New Year, New You: NBA stars who reinvented themselves

Published January 10, 2023, 2:00 PMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Russell Westbrook, Marcus Smart, and Brook Lopez are just a few of the NBA stars who embraced new roles this season.

January is a fascinating month. This is the time when gyms are crowded, new planners are cracked open, houses are spotless, and the Facebook Marketplace is full of decluttering sales. People usually see the new year as a fresh start, a chance to turn over a new leaf. It’s a new year, so it’s time for everyone to showcase the “new you.”

Because it’s the new year, this is also a good opportunity to shine a light on NBA players that have used this season as a fresh start. These three players turned over a new leaf and are showcasing how they reinvented themselves this season into a new you.

Russell Westbrook - Superstar Sixth Man

Remember back in June when Russell Westbrook laughed at a reporter who asked him about coming off the bench for the LA Lakers? That seems like a different lifetime. This season, Westbrook has not only willingly taken a bench role, he’s embraced it. Because of that, not only has he become one of the most consistent players on the team, he’s also become an important piece in their push for a playoff spot out in the West.

Coming off the bench has allowed Westbrook to go back to his roots, which is to attack, attack, attack. He’s focused on attacking the rim, attacking on the break, and attacking the boards. That’s the reason for his solid play this season (14.5 PPG, 7.7 APG, 6.3 RPG on 28.1 USG%).

There’s no doubt that Westbrook is still a talented player. That’s why having him face off against weaker opponents coming off the bench has allowed him to feast. He’s also a better fit with the bench squad of the Lakers. Rather than try to make things work with ball-dominant players in the starting unit like James and Davis, Westbrook has taken on the lead creator role of the bench mob. With no natural creators on that line-up Westbrook has all the touches he needs to stay effective.

In typical Westbrook fashion though, he’s still making triple-double history as a sixth man. He’s currently tied with Detlef Schrempf for most triple-doubles for a player coming off the bench with three. With how well he’s playing as LA’s super sixth man, Westbrook will most likely own the record by season’s end. Look who’s laughing now.

Marcus Smart - Legitimate Point Guard

There’s a difference between playing point guard and being a point guard. Last season, Marcus Smart was handed the keys to the Boston Celtics offense mostly out of necessity. He did admirably take on the role, but when his team needed him the most in the Finals, he couldn’t rise up to the challenge.

This season, Smart is done playing the part. He’s slowly erasing doubts as to who the floor leader of the team is. Taking a look at the numbers, Smart’s usage rate is down this season (16.5% down from 18.3%), but even with that his assist rate is up (29.6% up from 25.6%). That means that most of the possessions he’s playing, he’s making plays for the team. It’s also seen in the raw numbers as well. His scoring is slightly down, his turnovers are the same as last season, but his assists per game are higher (7.3 up from 5.9).

Smart’s blue collar attitude reflects how he plays the point guard as well. He brings little flair and a no-nonsense approach to playmaking. What he has showcased this season is an innate understanding of the team’s offense and how to get the ball at the right spots for his teammates. He’s now become a steadying presence when the team is in disarray.

Smart has been known as a lot of things in his career: a rugged defender, a solid bench option, and even a chucker. Could this be the season that he will be known as a championship point guard?

Brook Lopez - Elite Rim Protector

This isn’t so much a reinvention but an evolution. Brook Lopez has always been known as an adaptable big man during his time with the Milwaukee Bucks. He improved his outside jumper  so that he can be a better floor-spacing big man next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. That helped the Greek Freak break out offensively with more space to operate in the paint. Lopez’s focus turned to refining his defensive skills to further unlock Antetokounmpo’s talents on that end of the floor. 

Lopez has always been a serviceable big man to deploy in the drop coverage that Milwaukee likes to play. He’s a big body with a solid basketball IQ, so he could easily form a wall around the hoop. This season, Lopez has expanded his range within the Bucks scheme, making him a crucial cog on defense. His timing in blocks has improved drastically, allowing him to not only challenge shots at the rim but completely take away the shot as well. His blocks average (2.6 up from 1.4) and defensive rating (107 down from 111) numbers are both better this season. 

Beyond the numbers, Lopez is not only defending the rim but the space around it as well. He’s moving around the paint better this season, tracking opponents that manage to slip through the perimeter defense. Even if he doesn’t get the block, he deters them enough for the help defense to make a play. The protective cone he’s placed in the perimeter has allowed Antetokounmpo to roam around as a free safety on defense, free to make defensive plays. 

That’s what makes the Bucks D so tough. Not only do they have a big body like Lopez that covers such a huge radius, they have a literal freak free to prowl, ready to pounce on a weak pass or shot. Antetokounmpo would not have that kind of freedom if it wasn’t for Lopez and his underrated, yet elite defense this season.