Westbrook: Flash and Substance

One of the biggest developments of this UCLA basketball season has been the hyper-emergence of sophomore guard and resident Superman, Russell Westbrook. Our hoops columnist Kennedy Cosgrove reviews all of the poor guys who Westbrook has P.O.T.D'd this season...

Immediately after UCLA guard Russell Westbrook threw down a vicious and unexpected second-half dunk against Oregon on Saturday -- against the run of play, in a torpid game that the Bruins were increasingly in danger of losing -- a few things happened all at once.

First, the Bruins' bench absolutely exploded. Moments before, Westbrook had missed two consecutive lay ups, spraining his left ankle on the second miss, and hobbled off the court. It looked pretty bad; somehow, he quickly walked it off and re-entered the game. He then stole an Oregon pass, dribbled it the length of the court through the Duck defense -- "I was just going until somebody stopped me," he said -- and when no one did, he elevated off that same ankle, over Oregon's LeKendric Longmire, and threw down a right-handed jam while knocking Longmire to the floor. One minute, a sprained ankle. The next, ESPN's Play Of The Day? Westbrook's teammates seemed as happily shocked as anyone. Josh Shipp in particular loved it, standing next to the fallen Longmire and smiling down at him with an ‘Oh No, He Didn't Just Do That to You' expression on his face.

Second, the Pauley Pavilion crowd was jolted awake from its near-slumber, a roar went up, and the ensuing buzz didn't entirely die down the rest of the way. Home-court advantage had returned.

Third, Westbrook landed, clenched his fists and screamed, "Let's Go!" to no one in particular, but essentially to everyone -- to his teammates, to the opponents, to the fans, and probably to himself as well. A few fist pumps, chest bumps, and an immediate Oregon timeout later, it was clear that Westbrook's play had seized momentum back for UCLA, at a crucial point in the game.

And, lastly, ESPN SportsCenter staffers surely made a note of the sequence, because Westbrook had just POTD'd another victim.

His electrifying slam clearly was the fulcrum on which this game turned. It helped start a 22-6 run lasting about 10 minutes, as the Bruins went from down 11 points with 14 minutes left, to up by five with about 4 minutes to go. From there, they cruised in for the win.

It was a big game (aren't they all this time of year?) because it kept the Bruins atop the Pac-10, one game ahead of Stanford, and on track for their goal of earning a top NCAA Tournament seed, staying in the West region and the friendly sites of Anaheim and Phoenix. It was a bit of a relief, too, because Oregon presents a tricky matchup for UCLA, with Maarty Leunen and Malik Hairston being particularly troublesome; Coach Ernie Kent, not so much.

Still, for a purported big game, it didn't feel that way for much of the time. For one thing, it lacked the crazy energy of UCLA's first game against Oregon, with Kevin Love's well-chronicled return to his home state last month. Vitriol and hatred really crank up the tension, don't they?

And though it was nationally televised, ABC didn't pack much juice into their production. Commentators Brent Musberger and Steve Lavin seemed more interested in their Oscar picks, discussing the merits of Juno vs. Michael Clayton with greater intensity than they did breaking down the Bruins vs. Ducks match-ups. And the ABC cameras kept focusing on a strange dude sitting courtside, asleep, while holding a lap dog that looked borrowed from Paris Hilton. A surreal visual, sure, but it didn't exactly scream out Important Sporting Event.

Even Bruin center Love, normally the picture of intensity, was clearly not himself. Glassy-eyed and listless, he missed layups, free throws, was slow on defense and, as he said in interviews later, was just "out of it." (Days later, he would publicly apologize to his team via the press for his "low energy level," without further explanation. Given that the kid is 19 years old and lives under a media microscope, we'll leave it at that. Plus, he still finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.) But Westbrook's play changed all that. And though other Bruins played well—Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Lorenzo Mata-Real all had their moments -- this game belonged to the 6-foot-3 sophomore. Minutes after the slam in question, he hit a three-pointer, threw an alley-oop to Alfred Aboya for a dunk, an assist to Love for a dunk, and finally flushed another one himself to give the Bruins the lead, 54-53, which they would not relinquish.

