NBA's freshman class deeper than expected (cont.)
"We played pickup games in September before the season started, and I was really impressed then,'' Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "His development has been unbelievable, when you think about how -- two years ago -- he wasn't playing a lot at UCLA. He wasn't one of their main guys as a freshman, and, in high school, he wasn't highly recruited. To go from that in three years to being talked about as a Rookie of the Year [candidate] is really impressive. He's just fearless. A great athlete. But he's just scratching the surface of what he can do. He's doing a lot just on ability now, but he works hard and he watches the game, and he'll pick up skills and he'll make a lot of improvements going forward."
Said Durant: "I knew as soon as we picked him that he was going to be the guy for us. First of all, he's an unbelievable person off the floor -- that's the kind of people we need here. On the floor, he gives us a lot of depth as far as another guy who can score, who can rebound. ... He's the motor that gets this team going. So we lean on him and rely on him a lot."
In an insignificant game at Minnesota on Sunday, Westbrook was all over the place, the Timberwolves and the box score. Late in the third quarter, he set up Collison for a jump shot that put the Thunder up 80-48 and left Westbrook with as many assists to that point (nine) as the entire Timberwolves squad. Though Oklahoma City was up 91-65 with 6:17 left, Westbrook stayed in gear when he chased down Wolves rookie Bobby Brown to thwart a breakaway dunk, bothering to foul at that point in the blowout. He sat from there and finished with seven points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, the circumstances interfering with what would have been Westbrook's second triple-double in three weeks.
The rookie's defense, which might be a hair better than Rose's right now, has clearly caught his coach's eye. "It's getting better," Brooks said. "It's not where it needs to be. He will understand that there are good players in this league who don't get to play a lot, but it's your job to know your scouting report, know the personnel you're playing against, and treat every player [with respect]."
Even when it's a touted UCLA rookie barreling after his undrafted-in-'07, Cal State Fullerton counterpart. "That has to be habit," Brooks said. "We're trying to create winning habits and winning players. Keep the game simple on the offensive end, and on the defensive end, they're committed to each other every time downcourt."
Chasing down that Bulls guard from Memphis could be tougher, however. Rose has some math on his side: He is on pace to become only the eighth rookie in NBA history to average at least 16 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and five of the seven who've done it were named Rookie of the Year. Westbrook, at 15.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists, is a little off Rose's pace. Rose has led Chicago in scoring 16 times and in assists 51 times, while reaching at least 20 points in 27 games. Westbrook has led the Thunder nine times in points and 29 times in assists, while scoring 20 on 17 occasions.
Head to head, their teams split their season series 1-1. In the first meeting, Westbrook starred with 14 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in a 109-98 overtime victory in Chicago in January. But on March 18, Rose was 10-of-10 after halftime, and scored 20 of his 25 points in a 103-96 Bulls victory.
Westbrook has helped close the gap on Rose in what many consider the ultimate measure of success, the won-loss record. Since Jan. 12, the Bulls are 17-16 while the Thunder are 14-17, growing from their 6-33 start as Westbrook -- among other developments -- has grown.
"The main thing is winning with your team," Westbrook said before the second clash with the Bulls, "and putting your team in the best situation possible and getting better as the season goes along. I think everybody kind of thinks they deserve it [ROY]."
This is one of those years in which everybody might be right.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.
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