Just how young are the Oklahoma City Thunder? Have you ever stopped and really looked?
Russell Westbrook has, and this is what he sees when he looks down the bench every single night: two veterans, two players just barely into their second contracts, and ten players on rookie deals including 3 true rookies.
At an average age of 25.8, the Thunder rank the 10th youngest team in the league. Nick Collison, Kyle Singler, and Josh Huestis rarely see playing time, and when their ages are removed, the Thunder average age drops to 24.76 and the average age of the starters that Russ shares the floor with is 23.57. Between the four, their average tenure in the league is 2.9 years. The cherry on top is that two of those fellow starters are new to the team, and one of them is a 20 year old rookie.
Of the 10 youngest teams in the league, only 3 currently boast a winning record: the Thunder (30-23), the Utah Jazz (33-19), and the Boston Celtics (33-18). At first glance, the Jazz and Celtics, who both carry a better record and are overall younger than the Thunder, would appear to win the "Who has the better young team" contest until you look closer at the starting fives. The average NBA experience of the Celtics starters is 6.45 years. The Jazz, 5.65 years. Even with Westbrook's 8+ years included, the average NBA experience for the Thunder's young guns? 4.05.
That lack of experience on the floor is what makes Westbrook’s triple-double numbers this season a truly remarkable feat. Young players tend to be inconsistent. Case in point: Domantas Sabonis. Domas went on a three game double digit scoring streak seven games ago, but has yet to score more than 2 in the Thunder’s last 4 games. Victor Oladipo should provide a steady 18 points a night, yet out of nowhere lays a seven point stinker against Memphis the other night. Let’s not waste time discussing Roberson’s seesaw scoring season. That leaves Steven Adams, whose numbers drop dramatically in the second half when opposing defenses have adjusted and take Westbrook’s most reliable weapon away. By the numbers, Adams has taken 95 total shots in the first quarter this season. That number drops to 72 in the third. (a stat that plays a major role in the Thunder’s 3rd quarter woes this season)
When it comes to padding the assist stat line, it is one thing if you know where a team's points are coming from every night, but it's quite another to maintain a double digit average when you have to probe every single option for the hot hand on a regular basis.
Just in case Westbrook didn’t have enough on his plate to deal with this season, long range sharp shooter Anthony Morrow, one of Russell’s aforementioned veteran teammates, has seen his jumpshot go in the tank, and Enes Kanter, one of the two Thunder players playing in their second contract, decided he and a chair just could not co-exist on this planet and broke his arm trying to kill it on January 26th.
Make no mistake about it. Morrow and Kanter were expected to step up this season and fill part of the scoring void vacated by #35, and only one of them had been living up to his end of the bargain before testing bone vs steel and losing...and yet here we are, 53 games into the season, watching Westbrook accumulate triple-doubles at a historic rate (25 and counting) while averaging 30.9 pts, 10.2 ast, and 10.5 rebounds per game.
The rebound numbers also come with an explanation. Westbrook has always been the best rebounding PG throughout his career, and if the casual hater was paying attention, they would understand the Thunder are a very dangerous offensive team whenever Russell is able to streak down the floor and attack before defenses have time to get set. Is Donovan giving Westbrook licence to grab an extra defensive board or two a a game? Isn’t that obvious? It’s not stat padding, it’s a plan. If there is an accusing finger to be pointed, point it at Donovan.
But the assists...holy cow...the Thunder lose a top five player and Westbrook’s assist numbers drop a whole 0.2 per game? At this juncture, between Kanter accumulating signatures on his pink and purple cast:
...and #35 having such a "fun" time with his new playmates out west....
(I’m sorry, but weren’t little "tiffs" like this always blamed on Russell? Just sayin’...)
