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WHENEVER THE THUNDER GO, RUSSELL WESTBROOK WILL GET THERE FIRST. HE HAS TO.

THE CLOCK INSIDE the Oklahoma City Thunder practice facility reads 8 a.m. when Russell Westbrook pulls into the parking lot, backs his salt-stained Range Rover into a spot right next to the entrance and hops out. He's a full 30 minutes early for his appointment. The next player won't arrive for another hour. And the team practice is two hours away. But Westbrook immediately peers through the glass doors and grimaces. The guy he's meeting showed up first.

For most of his life, no one has ever put him first. Not the elite AAU teams. Not the prestigious high school all-star games. Not the major college programs. And, except for the Thunder, not the NBA. So he put himself there. By showing up early to everything and being willing to do whatever, whenever-toe raises in the shower, shagging balls in high school, changing positions in college, running in place in a playground sandbox-for a chance. And by listening only to those who believed, as he did, that he could be first. Even though, for a long time, that limited the voices to his high school coach and his parents.

"You must've slept here," he says to the visitor who arrived ahead of him. Then he walks over to the team's breakfast bar and orders. First.

THE THUNDER'S REVIVAL, from a low point of last season's 3-29 start to playoff-bound today, has encouraged quite a few converts. But Westbrook's bandwagon still feels a little light for a rising 21-year-old point guard who's flirting with triple-doubles on a weekly basis.

Maybe the basketball world hasn't caught up with the franchise that moved from the Emerald City to one with a plow in its official seal. Maybe it's the long Inspector Gadget shadow of teammate Kevin Durant, who is breathing down the neck of LeBron James for the scoring title. Maybe it's that there's no visible wow to Westbrook's decent-but-not-dominating 6'3", 187-pound frame. "I think they're waiting on me to mess up," Westbrook says of his critics, real and imagined. "So they can say, 'I told you so.' "

At this rate they'll be waiting a while. Among point guards only Westbrook-who averages 16.8 points per game, 8 assists and 5.1 rebounds-and Jazz All-Star Deron Williams rank in the top 10 in points, assists and boards. "All you can do," Westbrook says, "is keep working."

Players of Westbrook's caliber generally don't blossom as late as he did. As a freshman in high school he was 5'9" and "deathly slow," says Reggie Morris, Westbrook's coach at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, outside of LA. "His biggest attribute was his heart."

Out of curiosity, Morris threw Westbrook into a rebounding drill with his varsity squad, which boasted six players who were 6'5" or taller. Westbrook, galumphing around in an ancient pair of size-13, bright-white Air Force 1's, held his own with little more than that oversize heart, freakishly long arms and hands that could already palm basketballs. "He didn't care how big the other guys were," says Morris. "You could tell he liked it. When you get a kid like Russell, who's not afraid of anyone, he's a usually gang member."

By all accounts, running with a gang should have been Westbrook's destiny. He's the oldest son of a Compton-raised dad, Russell Westbrook Sr., a former gangbanger who did time on a drug charge shortly after Junior was born. The twist on this all-too-familiar tale: Senior came home after prison determined to make sure that the wrong path ended with him.

Junior watched Senior play at the park, fearlessly jawing at and trying to dunk on much bigger players. The arguments were sometimes longer than the action, giving Russ Jr. time to sneak onto the court and get up a few shots. But what pushed Senior to keep Junior on the court had nothing to do with basketball.

One summer night when Russell Jr. was 9, his father ran into their house, wailing. Russell Sr. told his wife, Shannon, and his sons, Russell and his younger brother Raynard, that he had been visiting a friend in the old neighborhood. Suddenly, a bullet struck his friend in the temple, killing him instantly. After the shooting, Russell Sr. realized just how straight a line he had to walk.

Junior says that night marked the moment when his dad "started pushing us a lot harder." The young Westbrook responded by doing everything possible to get stronger and faster. If he was standing in the shower or talking to a friend, he'd do toe raises. He spent hours doing lunges in a playground sandbox. When Morris needed help in summer workouts with Tony Bland, a local high school and San Diego State star trying to make it in Europe, Westbrook put in two-plus hours of shagging balls for the chance to play Bland one-on-one at the end of each session.

He mastered the classic old-man tricks (living off midrange bank shots, bumping defenders to create space) that he picked up watching his dad's friends at the park. He was more Chris Duhon than Chris Paul. Going into his senior season in high school, in 2005, the only programs that wanted him were those built on IQ over athleticism: Kent State, Creighton, San Diego. But that winter he grew to 6'1". Then he had a 51-point night. Then he had his first jam ever, on a breakaway against rival Hawthorne, no less. Only after he led Leuzinger to the state regional quarterfinals did the big-time programs-UCLA, Kansas and Wake Forest-make offers, thinking Westbrook might be a solid defensive stopper.

Westbrook leaned toward the mid-major offers. At UCLA he'd be fourth on the depth chart, behind Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp. He wanted to be a star. But his parents wanted him to get that UCLA diploma. Westwood it was.

