Monday, Dec. 6, 2010
Updated 1:38 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
Player A averages 25.7 points per game. Player B scores 24.1. Player B dishes out 8.7 assists per game. Player A averages 8.1. Both players are point guards, drafted in 2007--Player A with the No.1 overall pick, Player B fourth--with concerns about their respective outside shooting abilities dogging them, despite optimism about how their explosiveness would translate to the NBA.
The two players--Bulls (10-8) All-Star Derrick Rose and Oklahoma City Thunder (14-7) point guard Russell Westbrook, if it's not obvious by now--used their shared summer stint with USA Basketball as a springboard for what many observers regarded as MVP-candidate level beginnings to this young season. A pair linked by their athletic gifts and a friendship initially forged by summer workouts together and having the same agent, Arn Tellem, Rose and Westbrook have emerged as not just two of the better young and up-and-coming players in the league, but two of the best players in the league, period.
Rose might be slightly ahead of schedule for his coronation as one the NBA's elite talents, but his path has been in the offing since he was a sophomore at Simeon Career Academy. Westbrook, on the other hand, took a far different route.
At under 6 feet tall before his junior year of high school, the Los Angeles native, wasn't even a household name in his own city during his prep days. But a growth spurt and a strong final campaign--the season in which he first started dunking, which is hard to imagine now, as Westbrook is one of the league's best leapers--led to his recruitment by colleges on the mid-major level until hometown UCLA took an interest in him that spring.
Playing with fellow future pros like Minnesota's Kevin Love and Indiana's Darren Collison, the obscure recruit saw scant playing time as a freshman. As a sophomore, he became the team's starting shooting guard (playing alongside Collison, a true point guard) and carved out a niche for himself as a defensive stopper and one of college basketball's best dunkers en route to leading the Bruins to a Final Four appearance.
Still, despite winning the Pac-10's defensive player of the year award, Westbrook's modest scoring numbers and lack of experience playing point guard--although an sophomore-year impressive trial run when Collison was sidelined to begin the season opened some NBA scout's eyes--many observers were shocked when the Thunder drafted him so high in 2007, even taking into consideration his off-the-charts figures in pre-draft combine athletic tests. As an NBA rookie, Westbrook was thrown into the fire as Oklahoma City's starting point guard, and although his turnovers and perimeter shooting weren't optimal, his defensive mindset, exciting game and long-term potential more than justified his selection.
Last season, Westbrook's game blossomed further, as he helped lead the Thunder into the playoffs, where they put a six-game scare into the eventual champion Lakers in the first round, coming one rebound away from forcing the series to a seventh game. Then, he beat the odds to make the FIBA World Championships gold-medal winning USA Basketball squad, serving as a defensive stopper, slasher and energy player, a vital role that recalled his off-the-ball UCLA days.
Now, Westbrook has taken his game to a new level. Superstar Kevin Durant is still the team's go-to scorer, but Westbrook has established himself as a more than adequate second option, often carrying the team as Durant has suffered through nagging injuries and increased defensive attention that has resulted in lower than expected shooting numbers to start the season. Westbrook still has occasional issues with turnovers (averaging four per contest) and isn't a proficient shooter (43.9 percent from the field, 25 percent from beyond the arc), but his relentlessly attacking style has earned him individual billing alongside Durant, instead of just being a member of the supporting cast.
In this era of great young point guards--veterans Chris Paul and Deron Williams are considered the cream of the crop, but Westbrook, Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo (Wizards rookie John Wall might soon join the club) are either right on their heels or advancing past them, depending on who one asks--Westbrook is an interesting case. Unlike Rose, Paul or Williams, he's not his team's superstar or leading scorer, while Rondo's situation is different because not only is his scoring not the focal point of his game, but he plays with three Hall of Famers.
What differentiates Westbrook, however, is his defensive ability and rebounding. Rondo is considered an elite defender for his position and is an uncanny rebounder (Westbrook averages 5.6 boards a night himself, a gaudy total for a point guard), but Westbrook's size poses a different dilemma for opposing point guards; their styles are also completely different, as the unique Rondo is more of a savvy floor general, who picks apart defenses based on his highly-acclaimed personnel. The player Westbrook is most compared with, Rose, has obviously widened the gap between the pair as a shooter (the Chicago native is shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point territory and 46.2 percent overall), but playing next to Durant, outside marksmanship isn't as key for the Thunder point guard as it is for Rose, who is his team's top scoring threat.
Nevertheless, Oklahoma City will put up with his sometimes-woeful shot selection and less-frequent out-of-control forays into multiple defenders because Westbrook has proven to be a special talent, rewarding the foresight the organization had in drafting him and the hard work of head coach Scott Brooks and top assistant Maurice Cheeks (both former NBA point guards, not to mention current Bulls assistant Ron Adams) in helping to develop his game. The benefits hoped to be reaped by their patience include advancing past the first round of the playoffs next spring, the first of many All-Star appearances by Westbrook in his hometown come February and a rock-solid foothold as one the West's--if not the league's--upper-echelon teams.
Chicago has similar goals, and Monday night's rematch of both teams' season opener (a 106-95 Thunder win in Oklahoma City, in which Westbrook recorded 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to Rose's 28 points, four boards and six assists) will be an important gauge for the team, as they look to build on Carlos Boozer's Windy City coming-out party in Saturday's exciting overtime win over Houston. But while the Bulls will likely marvel at Westbrook's similar explosiveness to Rose at the United Center--as well as the visitor's superior defense and rebounding ability--a Player A for Player B exchange, while somewhat even on paper (in theory, not an actual trade possibility), would never even cross the minds of the organization's braintrust.
Drafted a only few slots behind Rose, backing him up for USA Basketball, hopeful of equaling him as an All-Star (no small feat in the Western Conference, with Williams, Paul and an aging Steve Nash all near-locks to make the team, while Rose is most likely competing with Rondo for a starting spot in the annual classic), Westbrook still has a long way to go before he can touch Rose as his team's driving force--which might be impossible with the presence of Durant--and an orchestrator of his team's offense. There's nothing wrong with playing second fiddle, as Chicagoans well know from watching Scottie Pippen's career, but Rose has a chance to enter a rare stratosphere of players.
MVP candidate numbers and a realistic chance to be named MVP--Rose's much scoffed-at (not in Chicago, but elsewhere around the league) media day goal--are two different things and Rose, if he continues to perform at the same level and the Bulls follow his path to a top three or four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, has the opportunity to at least be in the conversation for the coveted hardware. From an Oklahoma City viewpoint, it can be debated that Westbrook could do the same thing, if not more, if put in the same position as Rose, which would surely be countered from Chicago by saying Rose would be thisclose to winning a championship if paired with the brilliance of Durant, as his true playmaking ability would better complement the reigning scoring champ more than Westbrook's shoot-first mentality.
But that is, to paraphrase an often-uttered Rose quote, "the beauty of the NBA." Instead of wondering what if, the summer workout partners will simply go head to head at the United Center in the second and final matchup of the season, as Rose will try to even the score in the win-loss column, while Westbrook will look to maintain bragging rights.
Maybe, one day in the future, they'll be able to play more than twice a year to provide a bigger sample size for all to judge--on a bigger stage, like the NBA Finals. For now, this will do.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.