There might not be a more improved player in the country over the last year or two than UCLA sophomore guard Russell Westbrook
. Considered a mid-major recruit leading into his senior year of high school, drawing scholarship offers from schools such as San Diego, Wyoming, Creighton and Kent State, Westbrook benefited from a late growth spurt that saw him shoot up from just 5-10 to 6-3 late in his prep career, and is now a key cog on a Final Four contending team and one of the hottest draft prospects in the country as of late. Obviously a late bloomer, Westbrook remains a raw prospect as far as his skill-level is concerned, but has just about as much upside to continue to improve as any guard in the NCAA not named Derrick Rose
Physically, Westbrook is especially impressive, despite his tweener status. He has solid size at 6-3, an excellent wingspan, and huge hands, and is one of the most explosive players youll find anywhere in the country. Featuring an outstanding first step and terrific strength once in the lane, Westbrooks ability to elevate off the floor has made his highlight reels the stuff of Youtube legend
Offensively, Westbrooks biggest source of production (nearly 30% of his offense) curiously comes in transition. He plays a fairly small role in UCLAs half-court offense (only 8% of his offense comes from either pick and roll or isolation plays) , mostly as a complimentary piecemoving off the ball trying to find holes in the defense to get to the rim with his tremendous strength and leaping ability, or shooting wide open jumpers. Its pretty clear when breaking down his footage that he lacks quite a bit of polish on this end of the floor, even if he is extremely effective at the few things he does well.
Westbrooks ball-handling skills are fairly limited, as he has the ability the beat players off the dribble with his tremendous first step going left or right, and is solid getting to the rim in a straight line, but he struggles when trying to do much more than that. He lacks the advanced dribbling skills needed to create his own shot and change directions sharply in the half-court (for example at the end of a shot clock), and thus often looks a bit out of control when dribbling in traffic, forcing him to flip up some awkward shots at the rim. Its not uncommon to see him called for various violations in the rare occasion that he tries to go out and make something happen on his own, be it traveling calls, palming or offensive fouls.
As far as his jump-shot is concerned, Westbrook is mostly a catch and shoot player, hitting only 18 3-pointers on the season (on a 34.6% clip), usually on open looks, in rhythm and with his feet set. His release is not the quickest or most fluid around, and he lacks accuracy when rushed or forced to shoot off the dribble. He has the potential to improve here, but his touch at the moment looks fairly average. In terms of his mid-range game, Westbrook doesnt show great polish here either, as his shot is a bit flat, and he doesnt always take advantage of his terrific leaping ability to create separation from his defender with his pull-up jumper. He seems to be showing more and more sparks as the season moves on here, though.
To Westbrooks credit, these flaws are not always very noticeable, as he is a very smart player who knows his limitations and has no problem fitting in and being just another cog in UCLAs very efficient offense. He plays within himself, rarely forcing the issue, and thus has done a very good job of not exposing his weaknesses within his teams system. The fact that he has other highly efficient and extremely unselfish teammates like Kevin Love
, Darren Collison
and Josh Shipp
has also helped him a great deal.
As a point guard, Westbrook is not an instinctive playmaker, but is very much capable of bringing the ball up the floor and getting his team into its offense. He is smart, patient, and highly unselfish, and possesses the court vision needed to find the open man without hesitation, picking up quite a few assists just by getting the ball to the right place in UCLAs half-court sets. He lacks some creativity when it comes to improvising outside of his teams offense, though, and its here that his inexperience running the point guard position, along with his average ball-handling skills, seem to show the most. It should be noted that despite his very high assist totals (4.6 per game on the season, compared with just 2.7 turnovers), when taking into account only the most competitive games UCLA was involved with (the eleven which finished within a 10 point margin), his assists per game drop to 3.2, while his turnovers remain at 2.7.
Defensively, Westbrook is nothing short of outstanding, as evidenced by the phenomenal work he did locking down the three top scoring guards in the Pac-10 this season, O.J. Mayo
, Jerryd Bayless
, and James Harden
. He is long, strong and very fundamentally sound, getting into a terrific defensive stance on every possession, moving his feet incredibly well, and being absolutely tenacious getting after his matchup. His wingspan, combined with his huge hands and outstanding anticipation skills make him a terror in the passing lanes, and this is a big factor why he spends so much time in transition offensively.
Westbrook is going to have a very difficult decision to make at the end of this season, as there is a tremendous amount of NBA draft hype surrounding him at the momentto the point that he might struggle trying to live up to it considering the still-early stage of development hes in. Its clear that he could use another season at UCLA to refine his point guard skills, but he runs the risk of having many of his warts exposed once people start breaking down his game and notice his not-so-obvious limitations. UCLA also has two and a half McDonalds All-American guards (Jrue Holiday
, Malcolm Lee
and Jerime Anderson
) coming in next season, which further complicates his decision.
Its still not quite clear what position Westbrook will play in the NBA, even if it could probably be said that his upside is so high that he can just figure that out down the road. He lacks significant experience at the point guard position, and probably isnt a good enough shooter/ball-handler/shot-creator to be considered a starting caliber shooting guard, particularly since he lacks size for the position at 6-3. Considering his physical tools, intangibles and how much hes improved over the past two years, though, a lot of teams would probably have a hard time passing him up in the 10-20 range, since he truly has home run potential if he can improve on his weaknesses in time. He might ideally be suited coming off the bench playing a Leandro Barbosa type role, which would still be worthy of a very high pick.
At the end of the day, a lot will depend on how well he plays in the NCAA tournament. If he has some big games on the way to the Final Four, he might not have a choice but to come out. Right now, though, were hearing that its just as likely that he stays.