Before trotting out Russell Westbrook for his first career start Saturday night, Thunder coach Scott Brooks gave the rookie point guard the same advice he offers to all his players.
"You have to play hard before you play well,” Brooks said.
Westbrook accomplished both against Memphis, playing a career-high 38 minutes while helping the Thunder to only its second win.
But effort has never been an issue for the No. 4 overall pick. The thing to watch going forward is how effective Westbrook is now that he’s in the role many fans have longed to see him in.
"This is a tough league,” Brooks warned. "Just because Russell is starting doesn’t mean he’s going to tear the league up. That usually does not happen.”
Brooks isn’t just trying to temper expectations. Westbrook’s rookie mistakes are likely to become even more glaring against starting point guards than they were against reserves.
Westbrook’s 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals against the Grizzlies indicate how much potential he has. Not once did he show any fear or first-start jitters. He played under control and with confidence, turning the ball over only twice and looking the part of a true floor general.
The question is now can he sustain that look?
As a starter, Westbrook must now run the offense and get his teammates involved more than he did at any point over the first month of the season, when he largely looked for his own scoring opportunities.