Russell Westbrook playing defense
Russell Westbrook during a preseason game Credit: Ned Dishman (NBA Photos)

In December, the Washington Wizards gathered on the court for a 10 a.m. shootaround before a 7 p.m. preseason game when NBA veteran Russell Westbrook, the team’s newly acquired point guard, asked his teammates a rhetorical question.

What time, Westbrook wanted to know, did the game start?

One of the players, head coach Scott Brooks remembers, shouted, “7 o’clock!”

Wrong answer. “No, no, no, no,” Brooks recalls Westbrook saying. “The game starts now.”

Underneath his mask, the coach was grinning from ear to ear.

“That was my line,” Brooks says. “I wanted to say to Russell, ‘If you’re gonna to use my line, at least put my name on it.’”

In a tumultuous, pandemic-shortened season in which the Wizards opened the 2020-21 campaign with a five-game losing streak, had six games postponed due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols in January, and lost starting center Thomas Bryant to a torn ACL, the team appeared hopeless and has hovered near the bottom of the league’s standings. But it closed out February by winning seven of nine games, including an overtime victory over the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, and remains within reach of the playoffs with slightly more than half of the 72-game season remaining.

Brooks and several Wizards players credit the 32-year-old Westbrook, a former NBA MVP, nine-time all-star, and vocal leader who started his career with the Brooks-led Oklahoma City Thunder more than a decade ago, for keeping the team focused even as the losses piled up. Westbrook’s polarizing reputation may precede him, but Wizards players say his leadership and relentless intensity have been invaluable.

“Don’t tell him I said this, but he has the heart of a lion,” forward-center Moe Wagner said after the Wizards beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 119-117, on March 4. “He’s unbelievable, and I’m very privileged and happy to be his teammate.”

Wizards guard-forward Troy Brown Jr. doesn’t mind when Westbrook yells at him. Actually, he says, he appreciates it. There are times when Brown, playing in his third NBA season, tries to hold himself to the same level of accountability that Westbrook expects of his teammates, but it quickly becomes draining.

Westbrook, on the other hand, never appears to let his energy level drop.

“Regardless of the situation, regardless of how many points Russ has, or anything like that, he’s gonna be talking, whether you like it or not,” Brown says. “It’s just very intense, and some people don’t like it as much, but I really think it’s very cool that he does that. Because at the end of the day it’s like you always know he’s locked in … A lot of guys half-ass the game, like don’t give 110 [percent], so to see him give 110, he is the most paid athlete on this court right now. I feel like that’s really dope: that he holds everybody to a level of accountability, and he raises the play of everybody else.”

Brown likens Westbrook’s intensity to what he’s seen from the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler and from Michael Jordan in the documentary The Last Dance. Brooks sees a lot of similarities between Westbrook and two Hall of Famers he encountered during his playing days.

“It’s definitely a combination of Charles Barkley, who I played with, he brought the intensity and the determination to the team,” Brooks says. “And the approach that we do this every night and we get paid lots of money to do this every night. If you need an off day, take it during the summer type of mentality. So I’d say Charles Barkley had that same mentality that Russell has, and also Jason Kidd. Jason Kidd had this real desire to want to get better and want to play with a high IQ on the floor and to help his teammates play with that level of IQ.”

But how much Westbrook’s style of play benefits his teammates has been up for debate. In early December, before the season began, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Westbrook was “very bothered” by the suggestion that he isn’t a good teammate following his trade from the Houston Rockets.

When asked how his leadership style has evolved over the years, after the team’s 112-110 win over the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 25, Westbrook responded that it’s always been the same.

“I think it’s just now, it’s really up to y’all in the media to determine if I’m a good leader or not, to be honest,” he said. “But I’ve been leading the same way since I’ve been in the league. I think now I hear it from other teammates and other teams and shit like that, that allows you guys to be like, ‘Oh, Russ, you’re leading now,’ which it doesn’t mean nothing to me, ’cause I know that leadership is something I’ve always been able to do, every team that I’ve been on, and I’m going to continue to do that.”

For Westbrook, leadership goes beyond just talking or what people see; it’s revealed when a person is able to stay the same regardless of how things are going. Throughout the season, Westbrook has found ways to connect with his teammates and be a voice in the locker room that players respect. Bradley Beal, the league’s leading scorer, said earlier this season that he feeds off of Westbrook’s “straight, business-like approach.”

In mid-February, Westbrook asked Brooks if he could address his teammates directly. He wanted each player to specifically describe their roles on the team in front of their teammates. During that discussion, Rui Hachimura declared he could guard any position on the court. The Wizards would go on to win their next five games, and Hachimura has become one of the team’s defensive stalwarts.

Just because Westbrook yells, Brown says, does not mean he’s not approachable. During the Nuggets game, cameras caught Westbrook and Brown talking on the sidelines. Brown explains that before he checked into the game, he wanted to ask Westbrook about defensive schemes. After the win, the Wizards tweeted out the clip with the caption “Leadership.” Brown later quote-tweeted it: “Real one.”

“If I’m playing with a former MVP, like, I don’t care how much he’s yelling at me. I’m going to ask him questions because obviously he knows something I don’t,” Brown says. “He knows a lot, like seen a lot. So at the end of the day, like I’m going to do whatever I need to do in order to be the best me. … He definitely does a good job of making that environment.”

Early on in Brooks’ head coaching career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his friends would reach out to him and ask: “How do you coach Russell? He seems so hard to coach.”

“I’m like, ‘Obviously you don’t know me well enough then,’” Brooks says. “He’s the easiest guy to coach. I love guys that play hard. I love guys that leave everything, every ounce of energy after 48 minutes on the floor. And the only players I’ve had trouble with, there’s probably been a handful, are the ones that don’t compete. If you’re not self-motivated, you don’t have enough Knute Rockne speeches to give a player, and Russell is self-motivated. … Never, not one time, I’ve had to say, ‘Russell, you need to pick it up at practice. Russell, you need to pick it up in the games.’ And to me, that’s the sign of a leader.”

This season, Westbrook is averaging 20.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game, but he also has 4.8 turnovers per game, and is only shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc and a career-low 58.3 percent from the free-throw line. Westbrook also missed selection for the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014.

Despite the struggles, he has continued to lean into his leadership role.

“When things are going wrong, I like to put the pressure on my shoulders to make sure I can try to find ways to make my teammates better, help my coaches out, help out the organization out to make sure we are moving in the direction that we need to be,” Westbrook says. “And especially this past month, I’ve just tried to find ways to lead in different ways, communicate and try to get through to my teammates in different ways and I believe some of those ways have worked. Everything is still a work in progress.”

Asked if he’d ever consider getting into coaching, Westbrook laughs. He’s been too busy: Westbrook recently launched the Russell Westbrook Why Not? Academy, a middle and high school in his hometown of Los Angeles.

“I work on so much every day,” Westbrook says. “I’m trying to change our communities and trying to help my people out and help our underserved communities, whether it’s financial literacy, whether it’s education, whether it’s creating jobs, whether it is whatever, that’s been my focus, and I’m pretty sure my hands will be tied with that when I’m done playing and making sure that’s moving in the right direction and closing those gaps, but coaching, I haven’t really thought about at all.”

But if Westbrook ever decides to get into the coaching game, he’ll have the strong endorsement of his longtime coach, who believes he’ll be a “great coach if he wanted to be.”

“He’s more than basketball,” Brooks says. “And he’s obviously more than a player in my eyes, and all the things that I’ve been through with him. I mean, I said, ‘Russ, you’ve taken about seven years off my life, but you made my life more enjoyable coaching you.’”