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Nebraska Football Taylor Martinez Rolling Out with Ball Against Wyoming
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Parallels Between Russell Westbrook and a Former Husker Quarterback

May 12, 2021

History happened in the NBA on Monday with 8:30 to go in the fourth quarter of Washington versus Atlanta.

At that point, Washington point guard Russell Westbrook pulled down his 10th rebound, securing his 182nd career triple-double. That moved him past the Big O, Oscar Robertson, into first place all time. Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd and LeBron James are the next three on that list. I’d say that’s pretty good company.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 21 assists and 13 rebounds. On the ensuing possession after that 10th rebound, Westbrook found a teammate for a 3-pointer, capping a 15-0 run and cutting Atlanta’s lead to four. The Wizards continued to make a push, pulling to within one a few times.

Unfortunately, Washington never got over the hump despite having the ball on the final possession. Down by one, the Wizards got a stop with just under seven seconds to go and got the ball to Westbrook, who pushed the ball up the right sideline — right to where three defenders were waiting. Seeing the defense eating and time ticking down, Westbrook pulled up for a 3 at the buzzer that didn’t fall and Washington lost 125-124.

Westbrook didn’t get that storybook ending to the game, but his accomplishment is still well worth celebrating, and that’s where this column is going.

Unlike our resident Oklahoma City fan Derek Peterson, I’ve never been much of a fan of Westbrook. On the one hand, I do enjoy watching players who stuff the stat sheet and impact the game in a variety of ways; LeBron James has long been one of the players I enjoy watching most. However, I also value decision-making and efficiency, and that’s where Westbrook has lacked throughout his career.

The best effective field goal percentage of his career is 49.3% in 2019-20 (for reference, the average in the NBA this season is 53.8%). He’s shot above 33.3% from 3 just once in his career (34.3% in 2016-17) and is a career 30.5% 3-point shooter. He’s cracked the 50% barrier on 2-point shots just twice (50.3% in 2015-16 and 51.4% in 2019-20) and is at 47% for his career. His free-throw shooting has even tailed off over the last few years.

Westbrook simply isn’t a good enough jump-shooter to take the amount of jumpers he attempts, and throughout his career he’s forced a lot of difficult shots around the rim as well. That offensive inefficiency caps Westbrook’s overall impact, especially when compared to the game’s best. The final possession of the Atlanta game displayed that perfectly.

Even so, the counting stats are absolutely astounding. Before Westbrook came along, Robertson was the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. This season will be Westbrook’s fourth accomplishing that feat in the past five years.

We’ve never seen a player of Westbrook’s size (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds) who blends athleticism and relentlessness quite like he does. He goes all out for every second that he’s on the floor and that deserves to be commended. To have the energy to carry that kind of usage rate on offense while cleaning the glass at the rate he does on defense is truly remarkable.

We’re not going to see another Russell Westbrook any time soon. He’s going to have an interesting place in history once he calls it a career. Westbrook has an MVP to his name but he hasn’t won a championship. He’s posted unprecedented stat lines and created some incredible moments, but his playing style has held his teams back just as much as it has driven their success.

As an overall player, Westbrook doesn’t belong in the conversation with the likes of Robertson, Johnson and James. We can acknowledge his flaws while also recognizing his incredible talent.

As I was watching him play on Monday, it got me to thinking: who are some other players that match Westbrook’s profile — a prodigious talent whose flaws hold him back from accomplishing ultimate team success? And because we live in Nebraska, everything has to tie back to Husker football, right?

I see a lot of parallels between Russell Westbrook and former Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Martinez displayed game-breaking ability from day one. He surpassed 100 yards passing and 125 yards rushing in each of his first three games at Nebraska, then exploded for 241 yards rushing and four touchdowns plus 128 yards passing and another score on just seven pass attempts against Kansas State, then tore Oklahoma State apart with 232 yards passing and five touchdowns plus 112 yards on the ground.

Despite injuries derailing his career and ultimately limiting him to just four games as a senior, Martinez’s name is all over the Nebraska record books. His speed and acceleration from the quarterback position were truly unique.

However, his lack of polish as a passer and decision-making at times ultimately held him and the Huskers back from ever accomplishing anything truly great.

Taylor Martinez isn’t the best quarterback who’s ever played for Nebraska. He’s not even really in that discussion. But he is one of if not the most prolific and probably deserves a bit more credit than he gets for it.

I view Westbrook in much the same way. This season, Westbrook doesn’t belong in the MVP discussion and there are more deserving candidates for the All-NBA teams. Historically, he doesn’t belong in the conversation with the game’s very best point guards.

But he sure is unique and should be remembered as such.

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