Westbrook finished with 16 points, five rebounds, five steals, and had made another step in his rapid hoops ascent.

A relatively unheralded recruit from Lawndale's Leuzinger High, he earned a late scholarship from UCLA, which hadn't offered him until Jordan Farmar declared for the 2006 NBA draft -- in April, when most high school seniors have long ago committed. He was third-team all-state and a bit of a late bloomer; prior to the UCLA offer, his most passionate suitors were San Diego State and Miami.

As a freshman, he backed up Bruin All-American Arron Afflalo and Collison, and played only nine minutes per game. But he tantalized in his limited minutes with his athleticism, slashing ability, and great effort on defense. After Afflalo left for the NBA last spring, Westbrook was slated to get major minutes this season.

The unofficial reports over the summer of 2007 seemed consistent: He was the most improved player on the team, he was turning the heads of the NBA veterans who played pickup ball at UCLA all summer, and he wasn't backing down from anyone.

Anticipation by Bruins fans was high for Westbrook, but his role wasn't entirely clear (starting shooting guard? Backup point guard? Both?), until fellow backcourt mates Darren Collison and Mike Roll were injured in the preseason. Suddenly, Westbrook was the starting point guard expected to play 35-plus minutes per game.

In the fifth game of the season, against Michigan State at a neutral site (Kansas City, in the CBE Classic), he stepped up and seized the role of a leader, playing all 40 minutes, committing only one turnover, and keying the Bruins' second-half comeback victory with 13 points, six rebounds and three assists. More than numbers, he went against Spartan star guard Drew Neitzel, and looked like he belonged.

Since then, Westbrook started at point guard until Collison returned, briefly came off the bench -- without a complaint -- as the sixth man while Coach Howland experimented with lineups, before cementing his role as starting shooting guard who shifts over to the point when Collison is out.

It seems like not a game goes by without a commentator mentioning how explosive he is, and that he might be the best pro prospect on the team. He's wiry, with a great frame for basketball, is very well-conditioned, and does not take plays off. He's had a number of outstanding games this season: At Stanford, he had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with six assists and no turnovers; Against Arizona, he had 21 points and tormented Wildcats star Chase Budinger; At USC, he stifled O.J. Mayo into a four-point, 10-turnover debacle.

He also has been the Bruins' most consistent perimeter defender, averages 12.3 points per game, leads the team in assists and, it must be said, in highlights.

Before the digital age, dunkees got posterized (as in, they were the Other Guy in the poster of the star player dunking). More recently, getting smashed on means getting "YouTubed" because the highlight (or lowlight) will be uploaded to the internet pretty quickly, by someone.

Westbrook's foils, though, are finding themselves in an even more exclusive club. They're getting P.O.T.D'd (maybe, phonetically, "Getting Potted"?); they're the other guy in ESPN SportsCenter's Play Of The Day.

On January 5th, his throwdown on Cal Bear Jamal Boykin was ESPN's P.O.T.D. It was a precursor, quite similar to the play against Oregon's Longmire in that Westbrook dashed the length of the court, straight down the lane and rose up over Boykin for a violent dunk. (Even the Cal bench players reacted to it; on the replay you can see one or two of them start to stand up, as if to celebrate, before they remembered which team they were on.) Most athletes don't have one such flashy moment in their entire career; Westbrook has had two of them in the past month and a half.

But more important than flash, is his substance. He's easily one of the Bruins' most crucial players. Roll appears out for the season, and backcourt depth continues to be the most tenuous and worrisome aspect for UCLA. The frontcourt, in a way, is a given, with so many able, big bodies that Howland can throw on the floor. How Collison and Westbrook hold up playing such extended minutes is a huge key in how far this team ends up going.

And with this clearly being The Year, personnel-wise, for UCLA's championship hopes, Westbrook has emerged.

Just ask those other guys who were POTD'd.


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