...and Morrow not providing the extra 5 or so points the Thunder saw in 2015, that’s 47.6 lost points per game, not to mention the assists numbers that go with them, that Westbrook is making up for with a bunch of kids. AND...AND... as mentioned by the ABC commentary team the other day, he is doing so without so much as a rolled eye when one of his young wards miss a shot or blows an assignment. I’ve said it before, and I will proudly say it again, that’s class, pure class. That’s a leader, the real kind. The kind that can make you believe. The kind you will walk through fire for. The kind that will make you a winner.
So who are these kids? These young guns that Westbrook has led to a 30 and 23 record, three games ahead of their projection.?
Steven Adams, 12.1 pts, 7.9 trb, 1.1 blks, Center, age 23 years, 202 days
Young Gun Nickname - "Mongo"
Adams, a bruising big man from New Zealand, has shown remarkable growth in his three seasons as a pro. With uncanny poise for such a young player, the Funaki goes at the blue collar business of playing the team's defensive anchor with verve and his combination of strength, size,and surprising athleticism have already made him a force to be reckoned with.
Areas available for growth include finishing the work on an improving free throw shooting stroke. Continuing to improve his post game repertoire and developing (and being permitted to take) a mid-range jumper.
Domantas Sabonis, 6.0 pts. , 3.7 trb, 1.1 assts. Power Forward, age 20 years, 280 days
Young Guns Nickname - "The Kid"
Sabonis, a rookie from Lithuania, is the son of former Trail Blazer great, Arvydas Sabonis. Drafted with the 11th pick in the 2016 NBA Rookie Draft by the Orlando Magic, Domas has started every game of the season. Strengths include a high basketball IQ, a selfless attitude, and a total willingness to learn and improve.
As with any rookie, the areas available for Sabonis to grow are legion but he has shown glimpses of what he can become that are extremely promising. All he needs is experience and why making the playoffs is a must to expedite the learning curve.
Andre Roberson, 6.6 pts, 5.1 trb, 1.2 stls. Small Forward, age 25 years, 65 days
Young Guns Nickname - "Alamo"
Roberson is a defensive assassin that is regularly charged with guarding opposing team's best scoring threats. NBA.com currently ranks Robes as the 6th best perimeter defender in the league and he is enjoying career highs in blocks, steals, and rebounds. His scoring average is also the highest of his career, but overall his shooting percentages have dropped off.
While Andre's hidden value is the points he takes away from opponents, it is imperative that he develop more consistency on offense. 42% free throw shooting and 24.5% from beyond the arc just are not going to cut it.
Victor Oladipo, 16.0 pts, 4.4 trb, 2.5 assts, Shooting Guard, age 24 years, 279 days
Young Guns Nickname - "Easy Rider"
Oladipo came to the Thunder in the Orlando trade that also brought Sabonis. The number 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Rookie Draft is being looked upon to fill a 3 and D need the Thunder have had at his position for some years now, but has yet to fill that void completely. It is important to remember that Victor is playing under his fourth head coach in four years. A second season in the same system should do wonders for his confidence and his numbers.
Areas of growth include a more consistent 3 point stroke, finishing better at the rim, and developing a PnR game.
Joffrey Lauvergne, 5.5 pts, 3.7 trb, 34.7% 3pt, Power Foward/ Center, age 25 years, 130 days
Young Guns Nickname - "La roche"
Lauvergne, or as J.A. Sherman calls him, King Joffrey, is a fearless, if not overly athletic defender with a knack for finding gaps in opposing defenses and getting open. A 3-point shot, while still a work in progress, is something Joffrey has added to his arsenal this season and makes him the Thunder's biggest threat among their big men from deep. During Kanter's rehab, Lauvergne has been given regular minutes with mixed results, but appears to be settling in as much as his limited abilities will allow.
Like the rest of the Young Guns on this team, the main thing Lauvergne needs is experience. It is very doubtful he will ever be a star in this league, but with work and patience, a solid journeyman role is well within King Joffrey's reach.
