When the “B-Team” ventured back to the United States from Istanbul adorned with an unfamiliar gold medal, the world watched as the NBA’s proverbial royal throne vacated. Subjects from across the globe were all too eager to hand team leader Kevin Durant the scepter for his tremendous efforts. He was the light that would subdue the darkness that had infiltrated the league’s elite. Kevin Durant was the knight in shining armor. LeBron James was the fat and ugly dragon hellbent on the destruction of all mankind. Or something like that.
Boy, what a difference three months makes.
In the not-too-distant future (present), Miami’s notorious band of brothers is in a state of disarray. Kevin Durant, the preordained champion of everything that LeBron isn’t, has yet to build upon the hyper-efficiency of last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder team, and last summer’s FIBA World Championship team. He is still producing numbers, but nothing near the gaudy stats that made him a beacon of hope last year.
It’s a reasonable conclusion that the international scene changes a player. We’ve seen it time and time again. Gates of previously locked talent discovered overseas (e.g. Vince Carter after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Carmelo Anthony after the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan, LeBron James after the 2008 Beijing Olympics) become full-blown realizations during the subsequent NBA season. After Durant’s incredible string of games in Turkey, we all assumed whatever international elixir his elders were drinking overseas would work miracles in the same way for him.
Well, there is definitely something in the water outside of America. It has left a significant mark on a certain player. We just weren’t looking in the right direction, or more specifically, at the right jersey number.
Russell Westbrook has been incredible this season. So far, he’s posted career high numbers in just about every statistical category. He’s scoring on average seven points more per game with a higher efficiency from the field and from the free throw line. Speaking of free throws, he’s shooting nine free throws a game, converting eight of them on average, almost doubling his averages of last year (five free throws a game, making four). In fact, by the end of Westbrook’s next two games, if his averages ring true, he will have around 165 free throws made. That’s more than half of Westbrook’s total free throws made last season (329), in only 20 or so games.
Westbrook has become the aggressor for the Thunder, often compensating for Durant’s oft-listless performances. Westbrook only had a specialist role on Team USA, but there is no doubt he had gotten the most out of his time in Istanbul. Somewhere along the way, Westbrook learned where he fit in on a team full of burgeoning stars. And somewhere along the way, he learned that he shines just as bright, if not brighter, than any one player on that team, Durant included.
Westbrook’s jumper has gotten better every single year, and his newfound aggressiveness attacking the hoop are surely reasons for his outstanding season so far. But perhaps what is most intriguing is the development of his senses. As Darnell Mayberry, Thunder beat writer for The Oklahoman notes after the Thunder’s 95-89 victory over the Hornets, Westbrook’s maturity has been the most welcomed addition to his game:
It’s become easy to gush over Westbrook stuffing the stat sheet on a nightly basis and base his development on that alone. But it was something so small and simple that he did tonight that sent the loudest message about his maturity. It happened with 7:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. Westbrook stole a pass from Willie Green and had an easy layup opportunity in transition. But Westbrook slowed up and passed to Durant. Westbrook knew KD needed it. Durant had scored 19 points on 6-for-19 shooting prior to that point. “I just tried to get Kevin an easy shot,” Westbrook explained. “I definitely could have laid it up. I was just trying to get him going. We were going to need him to finish out the game.”
We’re in the presence of something glorious here. Westbrook’s play not only shows a confidence in his ability, but also a control over the game that we haven’t seen in prior years. He’s hitting his man more often on cuts, and he’s finishing around the rim at a higher rate. His motions are still full of visceral force, but Westbrook’s unstoppable drives always serve a purpose now, something we couldn’t say last season. He’s been handed the responsibility of managing the floor since day one. Now we’re seeing a career built on promise begin to bear fruit.
The point guard debate will be this era’s lasting legacy. While Westbrook’s success will loosely be compared with every other elite point guard, there is no one whom Westbrook will be more closely compared to than fellow 2008 draft-mate and Team USAer Derrick Rose. He may never fit into the ballerina slippers that Rose dons on a nightly basis, but Westbrook’s combat boots fit just fine. We’ve all been granted the opportunity to watch this soldier rise through the ranks. For how rapidly it’s occurred before our eyes, let us be thankful.
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