Welcome to Thunderdome

“Two men enter, one man leave.”

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

It’s no secret the Oklahoma City Thunder possess a bright future thanks to young stars, a potential perennial MVP candidate, and a patient genius for a GM who comes from a spectacular pedigree of learning from the most successful franchise of the past decade.

So I’m not splitting the atom or slicing the loaf here when I tell you that this is a team worthy of playoff contention within the next two seasons. I’d be mildly surprised if it came together this season but willing to bet the farm it will definitely happen by the end of the 2010-2011 season. But I don’t really want to talk about how great Kevin Durant is. I’ve halted against calling him the next superstar in the past because I wanted to see a little bit more from him to distinguish himself apart from the group of guys like Rudy Gay and Danny Granger (fantastic scoring small forwards but it’s unclear if they can actually be a top player some day). I also don’t really want to talk about the versatility of Jeff Green or how perfect the James Harden pick is going to be for them because he seamlessly fits into what they’re building and will be a fantastic third or fourth option in the playoffs.

What I want to discuss is the next nightmare of the NBA: Russell Westbrook.

The Thunderdome headline was a cliché and obvious choice because I think it’s one of the internet laws that every other article about the up and coming OKC Thunder has to have some reference to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But when you think about the current state of what Russell Westbrook brings to the basketball court in year two of his NBA career, there is a certain sense of chaos, battle, and getting to the weapons first. He’s more athletic than most of the top athletes in the world. He has no place on a traditional NBA court because he isn’t easily defined. He’s the fun, confident kind of arrogant – secure in his ability to complete the objective at hand.

I asked Royce Young from Daily Thunder to expound on his feelings in getting to watch Westbrook every game and he said, “The thing about Westbrook is that he doesn’t fit the mold. He doesn’t even fit his position. He’s a total tweener that isn’t made to play the point or the two-guard. He can’t shoot well enough to play shooting guard. He makes too many bad decisions to be a true point. He’s too small to guard other two’s. He too offensively inclined to be a one. He’s a hybrid guard that does a little of everything. Like there is in college football recruiting, the position he really fits is just “athlete.” He plays ‘point guard’ because that’s the best place for him to be when he’s on the floor. But truthfully, he doesn’t really fit in.

But that’s what makes him so damn special. He just plays basketball. He crashes the boards for rebounds, tries to challenge power forwards at the rim, goes for every pass, never takes stops running and plays with such reckless abandon you think he’d taken PCP before the game.”

Watching him play is like watching the future unfold in front of your eyes. We’ve been moving this way for a while with basketball players. Extra athletic players that aren’t exactly reliable in shooting the ball but also, not really a liability either in that department. And after seeing what Westbrook was able to do as a rookie with next to zero experience, it’s kind of scary to see him make the leap into next season. He reminds me of Allen Iverson in many ways without having any semblance of the same skill game as A.I. did as a young’n.

Westbrook is so confident in his ability to play basketball that he didn’t want to add a better point guard to improve the talent of the team. He damn near refused to consider Ricky Rubio as a future teammate in June. It wasn’t because he thinks Rubio is bad by any means. Rubio and Westbrook would be a backcourt capable of rewriting how you play offense and defense around the perimeter. Their defensive abilities combined with their offensive attacks would have created baffled opponents with timid demeanors against the Thunder. But Russell wanted to prove to everybody that he is capable of playing point guard and doing so at the highest level. So Sam Presti decided to believe him and move in a non-complicated, role-playing shooting guard in James Harden. That’s the proverbial “dog in him” that begins to separate him from the rest.

He’s also fearless in the way he reacts on the court, despite the fact that most guys are bigger than him. He’s like Dajuan Wagner, except he’s a little taller and appears to be mainlining adrenaline during game nights. You’d be hard pressed to find more highlights from any of his rookie classmates from last season. Sure, Derrick Rose is a better basketball player, a better point guard, and has his fair share of YouTube folklore but Westbrook is arguably more explosive and more worthy of cracking the Top Ten plays every night with his go-go gadget leaping ability. He erupts towards the basket and makes defenders, stupid enough to jump with him or incapable of getting out of the way, wish it was throwback night and they were wearing James Worthy’s goggles.

His production is also unheralded throughout NBA history. There are only nine players in the NBA’s nearly 60 years of existence that have totaled more than 1200 points, 400 assists, and 375 rebounds in their rookie season. Those players are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Alvan Adams, Steve Francis, Magic Johnson, Anfernee Hardaway, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and (yep, you guessed it) Russell Westbrook. That’s not a bad list to be on. I’m not saying he’ll be as good as any of those players outside of Steve Francis. But his rookie numbers are nearly identical to Chris Paul’s and he has Steve Francis’ athleticism.

And even though he has his drawbacks as well, he seems to always do something to make you forget those mistakes instantly. “Sure he makes me want to dry hump a porcupine sometimes with his bad decisions and pension for dribbling into traps. But then he makes up for it five seconds later with a crossover and bolt to the bucket for a ridiculous dunk,” says Royce. His shooting was pretty atrocious last season at just under 40% (39.9% to be exact). But a lot of that may be attributed to that alleged “rookie wall” since he was shooting well over 40% in the first half of the year. He also had the 19th most turnovers in NBA history for rookies with 274. But while the mistakes are plentiful (as is often the case for rookie point guards), the positives far outweigh the negatives.

As for his leap into next season (and trust me, there will be a leap), it’s kind of hard to predict what he could do or turn into. Monta Ellis was able to make one of the more impressive leaps from rookie to sophomore year for a combo-ish guard in recent memory and Westbrook is probably a better player than the Mississippi Bullet. Rookie point guards usually find themselves exploding into their second season because of their greater understanding of the world around them (like K-PAX). For Westbrook, I think the hard work and the talents will yield some terrifying results. Not terrifying for him, his organization or his fans but terrifying for everyone that has to deal with him as an opponent next season.

He’s a nightmare now. As he continues to add some consistency to his shooting range, he becomes more and more complex and unpredictable. But the difference between him and the other young sophomoric combo guards of the past is the strength that goes with his athleticism. He’s like a cougar. Not the pathetic, cheetah print wearing, Botox injected, Maroon 5 listening, 40-year old hags going to nightclubs, hoping to get a young guy drunk enough to make them forget about their stretch marks, leather skin and Oliver Miller-esque expanding waist line. He’s like the animal – majestic, streamlined and ready to pounce on unsuspecting foes.

Most opponents still won’t know what’s about to come their way. His jump will be too quick. His first step will be a senile memory that seems to be nothing more than a blur. His defense will be staunch and unfathomable for a player so young. He’ll become a flash of Gary Payton with a pogo stick. And there’s nothing the opposition can do about it. All they can hope for is that his jumper never learns how to fall and that the NBA implements a true zone defense so that they can crowd the lane against Russell Westbrook.

41 times this coming year, two men will enter at the point guard position but more often than not, Russell Westbrook will be the only one leaving.

Zach Harper also runs Talkhoops.net, a general NBA blog, and Cowbell Kingdom, a Sacramento Kings blog part of the TrueHoop Network. You can email him at zharper[at]talkhoops.net.

Seth Carstens