There's a fine line between reckless and ruthless, and Russell Westbrook is constantly scuffing that line, and in doing so becoming one of the most entertaining basketball players in the world. From earning the moniker "Westbrick" in the 2011 playoffs to, with Kevin Durant, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to NBA Finals in 2012, Russ has climbed to just about the top of the world's point guard rankings, where he joins Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Unsurprisingly, all four are current USA Basketball members. Rose will sit out London while recovering from a torn ACL.
Rose was a No. 1 pick. Williams and CP3 went 3-4 in 2006 and showed overwhelming promise as rookies. Westbrook, like Paul, went No. 4 in his draft, but his path was a little different. In the days and weeks leading up to the 2008 NBA Draft, Westbrook was pegged as low as No. 12 and as high as No. 3. After two confusing seasons at UCLA, where he largely played two-guard next to Darren Collison, Westbrook's physical gifts and perfect NBA stature conflicted with his actual output, which looked (more than anything) like that of a two-guard. Small two-guards rarely go top-5 in the draft, lest they are named Allen Iverson or, apparently, Dion Waiters. Small two-guards in point guards' clothing rarely do much better.
But then-Sonics GM Sam Presti -- the team would relocate shortly after drafting Westbrook -- saw beneath the surface and surmised that Russ could be an NBA point guard and a proper counterweight and compadre for Kevin Durant. Boy, was he right. Westbrook took over the starting point guard job as Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as head coach, and has really never looked back. That rookie season was full of bricks and turnovers (Westbrook shot below 40 percent and turned the ball over on nearly 18 percent of his many, many possessions). But there was some real promise peaking out -- not just from the Thunder, who looked decent in stretches once Brooks took over. But specifically from Westbrook.
He's improved every season since, and has made the All-NBA second team and the All-Star Game in each of the past two seasons. Interestingly enough, in international play Westbrook has slid over to two-guard to make way for the other top point guards -- he'll figure to do the same in London as he makes his Olympic debut. On a team with Rose and Chauncey Billups at the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey, Westbrook was No. 5 in minutes played and, perhaps unsurprisingly, No. 3 in scoring behind Durant (one of the tournament leaders) and Billups. He often played with Billups or Rose, just as he'll likely play with Williams and CP3 behind Kobe Bryant in London.
What Russ showed in Turkey is what he'll show in London and everywhere, forever: he knows his role on the court at all times, and at all times, that role is to make stuff happen. And really, isn't that the point of a point? To make sure that stuff happens? There's a difference between "doing stuff" and "making stuff happen" -- the latter opens the floor to multiple weapons, while the former (a Stephon Marbury specialty) leaves the attack monodimensional. Monodimensionality and Team USA don't really fit. USA Basketball's power is in its depth of talent, its weakness is its lack of communal experience (i.e. two weeks of training camp vs. lifetimes of playing with each other for most nations). "Doing stuff" wastes the depth of Team USA. "Making stuff happen" plays to the strength. That's why Westbrook will be so valuable in London.
It didn't always look like it'd be this way, but Westbrook's aggression -- still always on the line between ruthless and reckless -- will be a huge boon to Team USA. Get the pistols ready.