Jerami Grant, 5.9 pts, 2.6 trb, 39.2% 3-point shot, Small Forward, age 22, 332 days.Young
Guns Nickname - "Hops"
Grant is a truly gifted athlete with the leaping ability and length to become one of the league's best shot blockers. Jerami, like Victor, has experienced learning multiple systems under multiple coaches in his young career, and the Thunder are hoping he follows in his father Harvey's footsteps to become a consistent double double threat somewhere between now and the end of his rookie contract. At a fraction over 39% shooting downtown, Jerami is the Thunder's most consistent deep threat, and a better understanding of space that comes with experience could turn Grant into a very dangerous offensive option.
Like many of the Thunder youngsters, Jerami needs to improve his free throw shooting stroke. Sixty percent free throws shooters attract tighter defense, eighty percent free throw shooters get more respect, which generally equates to space.
Alex Abrines, 5.5 points, 1.1 trb, 37.8% 3-point shooter, Shooting Guard, age 23 years, 190 days
Young Guns Nickname - "El Lobo"
Abrines was drafted by the Thunder in the second round of the 2013 NBA Rookie Draft when he was just 19 years old. Obviously a draft and stash pick, Abrines spent the next 3 season knifing Euroleague competition with a 46.2% 3-point stroke and an eye popping 90.4% charity stripe average, and when #35 bolted, Sam Presti wasted little time getting Abrines in a Thunder uniform. The free throw stroke remains, but the speed and physicality of the NBA have resulted in an understandable dip in Alex's deep shooting numbers. The most encouraging sign at present is the young Spaniard's willingness to mix it up and get just as physical as his new opponents.
All Abrines needs is time. Time to learn the new system, adjust to the league, and find his stroke again to become that hired gun every team needs when the game is on the line.
Semaj Christon, 3.2 pts, 2.4 assts, 1.4 trb. Back up Point Guard, age 24 years, 99 days,
Young Guns Nickname - "Blue Boy"
Christon is the poster child of hard work paying off. Picked up in the latter stages of the second round of the 2014 NBA Rookie Draft, Semaj spent 2014/15 honing his skills in the D-League with the Blue and the bulk of last season overseas. When the Thunder invited him to participate on their 2016 Summer League team, Christon performed well enough to earn an invitation to training camp and beat out NBA veteran guard Ronnie Price for the last slot on the regular season roster. Probably the most telling thing about that choice was that spot was virtually guaranteed as the back up PG job with Cameron Payne sidelined while nursing a broken foot.
While his time with the team would best be described as unspectacular, Semaj did show progress and the bench as a whole had found a pretty consistent groove by the time Payne returned to action.
Cameron Payne, 4.9 pts, 2.0 assts, 1.5 trb, Back up Point Guard, age 22 years, 184 days,
Young Guns Nickname - "Slick"
Payne, the Thunder's #14 lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, came to the team with a load of expectations heaped on his young shoulders. Considered by many as the silver lining to Durant's Jones Fracture, Cameron was touted as a true PG with exceptional pick-n-roll instincts, a pass first mentality as well as being considered a shot maker.
Unfortunately, those attributes have had a hard time transitioning from a small major college conference to the NBA, and even a promising Summer outing is beginning to lose its luster as Payne struggles to find a consistent niche to fill at basketball's highest level. Since a return touted as a possible turning point in a demanding season, Cameron has yet to score in double digits in 16 games and has only recorded more than 3 assists twice.
Again, a lack of experience is Payne's biggest enemy, but a hungry and steady Semaj Christon waits in the wings and the clock is ticking.
Russell Westbrook, 30.9 pts, 10.2 assts, 10.4 trb. Point Guard and undisputed ring leader of the Thunder's Young Guns Gang
Young Guns Nickname - "Chief"
Westbrook's numbers speak for themselves, but the way this team follows his lead without question says more than points and assists could ever say. Look up what qualities make a great leader and Westbrook has them all. Entrepreneur.com made a list of 22 qualities that make a great leader and here is a look at the top 9:
1. Focus - Is there anyone more focused on the goal of winning than Westbrook? And that focus has only sharpened with the loss of Kanter.
