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Westbrook ‘receptive’ to bench role, but leaves first game early with hamstring injury

Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 14: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on October 14, 2022 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

Darvin Ham said Russell Westbrook was “receptive” to the idea of coming off the Lakers’ bench.

The first test of that theory was cut short.

Westbrook checked in with 7:27 left in the first quarter of the Lakers’ preseason game in Sacramento Friday and played just five minutes before leaving the court with a hamstring injury. He did not return.

It’s preseason, so even the mildest of tweaks — the kind of thing guys play through in the regular season — are treated with an abundance of caution. We will see what comes out of the evaluation Saturday and if Westbrook will miss any time when the games matter.

The Lakers start the season Tuesday night in Golden State — ring night for the Warriors — and coach Darvin Ham made it sound like Westbrook will come off the bench then, too. Ham said Westbrook off the bench was not a demotion but a “realignment.” A word that makes things sound a little more permanent.

If Darvin Ham sticks with Westbrook off the bench, staggering the minutes of Westbrook and LeBron James as primary shot creator, how does Westbrook handle it? Does he embrace the challenge of being the sixth man, or does he show signs of mentally checking out from the team?

As he has all preseason, Westbrook said the right things when asked to be a team player. Here’s what Ham said pregame when asked about broaching the bench idea with Westbrook, via Sam Amick and Jovan Buha of The Athletic.

“And you know, (Westbrook) has been a pro, man, Russ is one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever come across in this business, on and off the floor. He totally understood, totally looked me in my eye and told me, said, ‘Yeah, coach, whatever you need me to do.’”

The words have been great, but starting Tuesday actions will speak louder. Is Westbrook really down for this?

It’s one of many questions for the Lakers this season, but the biggest one is shooting: The Lakers shot 28.6% as a team from 3 in the preseason and 39.8% overall — both numbers in the bottom 3 of NBA teams. The Lakers had a league-worst preseason offensive rating of 93.9 (points per 100 possessions). There’s a lot of noise in those preseason numbers, a lot of shots by guys who will not be part of the regular rotation, but it is still concerning. The Lakers went 1-5 in the preseason, which is better than 0-6 the previous season, but, again, it raises eyebrows. Especially with the Lakers facing a brutal schedule to open the season: at Warriors, Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Nuggets, at Timberwolves.