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September 23, 2011
Taking the Next Step
Russell Westbrook

by Sebastian Pruiti

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With the way his season ended, Russell Westbrook caught a lot flack for his play--so much so, that many people think the Westbrook needs to be traded and the Oklahoma City Thunder needs to have a more conventional point guard to win. With all this going on, it is easy to forget that Westbrook actually had a really good third season, building upon his solid rookie and sophomore campaigns.

Despite seeing his usage rate increase from 25.7 percent of the Thunder's plays to 31.5 percent last year, Westbrook was still able to improve his efficiency, posting a True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 53.8 percent last year versus 49.1 percent two years ago. In addition, Westbrook has been able to limit his turnovers, cutting his turnover rate to 15.9 from 16.6 two years ago. All of this has resulted in an increase in his PER, taking him from 17.9 two years ago to 23.6 last year.

What He Did Well

Where Westbrook really showed his improvement this past season was with the basketball in his hands. Westbrook improved his scoring both in isolation situations and when coming off of ball screens last year. Two years ago, Westbrook was an OK but not great scorer in both situations, posting 0.767 points per possession when coming off of ball screens and 0.784 PPP in isolation situations and shooting 38.8 percent and 38.2 percent, respectfully. Last season, Westbrook bumped up his rates to 0.830 and 0.867 PPP and his shooting percentages to 41.1 percent and 39 percent, healthy increases in both situations.

With pick-and-rolls, we are seeing Westbrook go away from screens more freqeuntly. Two years ago, Westbrook did this on 9.9 percent of his pick-and-rolls. Last year, that number jumped to 11.3 percent of the time. Dwyane Wade has mastered the art of going away from the screen and turned it into an effective weapon, and I definitely see Westbrook trying to do the same thing. When a player has Westbrook's athletic ability, turning down screens and going away from them might be more dangerous than actually using the screen. Westbrook has proved this, because when he goes away from the screen, he is shooting 49 percent, better than when he uses the screen (39.5 percent):

Because the defense is so worried about Westbrook exploding off of the screen, you can tell that there is a tendency for the defense to load up in the middle of the court and hedge early. When Westbrook catches them doing this, he simply goes away from the screen and takes advantage of the defense being out of position.

In isolation situations, Westbrook has actually improved his jump shot off of the dribble enough where it is now something the defense has to worry about. Two years ago, Westbrook shot 33.3 percent on dribble jumpers in isolation situations. Last year, Westbrook got that number up all the way to 41.2 percent:

Despite looking out of control on most isolation situations, Westbrook has a great ability to get himself to stop on a dime and get straight up and down on his jump shot. As Westbrook continues to improve at this, he will continue to knock down these pull-up jumpers. This is especially dangerous for a player like Westbrook because when he dribbles at a defender, there is a tendency to back up and give him space. As Westbrook continues to knock down these jumpers, defenders will stop backing up and giving him space. When that happens, Westbrook is going to be as dangerous and as productive as ever.

So will Westbrook take the next step? I think he can. He's only going to get more comfortable both going away from screens and knocking down jumpers. However, if there is one area Westbrook must improve to truly take the next step, it is finding his teammates coming off of ball screens. When he is looking to score and the defense doesn't step up to stop him, Westbrook is fantastic. When the defense commits, Westbrook fails to recognize it much of the time. The result is that Westbrook relies on himself to create everything off of the pick-and-roll. This past season, Westbrook shot the ball 60.1 percent of the time when coming off screens, a little too high in my opinion. If he starts to become a little more willing to pass out of the pick-and-roll and recognizes the help a little better, he will become even more dangerous as an offensive threat.

Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Sebastian by clicking here or click here to see Sebastian's other articles.

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