2. Confidence - Really? Is any explanation necessary here other than Westbrook allows his confidence to be contagious. He believes in his teammates and they in turn start believing in themselves.
3. Transparency - This one may be tough for an outsider to understand, but the same Russell that shuns the media is an open book to his team. Victor Oladipo reports that Westbrook is so committed to his team he will sing him a lullaby when he is having trouble sleeping.
4. Integrity - Westbrook lives his life and plays this game by a certain code that ingrained into his soul almost since birth and never waivers from it. No masks (with rare exceptions), no games, what you see is what you get and you'll get the same thing tomorrow. Like Popeye, Westbrook would say, "I yam what I yam and dats all what I yam." Loyalty matters more than almost anything, and Russell's dedication to that quality prompted Enes Kanter to adamantly deny Colin Cowherd's claim that nobody wanted to play with Westbrook, and for Victor Oladipo to tell TNT's David Aldridge in a recent broadcast that everything he had ever heard about Russell Westbrook was a lie.
5. Inspiration - During interviews, Westbrook shuns questions about himself and lights up when asked about his teammates, and the significance is perfectly illustrated in this quote on the subject of inspiration:
"People always say I'm a self-made man. But there is no such thing. Leaders aren't self-made; they are driven. I arrived in America with no money or any belongings besides my gym bag, but I can't say I came with nothing: Others gave me great inspiration and fantastic advice, and I was fueled by my beliefs and an internal drive and passion. That's why I'm always willing to offer motivation—to friends or strangers on Reddit. I know the power of inspiration, and if someone can stand on my shoulders to achieve greatness, I'm more than willing to help them up."
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California
These young players would fight a lion if Westbrook led the way, and it's beginning to come clear why.
6. Passion - To be truly great at something you must love it, and Westbrook truly loves the game of basketball. No matter how many triple-doubles he amasses, awards he is given, or championships he will win, Russell will never believe he can't get better. Complacency is not an option.
7. Innovation - There will always be a better mouse trap out there.
8. Patience - As improbable as it may seem, patience may be Westbrook's strongest attribute as a leader. It's hard to imagine a guy that goes at every game like it was a bloody battle to the finish against an intergalactic alien horde is also capable of restraint and tolerance, but such is the case. In a recent national broadcast, ESPN play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch mentioned how Westbrook never rolls his eyes when one of his young teammates makes a mistake or misses a shot and Thunder fans have witnessed Westbrook encouraging teammates on countless occasions when they are struggling. Then when they do well, no one cheers their success more than their captain:
9. Stoicism - Another quote from the Entrepreneur article:
"It's inevitable: We're going to find ourselves in some real shit situations, whether they're costly mistakes, unexpected failures or unscrupulous enemies. Stoicism is, at its core, accepting and anticipating this in advance, so that you don't freak out, react emotionally and aggravate things further. Train our minds, consider the worst-case scenarios and regulate our unhelpful instinctual responses—that's how we make sure shit situations don't turn into fatal resolutions."
—Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way and former director of marketing, American Apparel
In 2004, Westbrook faced Holiday's "worst-case scenario" when his best friend Khelcey Barr died after a pick-up game from complications brought on by an enlarged heart. Russell has seen the worst and lived to tell the tale. There is nothing the NBA, even with all the pressure that comes with money and winning, can offer to compare to that loss. Russell is ready.
The Entrepreneur article goes on to list 13 other requirements for a good leader, but the point is made. Authenticity, decisiveness, generosity, persistence, etc., are all listed and Westbrook checks all the boxes. He believes in his team and they believe in him. They're young, they make mistakes, they need to improve, but there is good reason to believe for a better tomorrow because they are willing to follow where ever Russell leads.... one voice, one direction...and Russell only believes in one direction for these Young Guns. Up.