NBA Top 10 Dunkers: #5 Russell Westbrook
His first introduction to the sport was in the backyard practice sessions with his father; shooting the ball until it was so dark that he couldn’t see the ring any more. His mornings were spent training with his younger brother, running sprints on the sand dunes of Manhattan.
Also read: Top 10 of Russell Westbrook's Triple Doubles
Russell Westbrook‘s foray into the world of basketball was very ordinary. A second-choice point guard at UCLA, not many believed that the freshman had it in him to become a star in collegiate basketball, let aside play and star in the NBA someday. He was too impulsive, didn’t shoot the ball well enough, and wasn’t much of an athletic phenomenon either. UCLA was among the premier college teams and Darren Collison played starting guard over Westbrook.
However, he did get his chance to prove his worth in his Sophomore year when Collison was side-lined due to injuries, and the responsibility of running the team’s offence fell on the young shoulders of Westbrook. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands, excelling in that year. His brilliant display got him his dream move to the NBA, selected as the 4th pick in the 2008 draft by the Seattle Supersonics.
Four years down the line, still not many are convinced about his abilities as a floor general. He has a conference title to his name, an Olympic gold medal and forms one of the most prominent one-two’s in the league. However, the player who grew up idolizing the legendary Magic Johnson has often showcased a game far different from the drive and dish style of Magic. He takes questionable shots, doesn’t pass the ball enough, and for many cuts down the insuperable offensive talents of his partner in crime, Kevin Durant. This season, he has managed to rake in a career high 8.9 assists a game, and also managed to score over 21 points per game. Good enough to rate among the best in the league in terms of stats, but still the sceptics aren’t convinced.
The pundits may not give him a rostrum similar to the likes of a Chris Paul, a Deron Williams or a Derrick Rose. However, to the doting crowd in Oklahoma he is the best Point Guard in the league, a competitor and a true entertainer. Central to his entertainment value is his ability to execute the most hyperbolic dunks in the league.
6’3” tall, with a wingspan of 6’8”, and a vertical of around 36 inches, Westbrook is among the most uniquely gifted guards of his generation. His creativity and explosive dunking ability makes him one of the most feared guards in the league in open court plays.
Westbrook doesn’t just soar up to put the ball in the cup; he rises above the biggest Centers in the league and hammers the ball down. Posterization comes as second nature to Westbrook, who by his own admission believes that it is his comfort zone. The flush-down and then the devilish smile to cap it off, are signature Westbrook plays. The video below is a pretty good example of what Westbrook can do to the best big-men in the NBA.
Omer Asik may have been complaining to the stars above, humbled and embarrassed by a player 9 inches shorter. But, when Westbrook comes into the paint and rises up with a full head of steam, there are not many players in the league who can stop him from finishing with a devastating dunk.
To all those ready to deride his abilities, by grading him as a physical freak, it is vital to understand that Westbrook had to work a lot to play his way into the modern-day highlight reel.
“To be honest, I was never really jumping that high when I was younger. I had to work on it. I didn’t dunk for the first time until the last game of my senior year in high school. I didn’t really start dunking regularly until college. I just work on my legs and my core: Running the stairs, squats, working my hamstrings and quads. Then just sit-ups for my core.”
Apparently, all those exercises are paying him rich dividends, as he has evolved into a player who can not only hurt you from the perimeter, but also kill you with his dribble penetration. He isn’t your pretty dunker, and doesn’t try to do a windmill or a 360. His dunking is simple: Jump as high as you can and come down even harder. It isn’t about being jazzy, but making a statement. Plays, that do so much more than add to the score. Many of his dunks have often acted as momentum changers, and pretty much taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails.
Yes, maybe he still isn’t the efficient floor general that Chris Paul is, and he still can’t shoot the ball as well as a Steve Nash did. But, he isn’t like a Chris Paul or a Steve Nash. He is a player, who is dexterous with the ball, quick with his step and turn and explosive with his jump. He can hurt the opposition team with his ability to drive and get to the paint, use the lapses in defensive rotation to find open team-mates on the corner or at the 45. That is who Westbrook is and shall always remain.
The pick and roll, the perimeter shots and the shovel no-look passes are qualities that is Westbrook’s secondary option. Primary to him, is to put the ball on the floor, exploit the open lane and get to the ring. If you can execute the most efficient finishing move in all of basketball with the aplomb that Westbrook can, you surely don’t dissuade from trying it often enough. Durant knows and understands this, and so does Brooks. The players who play with him value his ability, rather than trying to compare him with the Paul’s and the Rondo’s. I guess they know better than to try and compare apple’s and oranges.
However, as an objective basketball fan, I admire the resilience and the intensity of a play-off game as much as a gravity-defying hyperbolic demonstration of freakish athletic ability. So, as much as I wish Westbrook to play hard-ball, share the ball and get OKC to win, I also wish him to get some innovations and variety to his highlight plays. Maybe not in a game, but surely in the dunk contest.
With his vertical clearance and athletic ability there is huge scope to get some interesting innovations in his above-the-rim arsenal. Maybe he can’t jump over a car, or take off from the free-throw line, but he is sure more than capable of doing a 360, or a wind-mill. The rings and everything are maybe what he will be decorated for, but to compete and entertain is what distinguishes stars from the ordinary players. This is what got people raving about a certain Michael Jordan. Russell won more rings, but nobody won them with the style and panache of Jordan.
And Westbrook has shown a desire to set statements, be it with his red glasses, or with his clothes, or even on twitter. The Slam Dunk Contest just surely seem the perfect place for him.
Keep an eye out for the remaining spots in the list of the top 10 dunkers, as we countdown to the guy who slams the ball home the best in the NBA.
5. Russell Westbrook
7. Derrick Rose
8. Dwyane Wade
9. JaVale McGee
10. Josh Smith