Published April 27, 2010
It's not Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti's nature to take bows, and he certainly can't take one for drafting Kevin Durant.
When the Portland Trail Blazers used the No.1 overall pick in the 2007 draft to take Greg Oden, Presti was left with Durant. Not a bad consolation prize, as it turned out, especially with Odom being the second coming of Sam Bowie in Portland. But it's the easiest pick Presti will ever have to make.
Where Presti has earned the respect of his peers was in his second draft, the next year, when he used the fourth pick overall to take Russell Westbrook.
It looked like a reach and that's how it was characterized in more than a few NBA draft war rooms -- coming out of UCLA, Westbrook was considered a late lottery pick -- but it's turned out to be ... well, just ask the Lakers, who now are in the fight of their lives. Losing two straight games in Oklahoma City, and looking like an old, lethargic and divided team, they'll tell you how good Westbrook has been in their first-round series. While Durant has had his moments against an obviously-ailing Kobe Bryant, the Thunder's point guard has been the best and most consistent player for Scott Brooks' No. 8-seeded team.
Westbrook's dunk on Lamar Odom in the Thunder's Game 4 rout of the Lakers has been the signature moment of the series. Going into Tuesday's Game 5, without question the most important game the Lakers have played since last year's playoff run, there's no reason to think Westbrook won't continue to make an impact as the Thunder attempt to pull off the biggest upset in years.
"Taking Westbrook was a great call by Sam Presti,'' said Milwaukee GM John Hammond, recently named the NBA's Executive of the Year. "I think people respected Westbrook's ability, but it was a surprise he went that high.''
To refresh your memory, in the 2008 draft, Chicago took Derrick Rose at No. 1; Miami went with Michael Beasley at No. 2 and Minnesota drafted O.J. Mayo at No. 3, with the intent of trading Mayo to Memphis for Kevin Love. You think the Heat wants a re-do on the pick? You think maybe the Grizzlies, still searching for a point guard, even with the University of Memphis right up the road,also wants a do-over?
All Westbrook has done in his first NBA playoff series is something rarely seen: Increased his regular-season scoring average -- from 16 ppg to 22 ppg -- while also significantly raising his shooting percentage -- from 42% to 55%. With Westbrook running the break, the Thunder has outscored the older, slower Lakers in fast-break points, 72-17.
The Lakers had all the championship experience coming in, but it's been trumped during the past two games by the Thunder's younger, athletic legs. In fact, the next Laker who's able to stay in front of Westbrook and prevent him from getting into the lane will be the first.
"The thing about Westbrook is that when he was at UCLA, you really never had a chance to see him run a team and you didn't know how well he shot it,'' Hammond said from Milwaukee, several hours before his Bucks tried to tie their first-round series with the Hawks. "But any questions that there were about Westbrook going into the draft, they've all been answered.''
Now if Pat Riley had to re-draft, he'd never touched the inconsistent and often out-to-lunch Beasley and would have Westbrook playing alongside Dwyane Wade. As for Memphis, they passed on Tyreke Evans, not a bad point guard himself, so what do you expect?
"That's why drafting is an inexact science,'' said Hammond, who found a pretty good point guard in last June's draft, Brandon Jennings, at No. 10.
It is inexact, but in Westbrook's case, the Thunder banked on his drive, work ethic, toughness and athleticism. The way the game is called these days, a point guard who can get his own shot, while still averaging eight assists a game, makes a great wing man for a high scorer like Durant.
"The way I look at it, we've got Derrick Rose in the East and there's Russell Westbrook in the West,'' Hammond said. "You have players who play the position with different strengths. But the one thing those two have in common is speed and quickness and the ability to get to the basket and finish with strength. So that was a great pick by the Thunder.''
As if the Lakers need to be reminded.
Read more of Mitch Lawrence's columns at the New York Daily News .