There was Reggie Hamilton, the man who gave Westbrook his first shot at organized basketball back in Los Angeles-area pee-wee leagues.
There was Reggie Morris, the former coach at Leuzinger High, Westbrook’s alma mater.
There was UCLA coach Ben Howland — barely.
Then, along came a start-up professional basketball franchise called the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team employed decision-makers named Sam Presti and Troy Weaver and Scott Brooks. Collectively, they decided to use the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft to select Westbrook.
Suddenly, Westbrook needed more fingers.
Because of the Thunder’s long-standing belief in him, Westbrook on Thursday gladly signed a five-year contract extension worth roughly $80 million. The deal, which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports, will go into effect next season and keep the All-Star point guard with the Thunder through the 2016-17 season.
“It feels great,” Westbrook said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman on Thursday night. “It’s a great opportunity. The organization, they’ve been believers in me since college and I thank them for that. They’ve been great in just believing in me throughout thick and thin and ups and downs…I’m just thankful.”
Westbrook has had more than a fair share of doubters.
When the Thunder selected Westbrook nearly four years ago — with Weaver, the team’s assistant general manager serving as his biggest supporter — analysts were appalled at what they considered a reach pick. Soon, questions arose over whether Westbrook was or was not a point guard. Then it was his turnovers…then his decision-making…then his relationship, both on and off the court, with teammate Kevin Durant.
The Thunder, though, stood by Westbrook through all the tough times and the questions and the criticisms. Brooks, the coach, never benched or blasted Westbrook for mistakes that were part of the process of developing into a sensational performer.
“They reached out and grabbed me, and everybody kind of was surprised and shocked at what was going on,” Westbrook remembered. “(People) didn’t really think I could play the point. From then on, they always stuck with me, always stayed positive with me and always just looked out for me and the team. That shows how much I’m appreciated around here. I love to be somewhere you’re appreciated.”
The Thunder had until Wednesday to re-sign Westbrook or watch him become a restricted free agent. But the organization would have had the right to match any offer Westbrook might have received from another team. The completion of the deal illustrates the Thunder’s unwavering support for Westbrook, who joined Chicago point guard Derrick Rose as the only two players from the 2008 draft class who have been re-signed to extensions of their rookie contracts.
“We are thrilled to solidify Russell’s future with the Thunder,” said Presti, the team’s general manager in a statement. “Since we arrived in Oklahoma City, Russell’s work ethic, persistence, character and involvement in our community have helped us establish the standards that we are committed to on a day-to-day basis. He is a valued member of our organization and we look forward to his continued contributions on and off the floor.”
Westbrook has averaged 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals in 261 career games. He was selected by coaches as an NBA All-Star for the first time last season and also was an All-NBA Second Team selection at the end of last season.
Through the Thunder’s first 15 games, Westbrook is averaging 20.5 points, 5.5 assists and five rebounds, joining L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Miami star LeBron James as the only players to post a 20-5-5 this season.
With his long-term security squared away, Westbrook said he is now focused on taking his game to another level. Doing so with the team he started his career with is a big deal, Westbrook said.
“They gave me an opportunity, and now they’re giving me another opportunity to make another step for this team and for this city,” Westbrook said of the Thunder. “I’m just going to take it all in and try to get myself right to be able to make the next jump for this organization.”