Noticeably absent from Russell Westbrook's interview session at last Monday's media day was one pesky question that the Oklahoma City Thunder's point guard couldn't shake at any point during his first two seasons. It was the question of whether he is a point guard.
The omission wasn't an oversight by reporters. Westbrook simply walked into his third NBA season having squashed all remaining doubt about his ability to play the lead guard role. And as he sat as the center of attention last week, Westbrook exuded a quiet confidence as though he knew he had proven himself.
Oddly enough, Westbrook's dwindling number of doubters could now put him in somewhat of a problematic position. Much of Westbrook's success has stemmed from carrying an elephant-sized chip on his shoulder. For a player who has built a career on disproving doubters, silencing critics and beating the odds, what becomes the source of motivation when there is no longer a legion to wag your finger at and proudly proclaim, 'I told you so'? What becomes the driving force for continued development when droves of former detractors are now singing your praises?
"It's different," Westbrook said. "But at the same time, I've always felt, regardless of what everybody else was saying, that I was doing the best that I could to play the position or help my team or go out and run the team."
Westbrook has enough ammunition. He has built up a barrel of bullets that have been fired at him since high school. At any moment, he can dig deep and draw inspiration from any one of them. The major Division I programs that overlooked him when he starred at Leuzinger High School. The draft analysts who snickered when he was selected fourth overall in 2008, even after he had earned a scholarship to UCLA and evolved into one of the best defensive guards in the nation. The media members who questioned his lead-guard skills then wrote him off when he led the league in turnovers as a rookie. The masses who refused to believe he could make the 2010 Team USA roster over Rajon Rondo, Tyreke Evans or O.J. Mayo.
"I'm always going to keep a chip on my shoulder," Westbrook said. "I always feel I can get better and can make my teammates better. That's just how I've always played. If you go in with a chip on your shoulder it's going to make you push yourself harder, play harder and make you better."
Rather than set out to prove he is an NBA point guard, as he did by increasing his assists average from 5.3 as a rookie to 8.0 last season, Westbrook's goal in 2010-11 is to become a better one.
"I just want to go in and try to get better and make our team better so we can make that next jump going from a good defensive team to a great one," he said.
After two years, Westbrook has matured to where he is now fueling his own fire. Teammates see a third-year guard that is as self-motivated as ever, no longer in search of someone to prove wrong. Now, Westbrook wants to prove things to himself.
"He wants to be the best point guard in the league," said Kevin Durant. "That's one thing I admire about Russell. He brings it, and whoever is in front of him in the game he's going to try to destroy them. And that's motivating him."
"He wants to be an All-Star," he said. "He wants to average a double-double. He wants to average a triple-double. He's set those goals for himself and he's fighting every day to try to get there."
Durant noted how Westbrook's game has blossomed. How in his rookie season Westbrook relied solely on his athleticism to make his mark, but how last season Westbrook mixed things up by adding a pull-up jumper and a more controlled pace.
"You can tell he's been working," Durant said. "He's getting better every day."
But for all that Westbrook has proved, he still has one significant critic, someone so close to the situation that even the slightest slippage this season won't tolerated.
"I still question him," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Russell and I are his toughest critics. Even when people were questioning him about what position he is and magnifying some of his mistakes and his flaws, Russell and I were harder on him than some of the critics."
Brooks said a focus on team-first goals gives him confidence that Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder players won't grow content with their clippings. And Westbrook said he hasn't seen anything that suggests any cocky attitudes will creep into this season.
"Everybody's come in competitive and looking to get better," Westbrook said. "And I think that's a big key for us making that next jump, especially when everybody's starting to notice us."
The increased publicity has hit no player harder than Westbrook, who still remembers how just four years ago he still was largely unknown.
"It's kind of like watching him grow up," Durant said. "Since his rookie year, he's grown so much to, I think, a top five point guard in the league."
As long as there is a debate over his ranking, you can bet Westbrook will have plenty to drive him.