“I never thought anyone would even come close,” ASU Barrett professor Mathew Sandoval said.
In Sandoval's 35 years as a basketball fan, he said he never believed anyone would even approach Oscar Robertson’s single season triple-double record or average a triple-double over an entire season.
Even more so, he never thought he would teach the player who would go on to do both.
Sandoval taught Russell Westbrook at UCLA before Westbrook went on to get drafted by the former Seattle Supersonics — now Oklahoma City Thunder — and eventually make NBA history. Sandoval said with confidence that his former student will win the MVP award over ASU alum and Houston Rockets star James Harden this year.
Sandoval said Westbrook was always present, very involved and an overall good student-athlete during his time in college. According to ESPN before the 2008 NBA draft, Westbrook once had a private workout with the Supersonics. Not only did Westbrook show up 15 minutes before general manager Sam Presti, but he was also sitting in his car studying for an exam.
So who is Westbrook?
Westbrook appears to be a person driven by his competitive nature and is constantly looking to reach his full potential and be the best in everything that he’s involved in, whether it be on the court or off.
“That’s really a rare talent, someone who wants to excel in literally every field that he is attached to, even with fashion,” Sandoval said. "He’s trying to be the best basketball player in the NBA, not just be good, not just be the best on his team.”
Westbrook's attitude translated to his MVP-worthy 2016-17 regular season, which is evident by the way he played the game unlike anyone basketball fans have seen since 1962.
“In regard to the triple-doubles, he is that multifaceted,” Sandoval said. “It is an extension of his strength to try and pursue the best in every realm.”
There's a reason nobody in 55 years has been able to shatter the Roberston's record.
“The thing that stuck out to me about his game was that he was such an athlete,” Sandoval said. “His dunks in warm-ups, even in college, were just sick. He had so much bounce.”
This athleticism and "bounce" is how Westbrook became only the shortest player in NBA history to average 10 rebounds a game in a single season.
He was also able to average another historic season stat line with 30 points and 10 rebounds per game. Not even Shaquille O'Neal, among other great centers, was able to accomplish this. The last player to average 30 points and 10 rebounds throughout a season was hall-of-famer Karl Malone in the 1989-90 season.
“(The NBA is) full of so many good teams and they’re all primarily in the West,” Sandoval said. “That’s the other thing, not just that he (averaged a triple double) in the NBA, he did it in the Western Conference and I mean that has special meaning to it to — that’s the toughest conference in the NBA.”
While Harden has had a fantastic year and his stats are amazing, he should have to wait at least another year to receive the MVP trophy and bring even more honor to ASU.
Westbrook beat out Harden in both points and rebounds a game, but lagged behind the ASU alum in assists. The two players were also very close in turnovers, but Harden leads the league with 5.7 turnovers a game compared to Westbrook’s 5.4.
Westbrook was also a more important component of his team. Westbrook’s plus-minus rating on the court was +4.0 and off the court it was -8.5, a 12.5 point difference. Harden’s plus-minus on the court was +6.9 with him on the court and +3.9 with him off, only a three-point difference.
Harden's team also collectively made the most three-pointers this season in league history, proving that his team does just fine without him. However, Westbrook’s team, which lead the league in the most missed wide open three-pointers, definitely wouldn't have even made the playoffs without its leader.
Westbrook also leads Harden in some of the most important efficiency rating stats, including player efficiency rating (PER), estimated wins added (EWA) and usage rate (USG). This goes against the common misconception that Harden is a far more efficient player than Westbrook.
No matter what happens in the first round series against Westbrook’s Thunder and Harden’s Rockets, the MVP award is a regular season award and should not be influenced by the playoff outcome.
“It might be a close vote, but I think (Westbrook will win MVP),” Sandoval said. “I don’t know how anyone would not vote for him.”
While Westbrook is putting the whole city on his back, even after Kevin Durant’s departure, he is also out to make his team better and prove something to the people who have criticized him for years.
“As a basketball player, as an athlete, you need something to motivate you and that’s got to be it,” Sandoval said. “I don’t think he puts up those numbers just to say 'Hey I put up those numbers,' I think it’s to say 'Hey I was always the best player on this team.'”
Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.
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