Isaac Westbrooks has been waiting for Sunday’s Irish cup final since the final shot of last year’s decider. Emmet Ryan looks at what makes the standard setting guard in the Irish Superleague a man to watch on Saturday night
It wasn’t exactly an open look but Isaac Westbrooks was out of options. Down three with the clock about to go, he put up a big heave for a potential game-tying three. All it found was iron and Templeogue, not his Swords Thunder, were the ones celebrating a first ever cup title in club history.
“I feel fortunate to be in this position, everybody wants to be here. Now I’m just happy, I can stop thinking about last year. I’ve been thinking about last year for 360 days or whatever. Now it’s about focusing on doing a better job this year and hopefully go one step further,” Westbrooks told BallinEurope.
Westbrooks isn’t what you think of when designing the typical Irish guard. There were flashes of Milos Teodosic in his performance against Moycullen to book the Thunder’s place in Saturday’s final. That streak has run through his game for years.
“The first thing I think about with Isaac, especially compared to most other Irish players, is his incredible flair,” says Puff Summers, currently with Superleague leaders Templeogue and played at Davidson.
“It stands out. He’s a guy that kids love watching because he has a great handle and terrific court vision. He’s also just a point guard. He’s vocal and he has his teammates’ backs, and he goes out of his way to get his teammates the ball in areas where they’re most effective. If kids here ask me what a point guard should play like, I would probably tell them to watch Isaac play, simply because of the fact that he does what needs to be done. There are games where he has 2 points and games where he has 25, and is just as effective in both.”
Summers was on the receiving end of Westbrooks earlier in the competition. His then unbeaten Templeogue side went out at the hands of the team they beat in last year’s decider. Having come up against Westbrooks many timees over the years, the former Davidson Wildcat has seen plenty of what Westbrooks does beneath the showmanship to get the job done.
“Defensively, I don’t think people understand how long Isaac’s arms are. He’s constantly getting his hands on passes he has no business getting a hand on, and coupling that with his great anticipation means that if you aren’t 100% locked in, he can really disrupt a team on that end of the floor,” says Summers.
“Offensively, Isaac is just a player. He makes reads, and it’s usually the right read. If you go under a screen, he’ll pull up and shoot it, and if you go over the top, he’s crafty enough to probe until he sees daylight for himself or something for a teammate. So he’s a tough cover. He’s an above average finisher at the rim, and he’s actually become a much better shooter in think these last few years. He’s actually a great cutter as well–probably cuts without the ball better than anyone I’ve seen other than Paddy Kelly in my time in Ireland,”
“I’ve said this for years, but it’s still very under the radar – Isaac is one of the best rebounding guards I think I’ve ever seen. Most guards wait around the elbows or just assume the bigs will get every rebound, but Isaac actively seeks them out, which is a huge reason why his teams are usually so quick to get out in transition.”
For teammates, the diversity in Westbrooks’ game makes it easy to adapt to the guard’s style. Having spent time in high school in the US along with stints playing professionally in Iceland, Spain, and Britain, Westbrooks has one of the broader CVs in Irish basketball.
“In Ireland it’s different to Spain because the basketball is more physical,” said Jose Gil Narbon, a 4/5 with Thunder.
“Playing with Isaac is really nice. He knows how a Spanish player plays sometimes. It was easier to adapt by playing with him because he understood where I was coming from. I like to play more as a 4 but here the situation is different so I play more in the low post but I like the way we play as it’s fast, we are always running.”
Westbrooks was part of Thunder’s arrival in the Superleague three years ago. The side, which is linked to Griffith College Dublin, has to deal with more turnover of players than is typical in Ireland. While the club brings in some serious talent, like Alex Dolenko who has experience from Ukraine’s top flight, it’s still a challenge getting everything to gel. That’s where the newer role for Westbrooks has developed, he is the effective old-man of the team at 31.
“The real success story is how well the club has done since getting to the Superleague. We’re happy with the way it’s going but the ultimate goal is to win some silverware. I definitely am the elder statesman on the team but it suits me, it suits my game. I like to be a leader and lead by example. The toughest part is keeping up with them week to week in practice. I’m getting that bit older so I slow down and they don’t,” says Westbrooks.
With his father Jerome, a legend of the Irish game, still playing actively at 60. There’s no chance of Westbrooks thinking about winding down his career anytime soon.
“My dad’s a freak of nature. I’m nearly 32 but my body’s probably about 52 years old. I’d love to retire but then I’d have nothing to do. If we win the treble, it would be nice to go out on top, but there won’t be a retirement anytime soon.”
This Saturday’s game is a chance for Westbrooks to win a second cup medal but winning at this stage of his career is a different beast to when he won as a younger man.
“It definitely means a lot more now. Not to brag but I feel like this is my team. Although we’re all together, I like to lead by example. If I win this one, it will be the most important one I’ve ever won.”
Conor Meany, UCD Marian guard and cup winner in 2011, knows all about Westbrooks’ ability to take charge of a game and the challenge it brings for opponents.
“He’s a good leader and everything runs through him. He’ll have the ball in his hands a lot and you can expect to see him push the ball in transition whenever he can. In the half court he’s under control and will constantly be probing the defense to see what he can exploit,” says Meany.
“He’s a great passer but he’s also able to shoot the ball well from all over the court and finish around the basket. He sees the court well and he’s got a good balance of when to get his teammates involved and when to be aggressive,”
“Defensively you want to force him to be a jumpshooter from the perimeter as much as possible. He’s a good shooter, particularly when he spots up and catches it but you’d rather have him shoot 3s or long 2s than getting in the key and causing your defence more problems. Defensively Swords play a lot of zone and Isaac likes to look for steals to start the fastbreak so just mind the ball and dont be lazy with passes.”
That experience for Meany doesn’t just involve battling Westbrooks in a Swords jersey. The cup medal the Thunder guard already has comes from his time with Saturday’s opponents, Killester. That could lead to some interesting times for the Westrbooks family around the world.
“I’m just worried about Michael Westbrooks having a full meltdown in Houston on Saturday, He’s Killester through and through but he’ll have to cheer against his brother. Hopefully he survives,” says Meany.
While the elder Westbrooks brother won’t be in the arena to watch, Isaac is pretty confident he knows who he’ll be rooting for.
“He’ll definitely be divided, he bleeds black and orange, he loves Killester and I’m sure he wishes he could be here and play the game himself. My family is very close and he’ll go blood over club, he’ll be divided but he’ll be cheering for us,” said Westbrooks.
“I know the [Killester] lads well, I’ve played with a lot of the players there and I was even coached by Jonathan Grennell who is on the team. Saying that, I couldn’t care less who we came up against, once you put on the Swords jersey it’s us against the world,”
“We’re just trying to stick to the gameplan, what’s worked for us in the past. I enjoy getting people involved. That’s what I’m going to come out and try to do, find people in positions where they are most comfortable and try to put Ciaran Rowe [Killester’s point guard] under a bit of pressure. He’s the engine to their team, if we can slow him down then we increase our chances of success.”
The Irish cup final between GCD Swords Thunder and PyrobelKillester is live on TG4 and via TG4.ie worldwide this Saturday. Coverage starts 7.50pm Irish time/8.50pm CET/2.50pm EST