DALLAS — Russell Westbrook no longer is a polarizing figure in Oklahoma City NBA circles. Only dolts still argue what not so long ago was a popular anthem, that Westbrook was masquerading as an NBA point guard.
Westbrook has won over nearsighted critics with the league’s eighth-best assist total (seventh among point guards). He quarterbacks the NBA’s ninth-best team in terms of record and he keeps making plays that approach astonishing. Expect the spectacular tonight in the Rookie Challenge, the NBA’s JV all-star game. Westbrook or some of his fellow pro sophomores will use the stage as their coming-out party, ala Carmelo Anthony in 2005 and Kevin Durant in 2009. The Thunder loves it some Westbrook, but truth is, most of these sophomores are treasured by their franchises. O.J. Mayo in Memphis, Eric Gordon in Clipperville, Kevin Love in Minnesota. The big guys, Memphis’ Marc Gasol and New Jersey’s Brook Lopez, give the league hope that post players won’t die out. Too early to tell who among this group emerges as the absolute superstar, though Derrick Rose (injured and sitting out tonight) has the pole posirebounds, 10 assists and eight steals. Three boards and two takeaways from that rarest of all NBA birds, a quadruple-double. But here’s the category that matters most. Age. Westbrook is 21, and while the majority of these super sophs are 21, Westbrook’s different for his position. He, like Rose, is playing big-league point guard at 21. That’s not the same assignment as playing out on the wing or inside. Point guards have to make 100 split-second decisions every game, on the move, and they can flounder. Westbrook has from time to time the last year and a half. But Westbrook also has flourished. His decision-making gets better by the week, his production keeps rising and his flaws are fading fast. That’s what happens with 20- and 21-year-old point guards. We see it in baseball all the time. A 20-year-old hitter with the same production as a 25-year-old hitter isn’t even close to the same player as his elder. The 20-year-old is going to accelerate far beyond what that 25-year-old is doing. Ted Williams was a 20-year-old rookie in 1939 and showed tons of promise. But he struck out 64 times, fifth-highest in the American League, and whiffing was no badge of honor in those days. Yet any 20-year-old who could hit .327 was destined for big things. Two years later, Williams hit .406. Struck out 27 times. Enough baseball. There are plenty of hoop examples. Let’s have some fun.