Russell Westbrook was and is a primo athlete. Built strong, run fast, jump high. Westbrook could go be an NFL safety by September, except he’s needed elsewhere.
But physical exploits are not what Sam Presti liked best about Westbrook two years ago, when the Thunder general manager went looking for a ballplayer worthy of the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. "One thing we liked about him, he had to earn everything,” Presti said. "Not much had been handed to him.” Presti liked Westbrook’s work ethic. His self-motivation. His, his ... Presti sat in his Thunder office the other day, searching for the right word to describe the franchise’s attraction to a ballplayer few figured was worthy of the No. 4 pick. His, his ... DNA. That’s it. DNA. Westbrook had the perfect makeup for the Thunder. The Thunder plays the Lakers on Sunday in a Western Conference playoff opener, and the Boomers are two years ahead of schedule in large part because Presti and staff didn’t miss on Westbrook’s DNA. Presti credits assistant general manager Troy Weaver for locking in on Westbrook, "really identifying the fact that Russ had our DNA.” The summer before, Presti had drafted Kevin Durant (no-brainer) and Jeff Green (brainer, since it cost Ray Allen in a trade). Durant and Green were college superstars who showed no signs of entitlement during their rookie seasons in Seattle. They were gym rats who strove to improve. Presti and Weaver saw the same ethos in Westbrook. Put a worker like Westbrook with workers like Durant and Green, and "now you’ve got a culture,” Presti said. Culture is one of Presti’s favorite words in explaining his vision for the Thunder. Presti still recalls Weaver’s assessment of Westbrook: self-starter, tough kid. "And those were things we were looking to add to our organization,” Presti said. "We felt good things would happen to Russell and us, given those qualities.” Westbrook’s potential was not always apparent. He was slow-played by hometown UCLA in the recruiting game, offered a scholarship only when Jordan Farmar turned pro in spring 2006. As a UCLA freshman, Westbrook played 10 minutes a game, then as a sophomore played out of position because the Bruins had Darren Collison at point guard. But Collison missed six games early that season, and Westbrook shined playing point guard, including UCLA victories over Maryland and Michigan State. In two NBA seasons, Westbrook has developed into a quality passing point guard; he was eighth in the league in assists this season.