You know what our problem is? We’ve been spoiled. Spoiled by so many great young players lately that we sometimes forget about the young part. Derrick Rose, the league’s youngest MVP. Kevin Durant, youngest two-time scoring champ ever. It’s crazy, really.
Because of these phenoms, sometimes we get caught up and forget that 22-year-old players are going to have lots to learn. They’re going to make mistakes aplenty and, yes, they’re going to be repeat offenders and often times frustate the heck out of us couch-sitting coaches who are tweeting along at home.
As Russell Westbrook answered questions from the media after the Thunder’s convincing Game 5 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, what I really would have liked to know is what he was thinking and not saying. Had I been the plucky, bold point guard, my thought process would have gone something like this:
“You guys have no idea, do you? We get the win so Kevin and I are cool. We get the win so I’m a young guy with talent who is trying to do the right thing. We get the win so you can ask about what is in Kevin’s backpack. If we don’t get the win, though? If we lose this game? Then I become the problem. The selfish player who doesn’t realize I’m playing with a two-time scoring champion even though he’s one of my closest friends. Even though he won those scoring titles playing the majority of his minutes with me on the floor.”
In other words, I think we’ve been kind of unfair with respect to how we’ve criticized the play of Westbrook during this postseason. It’s easy to do and it makes sense if you’ve only watched a handful of Thunder games this season, or glance quickly at a stat sheet. As with everything else in life, the easy way isn’t always the right way. It’s not fair to Westbrook to paint him as problem child when dissecting Thunder losses, then forget about our arguments when discussing Thunder victories.
While there has been a lot written about Westbrook in the past few days, I think the most important thing to me is that we remember he’s a 22-year-old point guard who was voted to the All-NBA second team who also happens to be learning more about how to be a point guard every day. He is never going to be Jason Kidd or Steve Nash or even Tony Parker. His bravado is too bold and his personality is too strong to be tamed and this is a very good thing. With a calm, cool and collected superstar in Durant, Westbrook’s louder exterior is a good fit, even if it may not always look like the fit we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in point guard and scorer.
The same game he has been playing in these playoffs is what helped the Thunder get to 55 wins. It’s what made him arguably the Thunder’s best player in the first half of the season while Durant was finding his rhythm. It’s the same game that gives us thunderous dunks and screams that ignite the Thunder faithful and celebratory holster-action after huge three-pointers. It also comes with sometimes questionable decision-making and shot selection because it’s the game of a 22-year-old non-traditional point guard. You know, kind of like Derrick Rose, the MVP.
While Rose gets the green light because he is the main focal point for Chicago offensively, things are a little more difficult for Westbrook, who plays with the NBA’s leading scorer beside him. A leading scorer who sometimes also plays like the 22-year-old that he is, not always knowing how to put himself into the best situations to score. There’s a pressure that comes with playing alongside a superstar like Durant. Westbrook has made such a huge leap over the last 18 months, we have to temper our expectations and realize that things take time.
Why can’t we just enjoy him? The good, and bad, exciting and exhilarating, the shots that sometimes make us scratch and shake our heads and the commitment to getting better and improving. Enjoy it and appreciate it. Remember the youth, remember the gift we’ve been given with all of these young guys who are holding spots that are usually reserved for those older, while they simultaneously make mistakes that can only be excused by their inexperience and youth.
We’re watching the future develop now. The ups and downs of a 22-year-old shoot-first point guard who is trying to find his middle ground. This is fun. Even when it’s painful. Even when it makes you cringe. The stepping stones and stumbles of Westbrook’s career can remind us all of something important, too. It really is as much about the journey as it is the destination. Westbrook has the talent, desire and opportunity to get there. For now, let’s enjoy the ride and, above all else, allow him to enjoy it, too.