MINNEAPOLIS — Seems we learn more about Russell Westbrook's impact on the Thunder every game he sits.
The latest lesson is his value as a foul shooter.
Without its star point guard, Oklahoma City's offense has deteriorated to a level slightly above New York and just behind Cleveland's wretched outfits. The Thunder is averaging 12.2 fewer points without Westbrook than it did with him in the lineup.
And a decrease in free-throw attempts has emerged as part of the problem.
Oklahoma City shot 26.1 free throws per game in 21 games with Westbrook in the lineup. That rate would currently rank the Thunder fourth. But in seven games this season without Westbrook, the Thunder has dipped to 22.7 foul shots per game, a rate that would rank OKC 16th.
Perhaps more worrisome is how Kevin Durant is shouldering the load of the team's foul shooting without Westbrook. Seventy-four of the Thunder's 159 free-throw attempts in games without Westbrook have been attempted by Durant. That's 47 percent.
While the downward trend is a team-wide issue, the solution seemingly must start with Westbrook's replacement, third-year guard Reggie Jackson.
For as much as Jackson is viewed as sort of a Westbrook Lite, drawing fouls is still an area in which he falls woefully short of replicating Westbrook's production.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks before Thursday's game against Brooklyn chatted with Jackson about this very topic.
“That's the next part of his game is getting to the free throw line,” Brooks said.
It's shocking how little Jackson gets there given his attacking style and knack for knifing into the teeth of defenses, where 45 percent of his shots come from within eight feet, according to nba.com/stats.
Jackson is averaging a paltry 1.9 attempts, a career high but one that makes a mockery of his 90.2 percent success rate from free throw range.
Westbrook, by comparison, averages 6.3 foul shots for his career. He sits at an even six in 25 games this season. For his career, Westbrook is an 81.3 percent foul shooter, and he was connecting on 79.3 percent this season.
Additionally, Westbrook put teammates on the foul line.
According to NBA.com's SportVu player tracking data, Westbrook averages one free throw assist per game. A free throw assist is any pass that leads to a teammate getting fouled while shooting, not making the shot but making at least one free throw. Westbrook is tied with Denver guard Ty Lawson for second in the league in the category. Minnesota's Ricky Rubio holds a narrow lead for the league's best at 1.1 per game.
Thus far, neither Jackson nor anyone else on the Thunder has been able to reproduce Westbrook's proficiency.
Jackson's 0.4 free throw assist rate per game doesn't rank in the top 50.
“It's a skill to get to the line. It's only a few guys that get there consistently every year,” Brooks said. “(Reggie) has never been one that gets a lot of free throws. Hopefully he keeps getting better and improving and that will be the next part of his offensive game.”
Jackson shuns two gimmicks that traditionally get players more foul calls: complaining and flopping.
“I'm not in the business of really crying for a foul,” Jackson said. “When I grew up with my brothers, we played tough. So I don't really over exaggerate if I've been hit or not. If the ref sees it, he calls it. If he doesn't, he doesn't. I just got to figure out a way to finish through it.
“I think the more I get known for finishing at a high rate, if it doesn't happen or if the shot falls short or something, the ref may give me the call. But at this point, I'm not going to nag about it or beg for a call.”
Brooks said Jackson could do a better job of initiating contact.
“A lot of times he shoots it before the defense gets there,” Brooks said. “He has that great floater that really catches teams off guard. He's a little further than you think he should be taking the runner, but he's confident in making it. So he doesn't really get to the rim with contact.”
It's a development to watch while Westbrook remains sidelined.
“He thinks I'm capable of doing so,” Jackson said of Brooks. “I just got to find a way to draw contact. He thinks it'll only be a benefit if I can get to the free throw line more. I just got to find ways to do so.”