Russell Westbrook: What His Early Return Means


Russell Westbrook. Photo Credit: Keith Allison,

Previously expected to be out four to six weeks, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook returned triumphantly on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns. He’s only improved with more in-game experience, considering his big performance in a win against the Dallas Mavericks. This return was way ahead of schedule and changes the Thunder’s regular season plan drastically. But how much of an effect does he have on the offense? And how will his early return affect the Thunder in the win column?

Haters of Russell Westbrook always have something to say about his offensive game. It usually consists of them pointing to box scores where Russ took more shots than Kevin Durant and declaring that to be an affront to the basketball gods. They’ll talk about all the times late in games where Russ didn’t defer to Durant every single time, like that is a fate worse than death. And don’t even get them started on Russ’s famed pull up jumper in transition (PUJITs, ever so lovingly abbreviated). They cackle with masochistic glee every time Russ misses one of these PUJITs and demand he transform into a traditional, John Stockton-esque point guard. I could talk for a hours responding to these critiques of his offensive tendencies, but to spare you that rant, let’s take a more targeted look at his contributions to the Thunder attack.

The haters are right: Russell Westbrook takes more jump shots than the average point guard. In fact, he was second in the entire league in field goal attempts with 1,535, above Carmelo Anthony, Monta Ellis, and yes, Kevin Durant. Because of this, he had a generally low true shooting percentage of .532% last year, good for 32nd in the league. And if you look at his shooting splits from last season, you can see that he was only assisted on 167 of his attempts. That’s pretty standard for a point guard, as they are the ones who usually dish out assists, but it means that he’s taking the ball himself a lot and creating his own shot. In addition, his heat map tells the best story about his shooting. You can see he has two spots: one on the right elbow and one on the left, where he takes most of his jumpers. Anyone who’s watched him play knows exactly what I’m talking about:

He’ll get the ball in transition, see the defense sag off and pull up. That’s his trademark shot. And even though it’s not the most efficient of shots, it works better for him than any player in the league. No other point guard, other than maybe Derrick Rose, has the raw athleticism to blow by an opposing guard for easy looks in the lane other than Russell Westbrook. Opposing defenses know that he’s a threat to drive every single time he comes up the floor. He’s especially looking to attack if he’s going coast-to-coast off an opposing miss. That’s why if you look again on his heat map, the circle around the basket is bright red. These highlights from last year’s playoffs against the Houston Rockets prove how amazing he is when attacking the rim.

Not only is he blazingly quick, but he’s strong as well. He can take the contact from a burly center, draw a foul and still finish at the hoop. The reason why he takes so many PUJITs is because defenses are terrified of giving him the smallest of opportunities to drive the rim. They’ll give him a big cushion and to make them pay, he’ll pull up. Again, there’s no better player in the league to utilize this shot than Russell Westbrook.

But how will this effect the OKC Thunder’s path to a title this year? Well, I wrote about this before during those dark days when it looked like Russell Westbrook would be out for a much longer period of time. But now that he’s back, throw all that out the window. Next Wednesday and Thursday against the Clippers and Warriors will be the ultimate test to see if Russ can take the Thunder back to championship expectations. Let’s be honest, if Russ didn’t play in either of those two games, they would be slaughters. Both the Clippers and Warriors have burst out of the gate, destroying some really good teams in their path. But neither Chris Paul nor Stephen Curry has faced the physical challenge of guarding Russell Westbrook. I still don’t think the Thunder are good enough as a team to win both of those games, but Russ will have an astronomical impact on the success of this team as they try to get in a groove.

Russell Westbrook is basketball poetry in motion. I know I posted a GIF of this dunk during the weekly review, but it’s too good to not post again.

You’re not getting that with a backcourt of Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher. Opposing defenses better recognize that Russell Westbrook is back, healthy and angry. Watch out.