Before Tony Parker became an All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and the envy of every man who has happened to catch an episode of Desperate Housewives, he was Russell Westbrook, a relatively unknown teenager who was handed the keys to a franchise and told to lead.
San Antonio’s daring decision dredged up doubt eight years ago, when the Spurs confronted questions much like the Thunder encountered last season. Was Parker ready to lead a team? Was the 19-year-old Frenchman mature enough? Was his outside shooting reliable enough? As he leads his Spurs into the Ford Center tonight to face the Thunder, Parker has blossomed into walking proof of how much it can pay to stick with a developing young point guard. Parker, now 27, earned the 2007 NBA Finals MVP award. Last season, Parker averaged 22 points and 6.9 assists, both career highs. Westbrook, meanwhile, is mounting evidence that his ceiling might be even higher. The most scrutinized player on the Thunder’s roster, at least in Oklahoma, has silenced critics with all-around ability few players in the history of the game possessed at the same point. Westbrook is on pace to become only the seventh second-year player in NBA history to average at least 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds. He would join Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier, Jason Kidd and Norm Van Lier. Give him time for the three rings and the trophy wife. "Russell is never going to be that classic, old-school point guard,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "There’s only a few of them, and they’re dying yearly. But he’s a dynamic player. He can do a lot of things, and he’s doing a lot of things well now. Last year, he showed flashes of doing a lot of things well but not consistently. Now it’s consistent.” Westbrook immediately became a lighting rod for criticism in Oklahoma the night the franchise selected him fourth overall out of UCLA in 2008. His erratic play and errant shooting as a rookie only nourished the naysayers’ arguments. Westbrook led the league with 274 total turnovers and shot just 39.8 percent from the field. This season, Westbrook has increased his scoring, rebounding and assists while cutting down on his turnovers. His field-goal percentage still is at just 40.3 percent, but Westbrook has shown off a much smoother shooting stroke and is quickly establishing himself as the unquestioned No. 2 scoring option behind Kevin Durant. "All year, he’s improved his all-around game,” said Thunder teammate Nenad Krstic.