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RUSSELL WESTBROOK arrived at a UCLA practice last October with a haircut out of Ghost Rider: a Mohawk framed by intricately shaved flames, some of which licked a basketball rendered on the right side of his skull. It was an audacious 'do for a sophomore shooting guard who averaged only 3.4 points in 9.0 minutes in 2006--07, but, says junior backcourtmate Darren Collison, "it symbolized the year Russell was going to have. He came out on fire."
Word was out about Westbrook's feats during the summer pickup runs at the Student Activities Center in Westwood—that he had held his own against NBA stars, even blocked Kobe Bryant's shot twice in one game. Pickup participants Baron Davis and Earl Watson, both UCLA alums, made a point of telling coach Ben Howland that the 6'3", 189-pound Westbrook was the guy to watch in 2007--08. Their prognosis was spot-on: At week's end Westbrook was averaging 12.4 points and a team-high 4.6 assists for the nation's third-ranked team. He has also become a pro prospect as coveted as Collison and freshman center Kevin Love, the Bruins' All-America candidate.
Westbrook let his flame-hawk grow out in late November, after Howland told him, "You don't need that hair to draw attention to yourself anymore. You're doing that with how you play." Whereas the Marvel superhero Ghost Rider is a stunt motorcyclist, Westbrook is a stunt flier with a fearless credo: "I'm not going to stop until somebody gets in my way." Two of those who tried—Cal's 6'8" Jamal Boykin, on Jan. 5, and Oregon's 6'5" LeKendric Longmire, on Feb. 23—were posterized by slams that ranked No. 1 on SportsCenter's Top 10 list.
Dunking has pumped up Westbrook's Q rating, but he's most valuable to UCLA on D, taking over the stopper role from guard Arron Afflalo (now a Piston). The list of Westbrook's tormentees includes Michigan State's Drew Neitzel, Texas's A.J. Abrams, Davidson's Stephen Curry, Arizona's Jerryd Bayless and, most notably, USC's O.J. Mayo, whom he hounded into a four-point, 10-turnover debacle on Feb. 17.
While Westbrook exhibits his hops at every opportunity—"Even in the mornings, when most people don't feel like jumping," Collison says, "he's doing windmills when he gets out of bed"—he couldn't dunk until he experienced a five-inch growth spurt before his senior year at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif. Until then Westbrook's best scholarship offers were from mid-majors Creighton, Kent State and San Diego. Former UCLA assistant Kerry Keating, impressed by Westbrook's athleticism, asked him to wait until the spring of '06 signing period to commit because there was a chance Afflalo or point guard Jordan Farmar would turn pro after their sophomore year.
Westbrook remained patient into April, and two days before Farmar bolted for the NBA, UCLA finally offered him a scholarship. Westbrook didn't make the Bruins wait long for their gamble to pay off. The sophomore who began the season afire could spark a run to a third straight Final Four.