2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder Player Previews: Russell Westbrook

USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook is the biggest question mark of many Thunder question marks this season.

(WTLC begins its final preparation for the regular season with our annual player profile previews.  Each player gets a dual analysis as well as a grade of our expectations for each. See the grading scale at the bottom.)

Player RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Position Point Guard
Year in NBA 6
Nicknames "Russ," "Honey Badger," "Rusheed Wallace"
2012-13 Stats 23.2 PPG, 5.2 RPB, 7.4 APG, 0.3 BL, 1.8 ST, 3.3 TO
Past Accolades 3x All-Star, 3x All NBA 2nd Team, All-Rookie 1st Team
Injury History Ahem
Contract Status Max deal, $14.7 million in 2013-14 season

Craig A Brenner:

Russell Westbrook will be facing the biggest adversity of his entire basketball life. He is going to be coming off a major surgery that will keep him on the sidelines for the first 4-6 weeks of the NBA seasons. Last season Westbrook elevated his play to a point where he was a top 10 player in the league along with being a top top 3 point guard.

Overcoming obstacles is nothing new to Russell Westbrook. While in college at UCLA Westbrook played second fiddle to Darren Collison on the uber-talented Bruins team. When he was drafted #4 overall in the 2008 draft and the Thunder announced they drafted him to play point guard, he was forced to learn to play one of the toughest position in all of sports on the fly. I was highly skeptical of his ability to play the position at an elite level in the NBA. He has been proving wrong for many years now. Once Westbrook showed he was more than capable of playing point guard in the NBA the narrative then shifted to how horrible of teammate he was and how he shot too much and was hurting Kevin Durant's game. How did Westbrook respond to all of this outside negative criticism? He blocked it out and continued to play he game and stay to what him such a force in the NBA.

All that changes this season. A major knee injury tends to do that to a player. I call his knee injury major for the simple reason that there is a chance it could effect the way he plays the game. I say 'a chance' because we really don't know how this will effect Westbrook until he plays his first game. The biggest attributes that Westbrook has that makes him such an unstoppable force in the NBA are his speed and his athleticism. He is faster and more athletic than 90% of the guys who have to check him on a nightly basis. Now that he is coming off this knee injury how long will it take him to regain his 2012 form? Not just physically but also mentally. Westbrook has always been a fearless offensive player. He attacks the rim with so much force and anger that it looks violent and painful. Will he still be able to play with that reckless abandon after this injury?

Another question to ponder with Westbrook is how well will he assimilate into the offense? By the time he makes his regular season debut it will have been more than 8 months since he played a competitive game with his teammates. And this team will look a little different than last year's squad. Kevin Martin is gone, Reggie Jackson is starting point guard, and the team will be trying to integrate lottery pick Steven Adams and James Harden's replacement (Jeremy Lamb) into the team as well. It could be a little rocky to fit all of these pieces together while competing with the Rockets, Warriors, Clippers and the Spurs for the top spot of the Western Conference.

Grade_aminus_medium

***

Sherman

Craig covers all the necessary bases in his analysis above, so let me offer one more piece of the puzzle.

When Westbrook comes back, what happens to Jackson?

I'm not talking about simply watching Jackson go to the bench while spelling Westbrook at the point. I'm talking about 4th quarters, late in games, when the Thunder are looking to close the deal against the upper echelon teams. Two seasons ago, James Harden was the 6th Man of the Year but was always on the court in the 4th quarter when things got tight, either handling the ball or working the edges. Will Jackson fill a similar role?

Particularly in tight games against good defensive teams like the Grizzlies, the Thunder have experienced first hand what happens when there are not enough offensive threats on the court. Thabo Sefolosha to his great credit has expanded his offensive contribution significantly over the past 2 seasons. He is a legitimate 40% 3-point shooter, can drive to the rim better than before, and exudes confidence to produce points. Is it enough? Is it going to force a top of the line defense to shift against him, or do they stay away?

This dilemma/opportunity is as much about Westbrook as it is Jackson and Sefolosha. Harden could work with Westbrook because Harden is a solid spot-up shooter and so Westbrook simply needed to do his thing and look for Harden in the corners as his release valve. Harden was also more than capable of running the point, which allowed Westbrook to work off the ball, set screens for Durant, and crash the offensive glass. Can Westbrook do the same with Sefolosha? Can he do it with Jackson? If Westbrook can make it work with Jackson, OKC's 4th quarter offensive lineup could be prolific, featuring Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Westbrook, Sefolosha, and Jackson (If extra size is needed, OKC can use Kendrick Perkins of Steven Adams in place of Sefolosha). Westbrook would have Sefolosha as his spot-up shooter, Ibaka as his primary pick and roll man, and Durant working in the wings and the post. By incorporating Jackson into the mix, Westbrook has the same options that he had with Harden - either working off the ball as Jackson runs point, or using Jackson as a tertiary offensive threat. The more options Westbrook has, the easier everything else becomes.

I believe Westbrook can do it; it is a question of whether he is given the opportunity.

Grade_bplus_medium

***

A Player has exceedingly high expectations attainable only if they play to their fullest ability.
B Player has reasonably high expectations that are attainable.
C
Player has moderate expectations which should be met with little trouble.
D
Player has moderate expectations but will struggle to meet them.
F
Player should not be on the Thunder roster.
X
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