UCLA coach Ben Howland believes in a buttondown brand of basketball. And Westbrook, who grew another two inches in college and turned his size-13 snowshoes into size-14 springboards, wanted to see how fast his new wheels could go. He drew admiring glances from Jason Kidd and Baron Davis for attacking the rim in summer pickup games at Pauley Pavilion. But Howland didn't deviate from his plans to use Westbrook on the wing and as a defensive stopper. After two seasons, Westbrook declared for the NBA draft and promised his mom he'd return one day to get his degree.

WESTBROOK REGARDS MOST questions as Trojan horses, doubt disguised as curiosity. And the fact that he averaged just 8.3 ppg at UCLA created an endless army of queries. He interprets every Can you ? as We don't think you can.

"There was only one way for people to stop asking me that question," he says. The plan? Be early. Work hard. Listen. For eight weeks before the 2008 draft he worked out with the consensus No. 1 pick, fellow point guard Derrick Rose-twice a day, six days a week-in a Santa Monica gym. They were tended to by former Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, who is charged with physically testing all NBA prospects repped by Casey Wasserman's agency. Between workouts, Westbrook ran off unshowered to UCLA to squeeze in classes and take a nap before heading back to the gym. "Other guys would talk about being tired or sore," Armstrong says. "He never did. He could duplicate what he did the day before, and he seemed to get stronger every time. And he never missed a day."

The Thunder, still the Sonics and in Seattle at draft time, held the 2008 No. 4 pick and asked Westbrook to visit for his first predraft workout. A sprained ankle left the coaching staff undecided. Westbrook says he could already hear the buzz: How was Russell today? Well, he wasn't very good. And this is after a March 23 Los Angeles Times article that projected he'd go no higher than 21st overall, quoting two anonymous NBA GMs who said,"I don't see it."

But Thunder GM Sam Presti flew down to LA for a second look five days before the draft, showing up 30 minutes before the scheduled workout. Westbrook's agent, Thad Foucher, arrived a few minutes later. Together, Foucher and Presti called Westbrook. He answered as he stepped out of a car 20 yards in front of them. "This," says Presti, "was our type of guy."

The franchise wanted a point guard, and Presti had to pick from a bushel of 'tweener guards, among them current Clipper Eric Gordon, Blazer Jerryd Bayless and Westbrook. He knew that, with the team headed for Oklahoma, the first season would be a climb. Presti and his execs liked that Westbrook had been trudging up mountains his entire life. They made him the fourth overall pick, surprising pretty much everybody.

The rest would be history if, well, anyone paid attention to the historic import of Westbrook's rookie year. Not yet legal to drink, at 19, Westbrook, who had never lived anywhere else, left LA all by himself to join a franchise that was getting adjusted to a new town. That didn't stop him from becoming only the fifth rookie 21 or under to average better than 15 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, joining the boldface-name crew of Magic, Iverson, LeBron and CP3.

Still, because he's more of a pass-ahead facilitator and scorer than an ankle-breaking creator, there was a reluctance to anoint him a true point guard. Last June, fans and media wondered if the Thunder should take a pass-first point guard like Spain's Ricky Rubio or Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, or a more imposing guard like Tyreke Evans from Memphis, and slide Westbrook to shooting guard.

But the Thunder brain trust believes playing point guard is as much about attitude as about skill set. Coach Scott Brooks liked how last April, when players on lottery-bound teams usually look to score or hit cruise control, Westbrook averaged his most assists and second-most rebounds for any month of the season. After the season, he viewed the chance to play on the Thunder's summer league teams in both Orlando and Vegas as opportunity rather than obligation. "He's the only lottery pick I know who ever bought his own shoes in high school," Presti says. "And he's not doing things to prove people wrong. He's just trying to figure out how good he can be."

Which is very good. Consider what he did to Rookie of the Year favorite Evans in an early March 113-107 win. Westbrook nailed a buzzer-beating, momentum-swinging three-pointer over Evans at the end of the first half, snatched a crucial rebound away from him in the game's final minute and outscored him 30-27. Above all, he was the poised floor general, making the simple pass for 13 assists against only three turnovers. Evans, barreling toward the rim, had five dimes and four giveaways. "He's the leader," says Durant. "If you watch us play in games or practices, he's the one who keeps us together."

At breakfast, too. When a seat at the table in the player's lounge opens up, Serge Ibaka, the rookie power forward from Congo, goes for it only to have Durant slide in ahead of him with a what-are-you-looking-at-rook glance. Westbrook watches Ibaka grumpily trudge to the couch on the other side of the room. The floor leader practically winces, as if he himself had been rejected. "Come sit next to me, Conganita," Westbrook purrs, patting his chair. Ibaka stays where he is, but later that night, as soon as Ibaka enters the game against the Kings, he beats his man on a back cut. Westbrook rewards him with a perfectly placed lob. Ibaka crushes it.

Both men smile.

Westbrook first, of course.