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Hard work paying off for Westbrook

By Ajaybir Behniwal

Nov. 7, 2007 9:21 p.m.

What a difference a year can make.

Coming into Westwood as a freshman just over a year ago, Russell Westbrook was entering unfamiliar territory. He spent the next several months acclimating to it.

But by the end of last season, Westbrook was hungry for more and was willing to do whatever it took to put himself in the best position to succeed individually and to help his team by any means necessary.

“I think Russell Westbrook is probably one of if not the hardest worker on the team since last year,” junior point guard Darren Collison said. “He has had so much hunger in him.

“It’s one thing to work and another to be willing to get better.”

Westbrook’s desire to improve started the moment he got off the plane returning from the Final Four. He has taken an occasional weekend off to himself, spending countless hours lifting weights, working on his shot and fine-tuning his ball-handling skills.

The time he spent on his own came as a pleasant surprise for one of his teammates who came into the program thinking he may be one of just a few with such a work ethic.

“I like to pride myself on being the hardest worker in the country, but every time I was in the gym, every time I was in the weight room, he was always there, too,” freshman Kevin Love said. “That was really surprising to me, too. He really stepped it up since last year.”

When he wasn’t lifting weights, Westbrook was going up against some of basketball’s best in the Men’s Gym at the Student Activities Center.

It was the offseason not only for collegiate basketball but also for the professionals. And with the Men’s Gym being a hot spot for pro talent, Westbrook found himself going up against the likes of former Bruin Baron Davis and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

When all was said and done, Westbrook was garnering respect from several of the NBA players he went up against for his style of play, his athleticism and his quickness.

“They’re all impressed with him because he plays so hard and plays with a lot of passion,” coach Ben Howland said.

But it was his matchup against the latter that was Westbrook’s most memorable moment of the offseason and the one that had Bryant visibly frustrated.

“No, just got a couple of blocked shots, a couple of steals; it wasn’t too much,” Westbrook said modestly with a smile when asked if he was able to have his way with the NBA superstar.

Defense had been one of the major knocks on Westbrook’s game in his freshman year. He often found himself being beaten to the basket and not applying enough pressure on the ball.

This year, though, the sophomore has been going up against one of the best point guards on a daily basis at practice when he has the tough task of limiting Collison, who also went through a similar process when he played behind former Bruin and current Laker Jordan Farmar.

Collison’s noticeable development and maturation on the defensive end last season is something Howland expects to see Westbrook emulate this year.

“Darren made a huge jump defensively from his freshman and sophomore year, and I expect the same thing from Russell with the experience of staying in front of the ball,” Howland said.

“There’s no reason anybody should be able to go by Russell, as athletic, as quick and as strong as he is.”

The impressive advances by Westbrook have taken the attention away from perhaps an even more intriguing storyline in that the sophomore guard will now also be playing the role of shooting guard.

Whereas in the past he has been the source of energy off the bench behind Collison, Westbrook will help the Bruins with an immediate spark as Howland now has the option of starting him as the shooting guard, adding a great deal of speed and athleticism to the floor.

“The fact that he can bring the ball up the court and come off screens and shoot the ball and score for us is a talent as well,” Collison said. “That’s one of the best things he brings to this team ““ his ability to play the 1 and the 2.”

With Collison doubtful for Friday’s season-opener against Portland State, Westbrook will once again take charge of the Bruin offense and will be seeing significant minutes as the point guard.

“He worked his butt off, and now it’s showing in the games,” Love said. “He’s becoming a natural leader, and he’s growing up a lot.”

His numerous talents have led many of his teammates to consider him as a secret weapon that most opponents will underestimate and struggle to contain while also leaving Howland anxious to see his performance throughout the season.

“He’s paid the price,” Howland said. “I’m really rooting for him because he’s worked so hard in the offseason. He’s going to be out to impress.”

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Ajaybir Behniwal
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