two days in and Westbrook has already stood out for his defensive prowess, which drew praise from Krzyzewski.

“Russell is a top-percentile athlete who wants to be outstanding,” Krzyzewski said. “The more I’m around him the more I love him because he loves to pressure the ball. But I think he can defend off the ball, too. I think he’ll do whatever you want him to do to win. The fact that he has that off the ball experience helps.”

Westbrook has gained that experience in his two years with the Thunder, when he’s been asked to defend both point guards and shooting guards. And it’s that kind of experience that bodes well for Westbrook in his attempt to earn a roster spot on the team that will represent the U.S. at the World Championships next month.

Westbrook, sporting a mohawk and wearing No. 31, carried his usual cocksure attitude and remained a man of few words on Wednesday. Like the rest of his Thunder teammates, he rarely talks openly about himself or his performance. But he’s been pleased with the start of training camp.

“I was getting used to the ball, spacing,” he said. “It’s kind of like college again – you can sit in the paint, come over to the weak side more. I was just getting used to that.”

His teammates are getting used to watching him go hard on the defensive end even during scrimmages.

“Defensively,” veteran Chauncey Billups said, “he took the challenge every time down.”

Added forward Kevin Durant: “He’s just guarding guys 94 feet and playing hard on defense and using his athleticism to get to the rim.”

Westbrook shrugged before giving a light-hearted response.

“I’ve been known to do that back in my younger days,” he cracked. “I just try to go out and be myself, go out and defend and play offense off my defense. That’s just how I do it.”

It’s how Westbrook has always done it. And it’s also how Krzyzewski wants the team to get it done at the World Championship.

Through the first two days of camp, Krzyzewski has stressed the need to pressure the ball defensively similar to how the 2008 Olympic team did with guards like Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. That backcourt was anchored by either Chris Bosh or Dwight Howard at center and Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James at power forward.

But this year’s player pool doesn’t have that kind of size or definition up front with Amar’e Stoudemire (insurance with contract), Robin Lopez (rehabilitation) and David Lee (finger) already out for the week, which is why Krzyzewski said it imperative for the guards to add pressure up top, deny the first pass and try to create turnovers in the backcourt.

“If we can coordinate that denial , and if everyone is out in passing lanes instead of getting back, maybe you can hedge and gamble a little bit more,” Krzyzewski said.

Versatility and athleticism are strengths for this year’s team, and Krzyzewski likes how all the guards in camp have the ability to play off the ball on both ends of the floor, which is why he won’t label it a point guard competition this week.

Whether four or five guards make the roster will depend on chemistry and how they fit within the offensive schemes. The coaching staff plans to rotate the backcourt pairings this week to find the right combinations. On Tuesday, Westbrook shared the backcourt with O.J. Mayo. On Wednesday, Westbrook was on the same team as Billups during a scrimmage. After each session, Krzyzewski said he’s gauged them for their comfort levels.

Offensively, Westbrook has been playing off the ball since his years at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif. to his two seasons at UCLA when he shared a backcourt with Darren Collison. Westbrook didn’t start playing point guard on a full-time basis until he arrived to the NBA. Even this past season, there were many instances where he played off the ball alongside rookie point guard Eric Maynor. So the prospect of not always having the ball in his hands at all times this summer wouldn’t be foreign to Westbrook. And it’s something he’s onboard with.

“That’s not a problem,” he said. “Whatever it takes to win.”

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