The way it happened shouldn’t diminish the impact or importance.
On Tuesday, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook made the Team USA basketball roster for the FIBA World Championships when Rajon Rondo asked to be withdrawn from consideration. Feel free to read Rondo’s withdrawal the same way you interpret a coaching candidate withdrawing his name from consideration for a vacancy.
Rondo withdrew because he knew Westbrook had beaten him out. He told ESPN’s Chris Sheridan he thought he would be the final cut. “I think I’m on the bubble,” Rondo said Tuesday. “Just looking at the obvious — I got a DNP last game. That pretty much speaks for itself.”
Here’s what speaks for itself: Westbrook’s ascension, which shifted into hyper drive in April when he was the Thunder’s best player in the NBA Playoffs first-round series against the Lakers.
I’m like everyone else around here. Before the Thunder drafted him with the No. 4 pick in 2008 NBA Draft, I couldn’t have picked Westbrook out of a lineup. But then I saw him on youtube and in the Orlando Summer League — remember those black uniforms? remember the team without a name? remember watching those games online? And I started thinking “This guy could be Oklahoma City’s Rajon Rondo.”
Remember, that was just weeks after the Celtics had vanquished the Lakers to win the NBA title. And the ascension of Rondo, who when that season had started was considered the Celtics’ weakest link, had just begun. There’s considerable evidence that he’s been the Celtics’ best player the last two seasons.
And Russell Westbrook just beat him out. Let that one marinate for a minute.
But Westbrook? This is the same Russell Westbrook who Oklahoma City’s instant NBA experts — you know who you are — proclaimed unfit to play point guard. The same Russell Westbrook who lacked leadership skills. The same Russell Westbrook whose lack of a 3-point shot would make him ill suited for international competition. (Did you see those two 3s he nailed Saturday against Lithuania?)
Don’t these folks ever get tired of being wrong?
You can bet, Westbrook isn’t getting tired of proving them so.
Anyway, if you’re the Thunder, here’s what may be the most encouraging thing about Westbrook’s Team USA experience. The first thing we heard when Sam Presti drafted him was what a great defensive player he was. Westbrook was the Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year at UCLA, but for most of two seasons in Oklahoma City I really haven’t seen it. Good, not great.
But the flashes of defensive aggressiveness and potential in shutting down passing lanes he showed OKC have been a big part of his Team USA audition. It’s probably the biggest reason he made the team.
I’m not saying Westbrook is better than Rondo. He’s two trips to the NBA Finals and a title from even making that a conversation. But Coach K apparently thinks he’s better for Team USA, which only continues his ascension.
Next stop: NBA All-Star Game.