MAITLAND, Fla. — For the second straight season, the Oklahoma City Thunder has the best player at the Orlando Pro Summer League pulling the strings for them. In July 2008, reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant had his Nikes delivered in time to suit up for a single game, scoring 22 points in 27 minutes to help the then-unnamed Oklahoma City franchise pick up its first victory in an NBA event. Despite his impressive cameo, the player who most impressed the scouts and front office personnel was rookie Russell Westbrook, who wasted no time showing off the combination of talent and athleticism that enchanted general manager Sam Presti into selecting him No. 4 overall. In 2009, Westbrook is back in Orlando as the only player in the entire summer event that started more than 60 games last season. If the first game of his second summer league stint is any indication, Westbrook’s graduated to the level where opponents not only know who he is, but have Oklahoma City circled on the schedule because they hope to make their reputations against him. Westbrook is a marked man. "You could sense that a bit, yeah,” said Westbrook after game-highs of 22 points and nine assists in the Thunder’s 88-77 victory Monday afternoon over the host Orlando Magic. "Getting hit out there, taking people’s best shots, running around and getting a rhythm, that’s what this whole week is all about.” Maurice Ager, Russell Robinson and Brian Chase took turns going at Westbrook on both ends. Ager even slipped in a hard foul on a fast break that showed just how serious the guards, who are trying to make the Magic roster, were taking the challenge of trying to contain one of the NBA’s rising stars. Westbrook showed off an improving mid-range game, knocking down a 17-footer off the dribble in the fourth quarter, but the bulk of his damage was done by getting into the lane, resulting in 18 free-throw attempts. There were times where the Magic’s pressure created a little turmoil, but he buckled down in the second half and committed only a single turnover. His trademark explosion was a constant weapon. "It’s huge for him to come out here and be dominant,” Thunder summer league coach Brian Keefe said. "Without Kevin (Durant) and Jeff (Green) here, it’s important for him to assert himself, continue to be more vocal and really lead a lot of these young guys. We know he’s got a tremendous work ethic and great upside. But it’s the confidence that we’re looking for out of him that this next week will most help with." Westbrook was all smiles when it was pointed out that he’s a veteran now, not only of this event, but as a guy others try to emulate. Although he won’t turn age 21 until Nov. 12, he’s older than teammate Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Byron Mullens. Westbrook is eager to put his experience to use. In passing on Ricky Rubio in the June 25 draft in favor of Arizona State wing James Harden, Thunder management gave Westbrook a vote of confidence that they’re happy with his progress at the point. As a result, Westbrook’s mission in Orlando is simple — get everybody up to speed and keep them involved. "I’m back to support my team. I’ve learned that summer league is different from the regular season. I can tell you that much,” Westbrook said. "The key to being out here is to try and establish chemistry and keep everyone loose. All of our guys are young and having fun playing together, and when you add guys like Kevin and Jeff to the mix, we know we have the ability to be explosive, so the key is just building and getting better." Westbrook is expected to remain in Orlando for the duration of the week’s summer league event, although that doesn’t mean he’ll be suiting up for every contest. Unlike most of the players trying to catch on with the Thunder and the other six participating teams — New Jersey and Philadelphia are splitting a squad — Westbrook is here for condition and chemistry purposes.
Orlando Pro Summer LeagueTHUNDER SCHEDULE →Tuesday: vs. Indiana, 6 p.m. →Wednesday: vs. Boston, 4 p.m. →Thursday: vs. NJ/Phil, 2 p.m. →Friday: vs. Utah, 10 a.m. You can also watch the summer league games live online at www.nba.com/magic/2009_Orlando_Pro_Summer_League.html.