Russell Westbrook refused to take the credit.
But the facts are undeniable.
As soon as Westbrook arrived, he immediately shrunk the development time of a rebuilding Thunder franchise. Before he was taken fourth overall in the 2008 draft, the Thunder was stuck in no man's land, a 23-win outfit that had no true escape route.
Then, just like that, the franchise hit the jackpot. A once unheralded and underappreciated guard out of UCLA became the backbone of the Thunder's transformation.
“I don't think it was just me,” Westbrook said. “I just think I just came in and tried to help the team…I just tried to come in and tried to improve us, whether it was defensively, offensively, leadership or whatever it may be. I was just trying to come in and help us win.”
What Westbrook did was provide skills at his position that the franchise had not seen since Gary Payton's final season in Seattle. Since 2002-03, the point guard spot had been occupied by a revolving door of run-of-the-mill talents before Westbrook. The list included names like Antonio Daniels and Luke Ridnour, Earl Watson and Delonte West. None of them possessed traits like Westbrook.
“He's brought just another really talented guy,” said Nick Collison. “I think our talent level went up when he joined the team. The NBA is about playing as a team, but you also need those guys that are talented and able to score.”
For a time, folks thought Jeff Green was the Robin to Kevin Durant's Batman. Halfway through Westbrook's rookie season, it became clear Westbrook would soon evolve into something closer to the team's Superman than Durant's sidekick.
In just three seasons, Westbrook has turned into an All-Star and All-NBA point guard. He's unquestionably a top-five point guard and has established himself as one of the league's most versatile at his position. After averaging 15.3 points as a rookie and 16.1 in his second season, Westbrook netted 21.9 points last year while pulling down 4.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists.
“He's a different athlete,” Collison said. “There's very few guys that are that athletic at that position; maybe one, maybe Derrick Rose. But besides that, he's a special player. The key for him is figuring out some of the nuances of the game, and he's done better at that the last couple of years.”
Westbrook was the subject of widespread criticism throughout his first season. Even after earning All-Rookie First Team honors, skeptics focused on Westbrook's league-leading 274 turnovers rather than his flair for turning in spectacular plays. Slowly, though, a shift took place in our collective state of mind.
Gradually, Westbrook began to slow down. He began making better decisions. He developed his jumper. He started running his team like an experienced point guard.
“I remember in our pre-draft workout that clearly he had skills that I have not seen from a point guard,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He had the strength and he had the quickness and the ability to get above the rim quickly. And not a lot of point guards are like that. He's just a special talent that works extremely hard.”