While coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in his career, Scott Brooks asked a young Russell Westbrook why he became so angry before games.
“I don’t like 58 point guards in the league,’” the former NBA MVP said, according to Brooks, now the coach of the Washington Wizards.
Westbrook was acknowledging the typical two point guards, a starter and backup, that play per team across the NBA’s 29 other teams.
Brooks, counting the end-of-the-bench reserves, jokingly asked what if there were three per team. Westbrook fired back: “Eighty-seven point guards, I don’t like in the league.”
The moment was a glimpse into Westbrook’s trademark intensity, the fire that fueled his game on the way to nine All-NBA selections, two scoring titles and league MVP in 2017. It’s an attitude that Westbrook now brings to Washington, which held its first practice with the All-Star guard on Sunday after trading John Wall for him last week.
In his introductory press conference over the weekend, Westbrook said he realized his style of play “misconstrues people of who I am as a person.” He hardly interacts with opposing players, and even then, trash talk is usually involved. Spectators see him yell and scream during and after plays.
But Westbrook is unabashedly himself — and remains so.
“When I’m on the floor, I don’t have any friends,” Westbrook said. “I’m not trying to be friendly, I’m trying to bust somebody’s (butt). I don’t got time to try and shake hands and do all that.
“I don’t have time for it and I’m never changing that.”
The Wizards, though, will gladly embrace Westbrook and his style. As polarizing as Westbrook can be to the outside, those close to him have said he’s nothing but a welcoming teammate. Brooks said he never had to ask Westbrook to ease up, saying that his intensity is “invaluable” to a team. He said Westbrook shows up for practice hours early, adding that should positively affect the Wizards’ young roster.
Wizards point guard Ish Smith spent a half-season as Westbrook’s teammate with the Thunder. He saw up close how Westbrook’s demeanor changed when on and off the court. He noted how Westbrook would talk trash and “bring the energy,” only to ask his teammates if they wanted to go grab something to eat afterward. “It was like a switch,” he said.
On the night Westbrook was traded, Smith said he was woken up at 1 a.m. by a call from an amped-up Westbrook.
“He calls me because it’s a different time in (Los Angeles), and says ‘Aye, Ish, wake up, man. What are you doing?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘You know what kind of juice we’re going to bring.’ That’s who Russ is.”
Wearing a Wizards hat, Westbrook said he was excited to move to the District. He joins a team full of familiar faces. Beyond Brooks and Smith, Westbrook knows assistant Robert Pack and a handful of the Wizards’ staff who were previously with the Thunder. During his availability, he side-stepped a question of whether he wanted out of Houston.
Just a year ago, Westbrook was eager to join the Rockets and reunite with star James Harden. But for all the excitement, the pairing fizzled out in the playoffs — losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Westbrook, who had battled a quad injury, struggled in the playoffs as teams dared him to shoot.
With the Wizards, Westbrook will have to learn to play alongside star Bradley Beal. Both players held a usage rate of 34.4% last season, which ranked top five in the NBA. Both men downplayed the significance, only praising the other’s game. Westbrook called Beal a “silent assassin,” while Beal said he “loved” Westbrook’s aggression.
“If you’re on the opposite team, he is attacking you, he’s going at you, he’s smack talking,” Beal said. “And I love it. I’m definitely happy I’m on this side of it.”
At one point Saturday, Westbrook was asked about the area where he’s the most misunderstood.
“Where do you want me to start?” Westbrook said, chuckling. “The underlining thing about that is that 90%, 100% are not even true, because a lot of times the things that are made up, people don’t actually know me to be able to say anything about me or what I’m about or what I believe in. … The biggest thing for me is just kind of going and being myself, which is easy.”
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