Andrew Gilman

Will Russell and Riley Evolve

Will Russell and Riley Evolve

Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley has been named one of the top 25 coaches among those in Power 5 conferences.

Impressive honor, I suppose. You can check the entire list here. Riley has been ultra-successful as an offensive coordinator and also had a great season in his only one as a head coach at Oklahoma.

What Riley has never done at Oklahoma is coach without Baker Mayfield. This season, unlike any of his previous ones at Oklahoma, will be the better indicator of what kind of coach Riley is. Riley may have had a huge hand in Mayfield’s ascension, but the same can be said of Mayfield – he certainly helped Riley’s star.

Meanwhile, there’s a comparison to be made. Similar to Riley, who we will find out a lot about during this upcoming season, we’ll also learn a lot about Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook is a supreme talent, no doubt, but we’re about to find out if he evolves as a player when the Thunder take the floor this fall.

The former MVP and two-time triple-double champ has gone from local hero to roundly criticized as the Thunder flamed out in the first round as Westbrook failed to follow up on his promise to shut down the great and powerful Ricky Rubio.

Not too long ago, when Kevin Durant left, Westbrook was seen as loyal, a savior, a “true” Thunder player who gave the franchise a lifeline. The franchise responded in kind by, not officially, by handing Westbrook free reign of the team. That’s what happens when you lose Durant, already lose players like James Harden and Serge Ibaka and are scrambling to find the identity it once owned as “Team as One.”

The Thunder’s focus shifted. I get it. It had to, but now OKC has a player who seems more interested in self and less interested in team.

No one is suggesting Harden has become a great defensive player, but almost everyone would concede Harden’s game changed since Chris Paul joined the Rockets. Durant’s game has evolved, too, becoming a better defensive player.  Westbrook’s ability to go fast is unmatched in this league. His intensity is impressive and not questioned, but only when Westbrook decides to vary his speed, will he be considered an evolved player.

And only when Riley succeeds without what’s made him a success will Riley be considered among the elite of college football.

It will be interesting to see if either or both change next season.

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