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A Cut Above

'Flaming mohawk' aside, the sophomore guard has designs on a breakout year and appears well on his way after an off-season that seems to be paying off.

November 07, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Memories of Russell Westbrook as a UCLA freshman are blurred. He popped up occasionally, making a dramatic sweep to the basket for a pulsating dunk or sinking a quick-strike jump shot with the flick of his wrist.

After games, Westbrook ducked his head and mostly spoke in sentences of one or two words, leaving most of the talking to team leaders Arron Afflalo, Josh Shipp and Darren Collison.

That was then.

This is now: A basketball and flames are carved into his hair -- "the flaming mohawk," Westbrook calls the cut -- unexpected flash for a player in old-school Coach Ben Howland's system.

There are other hints that Westbrook is ready to step into the spotlight that shines on the nation's second-ranked college basketball team.

Says Howland, a coach not prone to hyperbole: "Russell may have made more improvement than any other player in the program this off-season. On defense, no one should be able to get by Russell."

With Darren Collison trying to come back from a sprained knee, Westbrook will probably be the Bruins' starting point guard Friday in the season opener against Portland State. If not, he has earned a role for sure, either as Collison's backup, or perhaps even starting alongside him at shooting guard.

"Russell will do anything that is asked of him," says Kerry Keating, the new Santa Clara coach who was a UCLA assistant when he recruited Westbrook out of Lawndale Leuzinger High.

Says Westbrook's father, whose first name also is Russell: "He could fulfill the point guard position at any time and UCLA shouldn't skip a beat."

In about nine minutes a game last season, Westbrook averaged 3.4 points and had more turnovers (25) than assists (24), but those modest numbers haven't cracked his confidence.

"I'm ready," he says.

"I'm faster and stronger than last year. I gained seven pounds. I shot the ball, 600 or 700 or 800 times a day. I've been playing point in practice, going against Darren. How can that not make me ready?"

Westbrook, 6 feet 3 and 189 pounds, worked hard on his shot over the summer at Howland's request.

Where he worked was wherever he could find an empty court, whether it was at UCLA or Ross Snyder Park at 41st and Compton, or Rowley Park off 132nd Street in Gardena.

His father got off work at 2:30 in the afternoon and by 3 Westbrook would be in a shooting rhythm, taking passes and firing away.

With the senior Westbrook pausing to take notes, Reggie Morris, Russell's former high school coach, supervised some of the workouts, helping his former star find a more consistent release point and more arc in his jump shot.

"We have to find his cotton shot, the 10- to 15-foot runner in the lane," Westbrook's father said. "I call that the cotton shot.

"Russell wants to shoot the three, and at this level everybody can shoot the three, but everybody can't shoot that cotton shot."

Westbrook can do a lot of things that other players can't, Morris says.

"Russell played less than 10 minutes a game last year," the coach says, "yet he had the highlight stuff. There's a YouTube video of his dunk over the Indiana kid in the NCAA tournament. Did you see that dunk? That was the energizer dunk.

"So that's what we're working with. An incredible talent with some rough edges who is willing to work."

Keating said it was necessary during recruitment to look past the unpolished skills, the unreliable jump shot and the moments where Westbrook would rely only on his physical ability.

"Russell always played hard," Keating says. "One thing he did and will always do is play hard. He hates to lose."

That might explain his off-season work ethic.

Last season, with Westbrook forced into the starting lineup in place of the injured Collison in a game at nationally ranked West Virginia, UCLA lost and the freshman was blamed.

Going against the Mountaineers vaunted 1-3-1 zone, and without starting center Lorenzo Mata-Real who also was out because of an injury, Westbrook made one of 11 shots, had three turnovers and fouled out as the Bruins fell, 70-65.

"Sometimes history decrees you don't have a choice," Keating says, "but it was unfair to judge Russell after the West Virginia game. What people failed to remember was that Lorenzo didn't play either. Obviously, it gets magnified -- the guy with the most turnovers, the most missed shots -- but it was unfair to judge Russell off that.

"Russell is mature enough to play point guard now. And this year he has four complete players around him, an experienced team around him. When Russell plays point, all he'll have to do is initiate the offense and not turn it over."

Keating also pointed out something else: "Collison wasn't a point guard in high school either. . . . But he had the skills. So does Russell."

Flaming mohawk aside, there's a conservative quality to Westbrook.

"He's got swagger and he walks around with confidence," Keating says. "But he will listen. He will take in what a coach says and he will do it. No questions asked."

Before Collison got hurt during an exhibition game last Friday, Howland said Westbrook would play more minutes at the shooting guard spot than at the point.

"That's where I think he's really going to thrive as his career moves forward," Howland says. "The minutes he spends at the point will benefit him ahead when he's at the two. You'll definitely see him and Darren in together a lot more than you did last year."

But until Collison's knee sprain is healed, it is up to Westbrook to start UCLA's engines.

"If I got the key," Westbrook said, "I know how to use it."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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UCLA vs. Portland State

season opener at Pauley Pavilion

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

USC vs. Mercer (Ga.)

season opener at Galen Center

Saturday, 1 p.m.

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