Practice Day One: Integrating Westbrook
The most important and highest profile new Laker amongst nine such players heading into the 2021-22 season is, of course, Russell Westbrook.
We know that the Lakers have retained only three players from the 2020-21 roster: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker. But, at least in this space, we’re counting two more players – Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo – for the continuity aspect, since they helped the Lakers secure the 2020 title.
Meanwhile, several other players have been Lakers in the past, albeit with entirely different teammates: Trevor Ariza (2007-09); Kent Bazemore (2013-14); and Wayne Ellington (2014-15).
Westbrook has never played for the Lakers, but did grow up in Los Angeles as a Lakers fan, and attend UCLA for two years. And he’s particularly motivated to try and fast track that process of fitting in with his new teammates, especially his new superstar teammates.
“My job is to make sure I uplift ‘Bron, AD, make sure those guys are competing at the highest level and making sure I make my teammates around me better,” Westbrook said on Media Day.
LeBron, as we’ve seen on his social media accounts, has been “tied at the hip” with Westbrook since the latter was traded to the Lakers.
“He’s very passionate about the sport, very passionate about his craft and very passionate about putting in the work,” said LeBron. “One thing about it is I can respect all those things. We've been tied at the hip, pretty much, since we made the acquisition. We're going to continue to be that. We're going to hold each other accountable. AD's going to hold us accountable. We're going to hold AD accountable because it's going to start and end with us. We look forward to that and we look forward getting better and figuring out ways we can be the best team we can be.”
“It’s been great,” Westbrook added about his relationship with LeBron growing. “Like I said, when you come to a new place, and obviously me and Bron have been friends before I came here, but actually being on the same team and understanding his work ethic, understanding mine, understanding the preparation, understanding how bad he wants to win and the things he’s able to do to prepare himself allows me to see a different side of him where we connected. I think it’s good because we both understand and know what it takes to be able to win.
“But obviously ‘Bron knows what it takes to get to that next level, and I’m able to kind of learn and understand some things from him along the way, and I’ve been able to do that.”
That last point is perhaps the most important thing to hear. There are only so many people in the world that have the gravitas and knowledge, and that could demand that level of respect from a player of Westbrook’s caliber. LeBron, perhaps singularly, is that guy for Westbrook.
Now, LeBron doesn’t expect everything to be perfect from Day 1, but he’s confident that it will all be figured out … this isn’t LeBron’s first time, after all.
“I watch enough sports and enough basketball, obviously, to know what I need to do to help the ballclub depending on the acquisitions we make each year,” he said. “So, I'm very cerebral about what I need to do in order for our team to be as great as we can be and also being able to counterpart with what Russ brings to the table. And all the other guys that we have as well. I'm personally not worried about trying to fit with Russ or fit with D. Wade* or fit with AD when they made the acquisitions. I always figure it out. I'm not worried about that. I don't think it's going to be like peanut butter and jelly to start the season, but that's all part of the process and all part of my work. That's all part of it. I like to actually put in the work to get it how great it can be.”
*When LeBron and Dwyane Wade played together in Miami.
Westbrook is always going to bring his best effort, but it doesn’t hurt that he’s back in his hometown.
“There’s always been conversations about me coming home for every summer damn near,” he explained. “I never really thought it would actually kind of pull through until, obviously, now. So to be able to sit here and talk to you guys and be in this Laker uniform is just a blessing for me and my family and my loved ones and the people here that support me. Especially being from LA, and being able to be back home finally is just a blessing. I’m happy and super excited about it.”
Westbrook added that he doesn’t take for granted the mere fact of having access to the Lakers facility.
“I don’t take any opportunity to be able to have a job, be able to have somewhere to be able to go to work, especially even more now than ever,” he added. “I do not take anything for granted, especially being able to play for the Lakers, being back home. It’s just a blessing and I cherish every morning. I’m going to make sure I continue to go out and play and do the best I can for the Lakers.”
After Wednesday’s practice, which included full court 5-on-5 scrimmages with refs, I asked Frank Vogel what stood out to him about Westbrook.
“It’s noticeable how different the speed looks, A, in front of you in practice, and B, on your side,” said Vogel. “It’s really exciting. I’m going to be honest … he’s just a blur out there with his open court speed, and even half court downhill speed.
“His first practice, he was basically a paint-to-great factory all practice long. He was just getting in the paint and finding people either for lobs or for threes all practice long. It was very encouraging.”
So, it’s only been one day on the court. But the experience of the veteran teammates around Westbrook, and LeBron specifically, are fast-tracking an integration process that could wind up taking less time than expected.
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