4. RUSSELL WESTBROOK – turns 25 on November 12, 2013
Russ is already one of the top five point guards in the league, and combined with another guy on this list, he’s one of the young leaders of an Oklahoma City Thunder team looking to return to their second NBA Finals in as many years. But Russ has experienced some growing pains in his now four-plus seasons in the league. After an exciting rookie season, he regressed a bit in his sophomore campaign. He shot just 22 percent from three-point land, and continued to turn the ball over. These same problems continue to plague one of the most confounding players to watch in the game.
But he plays so damn hard, Thunder fans have now accepted the bad with the incredible. Stats don’t really sum up the energy and excitement he brings to the Thunder, but let’s look at them anyway since they’d play a part if he were to make it to Springfield some day. We mentioned his turnovers, and even this year he’s still over three TOs per 36 minutes, which is high for a player of his caliber, but not incredibly so – especially now that that OKC is without one of its primary ballhandlers from years past, James Harden.
Even though Russell’s assist numbers took a dive last year from 8.2 per game to 5.5, he shot over 45 percent from the floor for the first time, and averaged 23.6 points per game. While some – ahem Skip Bayless – think Russell should cede more of those shots to his partner in Oklahoma City (don’t worry, we’ll get to him), Westbrook’s offense is a part of what makes the Thunder special. He’s a big game scorer that can sometimes single-handedly keep his team in contention when their other superstar is struggling. Witness last year’s performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. He dropped 43 points on the champs and had 20 buckets as the Heat were unable to keep him from getting to the rim and finishing. When you can light up a team as good as Miami on that stage, it’s a lot easier to stomach the turnovers and rushed three-pointers.
This season has seen a slight change from Russ. He’s still averaging 21.1 points per game. He’s back to being a facilitator, something the Thunder need more of since Harden was traded. He’s averaging a career-high 8.6 assists per game, and he’s cut his turnovers down to a career low 3.3 per 36 minutes. While that’s not ideal, it’s still the best of his still-short career, and in case you didn’t know, Kobe Bryant is leading the league in turnovers as of this writing. Westbrook only turned 24 this past November, and we’ve got goosebumps thinking about all the years we’re gonna get to watch him take guys off the dribble, and pull up for that jumper where he seems to jump four feet in the air before arcing it through the net.