Defense First For New-Look Thunder

By Randy Renner, Senior Writer

The first full day of Thunder practice was only half done and Russell Westbrook had already lost most of his voice.

“That’s a good thing,” Westbrook told reporters after OKC’s first of two Saturday practices. “Everybody came in and competed especially on the defensive end.”

Defense is mostly about communicating with each other, making sure everyone is on the same page and trusting each other to be there to help when help is needed.

For Westbrook, who of course knows where everyone is supposed to be, that communication usually means “screamin’, talkin’, screamin’ at everybody, screamin’ at myself but hey that’s a part of my job.”

“He’s talkin’ way too much,” joked newcomer Victor Oladipo. Then he quickly got serious when talking about his new teammate.

“He does a great job. He’s a natural born leader by what he does and what he says,” Oladipo pointed out. “He has so much experience he’s been in the game for such a long time and playing at such a high level for a long time it’s hard not to listen to him.”

Head coach Billy Donovan loves that part of Westbrook’s game.

“He showed great leadership today, he’s setting a tone that at least from a defensive standpoint we’ve gotta communicate.”

Oladipo is thrilled for the opportunity to learn from someone like Westbrook who isn’t afraid to step in and say what needs to be said.

“There was a possession today and I was kinda slow on the rotation,” Oladipo admitted, “and Russ stopped the possession and said ‘defense is about trust and believing the guy has your back.’ That’s the biggest thing about defense is believing and trusting in the person next to you and on both sides of you.”

These first few days of training camp are important to build that trust, especially with so many new faces. It’s a bonus for the Thunder to have Westbrook who, in these early camp situations, becomes a coach on the floor.

“When you have the caliber of player like Russell who’s doing it every single time and communicating it and pointing out the value and importance of that it carries a large weight,” Donovan said. “He was really great today.”

“You gotta set your team around defense and we’ve got a lot of great players that can defend at a high level,” Westbrook said.

One of those players is Oladipo, who has a reputation has being a high level defender. He agrees with Westbrook’s media day assessment that the pair could become the best defensive backcourt in the NBA.

“Defense is something I was bred on, I grew up on, I hate when someone I was guarding scores, so it’s pretty much who I am.”

The Thunder already had a stout defender at shooting guard with Andre Roberson so one of the mysteries of camp will be what happens at that position and also at small forward. Many believe Oladipo will likely be the shooting guard while Roberson slides to small forward.

Donovan has never really liked to define players with position labels and the Thunder have multiple players who are capable of performing in a variety of roles.

“I think you always wanna put guys in positions where they’re being successful and efficient. I think a lot of times people make too much out of those roles. Just do what you do well and stay away from the things you’re not as good at.”

Exactly what that means as it relates to Oladipo and Roberson will be something we’ll learn as training camp moves along and could be something that will change and evolve during the season.