Russell Westbrook continues his climb
Looks like he was ready after all, huh?
UCLA fans grimaced when freshman Kevin Love entered the NBA draft in the spring of 2008, even though they knew all along he would. They were aghast when sophomore Russell Westbrook, then known as Russell He’s Not Ready Westbrook, did it.
Now, it’s more like the NBA isn’t ready for Russell Westbrook.
Watching him drive, cock the ball behind his ear and prepare to tomahawk one on the Lakers, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t dunk until his senior year at Leuzinger High.
Nor was he recruited by the majors. He was headed for UC San Diego until Jordan Farmar left and UCLA gave him a belated offer.
As a freshman shooting guard, he played nine minutes a game.
Westbrook didn’t move to the point until the start of his sophomore season when he filled in for injured Darren Collison.
Or as Westbrook says of his rocket ride from Leuzinger to stardom:
“I just tried to continue to work, and everything just played out by itself and worked out. I ended up getting drafted and I’ve continued to play and I’m just blessed to be in this position.”
That says it all.
Or not. UCLA people used to say Westbrook was the nicest young man in the program but he was also shy and didn’t like talking about himself.
In two seasons in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he may never have answered a question from the press without saying he has to “continue to work” or “continue to play.”
So, who is this guy?
“Everybody loved the talent,” Clippers General Manager Neil Olshey said of the days leading up to the 2008 draft.
“Most teams, that thought he’d be a great utility player had him in the lottery in the 9-14 range.
“Two teams, Memphis and Oklahoma City, believed he could play point guard. The Thunder wound up taking him at No. 4.
“Now that he’s playing point guard, he dominates other people at the position with his athleticism. There won’t be another point guard in the league with a body like that until next season.”
[That’s an allusion to Kentucky’s John Wall, the frontrunner to be the No. 1 overall pick.]
“Russell’s very strong. He’s built like a linebacker. And you’ll never find a nicer kid. He’s a special kid.”
The Lakers are right up there with any team that wasn’t ready for Westbrook.
At 35, Derek Fisher, the bulldog who has hung in against top point guards all his career, suddenly has a high-bounding 6-3 version of Julius Erving on his hands.
After Game 1, Kobe Bryant, 31, was asked how the Lakers can handle the Thunder’s quickness.
“Give them a cushion,” he said, grinning. “They all run like deer....
“I’m not catching Russell Westbrook.”
The Thunder players can jump too, 17 blocks worth in Game 2, seven by backup-center-but-not-for-long Serge Ibaka.
In the good news for Lakers fans, Phil Jackson has won titles with teams a lot older than this one, like the 1998 Chicago Bulls team that started Michael Jordan, 35, Dennis Rodman, 37, Ron Harper, 34, and Scottie Pippen 32.
So this ain’t over yet, assuming Jackson is back, of course.
The Lakers’ advantage, which has held so far against the Thunder, is length and skill level, enabling them, as Fisher said when Andrew Bynum returned to practice, “to play volleyball above everybody’s heads.”
Well, in theory.
Someone — me, actually — claimed the Thunder’s small front line made Oklahoma City a fortunate matchup.
It’s looking less fortunate by the minute, with the Thunder packing the lane tightly, taking away the Lakers’ inside game.
Bynum and Lamar Odom have 30 points total in two games. Pau Gasol has 44, but a lot were perimeter jump shots.
Shooting isn’t one of the Lakers’ strengths, but the Thunder is now making them show they can win, over the top.
In the bad news in Lakerdom and the rest of the West, the Thunder is just warming up.
Whether it’s ready for prime time, it won’t be hard to upgrade from the two-headed monster at center, Nenad Krstic and Nick Collison, and at shooting guard, where Thabo Sefolosha, who always winds up with open shots — by design — averaged 6.0 in the season, and is at 4.5 in the postseason, shooting two for 11.
If you think it will be a hot time in the old town for the Lakers on this trip, wait till the spring of 2012.