Questions about the young point guard swirled around the basketball world.
Did he have the court vision to play the point? Was he too much of a scorer and not enough of a passer? Could he mesh with his superstar teammate?
After more than a decade, Tony Parker sure has answered those questions.
Ironic, isn't it, that the questions asked about the Spurs point guard early in his NBA career have been some of the very same ones asked time and again about Russell Westbrook?
As Parker's Spurs and Westbrook's Thunder prepare to square off in the Western Conference Finals, much will be made of this point guard matchup. And rightfully so. After the way the matchup went during the regular season, the series could very well turn on it.
When Westbrook held Parker to four points in the teams' first meeting this season, the Thunder won. But when, Parker went for a season-high 42 points followed by 25 points when next they squared off, the Spurs won.
This will be a defining matchup.
Not only in the series but also for Westbrook.
Those questions about whether he could play the point, about whether he was too much of a scorer, about whether he could mesh with Kevin Durant were never asked more frequently than during last year's playoffs. You couldn't turn around without this pundit or that prognosticator sounding off about Westbrook.
But so far in these playoffs, the doubts have died down.
Westbrook is averaging 24.1 points in the first two rounds, third best among players whose teams are still alive. What's even better, though, is that his shooting percentage is way up from last year's playoffs while his turnovers are way down. A year ago, he shot 39.4 percent from the floor and committed 4.6 turnovers a game. This year, 47.2 percent and 1.6 turnovers.
“He's been really, really efficient in his moves and his shots,” Durant said. “Not to say that he's made every shot, but every shot I think he's taken has been a good shot.”
And we haven't even talked about his defense yet. The job he did shutting down Mavs sharpshooter Jason Terry in the first round was stellar. He was every bit as good on whatever Laker the coaches stuck him on in the second round.
“We're not in this position without Russell's play,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have a good team, but Russell makes us very good with what he does.”
Sure, Skip Bayless still spends about half his day saying that Westbrook isn't a point guard and that the Thunder can't win a championship with him playing there. But it's pretty obvious that the ESPN analyst got a blind spot when it comes to Westbrook.
The rest of the free world has seen what Bayless can't.
Westbrook has taken some big-time steps forward, especially in these playoffs.
That might be most evident in how he's kept mistakes from snowballing. A year ago in the playoffs, one blunder could quickly turn into four or five or more. Remember the 30-for-30 game at Denver? Remember the fourth-quarter benching in Dallas?
They seem long ago and far away, don't they?
The fiery, feisty Westbrook has kept his emotions from escalating and his mistakes from multiplying.
“I guess it's just something that I've learned,” he said. “It's just carrying over.”
But he knows that the challenge that Parker presents, especially when the Spurs point guard has the ball in his hands, will be greater than any Westbrook has faced in these playoffs. No offense to Kidd, Terry or Sessions, but right now, none of those guards are in the same league as Parker.
The physical challenge for Westbrook is obvious — defending the pick-and-roll and cutting off driving lanes are primary — but more than anything, playing against Parker will be a mental test of the highest degree.
“He does a lot of great things for his team,” Westbrook said. “He gets in the paint. He creates havoc for the defense. He's in attack mode, and that definitely helps him out.”
Parker is one of the best point guards in the league.
So, if Westbrook gets the better of this matchup and the Thunder gets the better of this series, isn't it time that the doubts about his ability to play the position and be a scoring point guard and coexist with Durant die?
No question about it.