Go back and check the pre-draft reports on Russell Westbrook.
His weaknesses included some of the following: Mid-range game, ability to create his own shot, not a true point guard.
And his strengths included some of the following: Great wingspan, disruptive defender, can guard multiple spots.
“Coming out of college, that was my main focus,” Westbrook said. “Defending every night.”
But more than five years into his career, Westbrook's reputation has flipped.
League-wide, he's feared for his dynamic offensive skill. A nightmare in transition, explosive off the dribble and capable from mid-range, he's liable to explode for 30-plus points on any given night.
But his defensive acumen, the skill that once made him such an intriguing prospect, is hardly ever mentioned.
“You look at All-Star point guards like him, guys who can put the ball up and score,” Kevin Durant said. “You don't look at them at the defensive end …(Russell)'s been an all-defensive player since he's got into the league. A lot of people don't recognize it.”
There are a few numbers and recent examples that would help back Durant's claim.
The past three seasons, Westbrook has placed in the top five in steals per game. And among point guards, during those same three seasons, he has topped the group in rebounds per game, a typically underrated aspect of a defensive possession.
And when determined to do so, he has the capability of locking up an opposing point guard.
Just last Wednesday, in a marquee matchup in Portland, Westbrook hounded Damian Lillard throughout the game, forcing the reigning Rookie of the Year into a 4-of-14 shooting night.
“Yes,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said when asked if Westbrook was an elite defender. “Because of his size, his quickness, his athleticism, his toughness. He can cause a lot of problems at that position. He can pressure the ball. He's hard to go by. He creates steals. So yeah, I would put him in that category.”
Then on Sunday, Westbrook set an immediate tone against Indiana, deflecting passes, wrecking havoc all over the backcourt and dominating his individual matchup with George Hill, who finished 2-of-8 for four points.
“He's just got elite athleticism, the ability to contain, the ability to pressure, the ability to disrupt with his hands and force turnovers,” Pacers coach and noted defensive mastermind Frank Vogel said. “Even his ability to switch onto bigger players and not be exploited just gives the coach a great deal of luxury and flexibility in terms of the things you can do defensively.”
But the problem with Westbrook is consistency.
He looks like an All-World defensive player one night and gets burned the next. Like what happened Dec. 3 in Sacramento, when Isaiah Thomas lit up OKC for 21 points in the fourth quarter, much of it coming against Westbrook.
“I think he picks and chooses his spots because he understands his offensive load, and the number of minutes he plays is high,” former teammate and longtime friend Earl Watson said. “But if Russ wanted to, he could be one of the top defenders in the league at his position.”
Some would argue Westbrook already is, including Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who called him “one of the best defensive players in the world.”
But Westbrook's propensity to gamble a bit too much and an occasional night off will likely hold him from consideration in that top-tier category.
But regardless, at his best, Westbrook has become a clear factor on both ends of the floor.