Russell Westbrook, Scoring Machine: Knows What He Wants, Wants What He Knows

Mar. 27, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) shoots the ball over Portland Trail Blazers guard Nolan Smith (4) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Westbrook scored 32 points as the Thunder won the game 109-95. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

Russell Westbrook's latest scoring binge in the past seven days has been both an impressive as well as a little frightening thing to watch. Impressive because in three out of the four games Westbrook played in, he topped the 30 point mark with ease and was the primary catalyst for the Thunder offense. It is scary in the sense that you can actually see Westbrook morphing before our very eyes, understanding the game at a deeper level. It is as if he is starting to realize how he can harness his considerable talents so that they are maximized and not wasted. As a result, two things have become more apparent - Westbrook is scoring the ball easier than he ever has before, and he is much less careless with the ball than earlier in the season (which is most evident by the fact that his turnovers per game has been reduced to 2.7 per outing from 4.7 turnovers only a month ago).

If I may assign one major reason as to why Westbrook seems to be playing so well as of late, I think it is because he, like many young players, is coming into a realization about how to make the NBA game simpler. We're seeing Westbrook make easier passes, play at a slower speed, and take higher percentage shots. Instead of coming at the rim at awkward angles, Westbrook is always looking to get the ball in the same general locations so that his next decision, be it a shot or a pass, is as much a result from repetition and muscle memory as instinct. As we noted earlier in the season, his drive for the simple instead of the difficult has resulted in much more consistent play.

In statistics, there are two words that help describe Westbrook's progress - accuracy and precision. While we commonly interchange the two, they actually refer to slightly different things.

Accuracy - This describes how close to the target you are.

Precision - This describes your ability to reproduce something repeatedly and generate the same result.

It is possible to have one without the other, but great shooters have both - they find their target, and they can reproduce that result with high frequency.

Here is a visual look at Westbrook's shot attempts from three of his last four games:

Westbrook shooting percentages by season:

Stats_medium

vs Timberwolves (45 points on 17-28 shooting)

Wolves_medium

vs Trail Blazers (32 points on 16-26 shooting)

Portland_medium

vs Lakers (36 points on 13-27 shooting)

Lakers_medium

Contrast these games with a far less efficient game against the Spurs. In that particular game, Westbrook scored 36 points, but only shot 13-29 from the field, as the Thunder fell behind early by a large margin in the loss.

vs Spurs (36 points on 13-29 shooting)

Spurs_medium

(All screen shots taken from ESPN game recaps)

A few comments:

  • Do you see a pattern here? When you look at things visually, it becomes pretty obvious what Westbrook is trying to do on offense. He is either taking the ball to the rim, where he is shooting a career best 63.2%, or he is vying to get to the free throw line area where he is shooting a high percentage. The stats above indicate that compared to last season, he is shooting almost 4% higher from 10-15 feet, and 6% higher from 16-23 feet.
  • The extended lane is Westbrook's friend. As long as he stays in this area, his shot is becoming automatic. You can also see that the farther he gets outside of this extended free throw lane, the more likely his shots are to miss.
  • The Timberwolves game is the only one where Westbrook did not have a single attempt from that straight-on, 15-20 foot range. The reason why is because he was being guarded by Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, both of whom tend to act as defensive turnstiles. Westbrook went to the rim early and often.
  • In the first three images, Westbrook is both accurate and precise. He is accurate because he makes a high percentage of shots, and he is precise because he replicates his favorite shots again and again, and the outcome generates consistent positive results.
  • In the Spurs game, Westbrook took an unusually high number of jump shots from the same geometric sector. It is always to the left of the lane, always toward his off-hand (Westbrook is right-handed), and is never along the baseline. Do you think this happened by accident?
  • Going forward, whenever Westbrook plays intelligent defensive teams like the Spurs, Mavericks, or Bulls, this is going to be the tension that determines how well Westbrook shoots. Those teams will actually want Westbrook to shoot, but they want him to shoot in areas where they want him to shoot. So it will appear like Westbrook is shooting an open shot, but it is not Westbrook's shot. In contrast, Westbrook will need to show good preparation and patience for what he is going to see defensively and must continue to work to get to the spots where he shoots the best.
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