A Lighter Side of the Pac-12
This Week's PollLoading ...
Pro Thursday: Harden and Westbrook have arrived
By Mark Cerick
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – When the Thunder settled in at home in OKC after a demoralizing defeat in the NBA Finals, there was certainly disappointment and a lot of questions left unanswered. But there was plenty to be proud of too. The young team, led by budding superstars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, dominated all season long, winning the Northwest division by nine games. And in the postseason, the Thunder ran through veteran talent in the Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs before eventually falling to LeBron and the Heat in the Finals.
So how did they get so good? It would be easy to point to the Durantula and call it “case-closed,” but that wouldn’t be the whole story. OKC plays unselfish team ball better than anyone in the league, and KD’s supporting cast is just as pivotal as the phenom himself. Two-time NBA All-Star Russell Westbrook and 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden have been key to the Thunder’s ascendance to the top tier of the NBA. But that intriguing story line will have to wait. With the NBA season in the rearview, OKC’s young guns have to shift their focus to something even bigger: the 2012 Summer Olympics. Westbrook and Harden will be seeking gold in London as they write a new chapter of Team USA basketball history.
So even though LeBron got his first ring at their expense, it’s hard not to be impressed. Westbrook and Harden are methodical masterminds, dedicated professionals who have worked tirelessly for years to perfect their games. So where did they lay their foundations? Where did they take the first steps towards NBA and Olympic glory? The answer is the Pac-10 Conference, the finest collegiate basketball league in the country.
While members of the now-Pac-12, Westbrook donned a UCLA uniform from 2006-2008, and Harden suited up for Arizona State from 2007-2009. In his two years in Westwood, Russell helped the Bruins claim consecutive conference crowns and back-to-back Final Four appearances. For James, his tenure in Tempe was highlighted by an NIT quarterfinals run and an NCAA Tournament first-round victory. Not too shabby for a couple of kids from humble beginnings in Southside Los Angeles.
Harden was well known across the city for leading Artesia High School to a 33-2 record and two consecutive state championships. But it was his stats that really put the 6’5” 220 lb. guard on the radar. Harden averaged 18.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists as a senior and was named Trophy-Case Player of the Year. The dynamic swingman decided to take his talents to the desert, and the success followed him to ASU. Before he even set foot on campus, he was honored with Pac-10 incoming “Best Shooter” and “Best Basketball IQ” awards. And there is absolutely no question he deserved it.
The guy is simply a shooting machine. As a sophomore with the Sun Devils, Harden was named Pac-10 Player of the Year, becoming just the fifth player in conference history to lead the league in scoring (20.1 ppg) and steals (1.69) in a single season. He was the main contributor on an Arizona State team that finished 25-10, recording the most wins in the program since 1975. Harden was selected third overall in the 2009 NBA Draft and has been turning heads in the professional ranks ever since.
As a rookie in the NBA, Harden set career-highs in consecutive games, dropping 25 points (8-11 FG) on the Washington Wizards one game after scoring 24 points on 6-of-7 3-point shooting at the Orlando Magic. So… who cares?
Well, during those two games Harden hit seven straight 3-point field goals, tying the NBA record for the most consecutive 3-pointers made by a rookie in over ten years. Harden has since broken his career-high in points with 40 against the Phoenix Suns on April 18, 2012. Just three years into his NBA career, Harden has reached heights that not many others will ever have the opportunity to. Consistency has been Harden’s style since coming out of high school, and he continues to deliver.
Westbrook’s journey through the ranks is a little different. The 6’3” 187 lb. guard played ball at Leuzinger High School and didn’t garner much interest from college recruiters at all. He led the Olympians (how fitting) to a 25-4 record while averaging 25.1 ppg, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 steals, and 2.3 assists as a senior. But even with those numbers, it took former Bruin Jordan Farmar defecting to the NBA for coach Ben Howland to offer Westbrook a spot in Westwood.
As a freshman in 2006-2007, Westbrook’s progress was subtle even though the Bruins made it to the Final Four. He averaged 3.4 points while playing a mere nine minutes per game in a reserve role. But his less-than-spectacular first year numbers were a distant memory when he took the floor for his second rodeo with UCLA. In his sophomore season, Westbrook exploded onto the scene, averaging 12.7 ppg and a team leading 4.3 assists. He played a record-breaking number of minutes (1,318), the most for any Bruin since 1979 when the statistic was first recorded. Westbrook was also named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year after suffocating opposing point guards all season. Opting to end his college career on a high note, Westbrook declared for the 2008 NBA Draft and was selected fourth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics.
Since breaking into the pro league, Westbrook has earned quite a few accolades of his own, including two All-NBA second team honors and two All-Star selections. He also became the fifth player in NBA history to record a triple-double in a playoff Game 7, doing so in the second round of the 2011 playoffs against Memphis. And on the international stage, Westbrook won a gold medal with the national team at the 2010 FIBA World Championships.
Now in 2012, Harden and Westbrook will be on the world’s stage for the London Olympics after years of preparation and development, hoping to win it all for the red, white, and blue. The Pac-10 products will play alongside OKC teammate Kevin Durant, Finals foe LeBron James, and the grandpa of the bunch, Kobe Bryant. The Team USA roster also includes Westbrook’s former Bruin teammate, Kevin Love, and former Arizona Wildcat Andre Iguodala. The reloaded “Dream Team 2.0” will be heavily favored to grab the gold when they open Olympic play on Sunday, July 29th against France. Once Harden and Westbrook check Olympic Gold off their bucket lists, you can bet the vaunted Thunder backcourt will pick right up where they left off, chasing rings in the NBA.