Russell Westbrook’s greatest rebounding accomplishment came a decade before his record-setting NBA season.
Back in 2006-07, Westbrook wasn’t allowed to crash the offensive boards, hard to believe for a man who would eventually become the first guard to average double-digit rebounds since 1962. But Westbrook was just a freshman at UCLA then — and his coach, Ben Howland, employed a scheme that didn’t allow guards to dart after their teammates’ missed shots.
That was nothing new for Howland-coached teams, and it’s a strategy which has become even more common around basketball over the years. Those mid-2000s UCLA squads would send two bigs, at most, to offensive rebound. The other three players would have to hustle back to cut off transition. As a freshman, that included Westbrook.
It changed the following year.
“Russell is just so great and so tenacious that the amount of offensive rebounds that he procured made a lot of sense,” Howland told The Transcript. “He was just too good, it was crazy not to have him go.”
Howland made the adjustment early in Westbrook’s sophomore season, pushing the guard to attack the offensive glass at every realistic opportunity and sending a forward back to defend transition in his place. It was the first time in 14 years as an NCAA head coach that Howland had allowed a guard to offensive rebound consistently. And there were signs as to why during the previous summer.
Westbrook participated regularly in pickup games that included professional players during the months between his freshman and sophomore years. NBA stars and UCLA alums like Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, Earl Watson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and more would show up and organize competitive exhibitions on the UCLA campus.
Howland, by rule, wasn’t allowed to attend those games, even if he heard the reviews from his former players after.
“What was happening was Baron Davis, Earl Watson, those guys were coming out of there and they were just freaked out by how good he was, how dominant he was,” Howland said.
They specifically mentioned how a scrawny, little-known rising sophomore was skying over NBA players for boards in those scrimmages. And Westbrook’s UCLA teammates, who played in those games with him, weren’t all too shocked about Howland’s decision to deviate from his usual rebounding philosophy once competitive hooping began.
“All summer he was doing it,” Westbrook’s former UCLA teammate Michael Roll told The Transcript. “And it was like, ‘Alright, let’s make a change.’”
As Westbrook puts it, “Got to want it more than the other person, plain and simple.”
That was just the beginning.
Today, Westbrook is coming off one of the greatest rebounding seasons for a guard in league history. His 10.7 rebounds per game in 2016-17 is the most for a guard since fellow triple-double fiend Oscar Robertson averaged 12.5 in 1961-62. He’s the only player under 6-foot-5 to average that many since former St. Louis Hawk Cliff Hagan in 1959-60.
Westbrook pulled down 17.1 percent of available rebounds while he was on the court in 2016-17, second on the Thunder to glass glutton Enes Kanter, who joked about having to box Westbrook out because “He's getting all the rebounds." It’s the highest rebound rate for any guard in NBA history.
“Obviously, he’s going to be a Hall of Fame player,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
The rebounds came this past season in a way that could not have taken more of a swerve from how Howland used Westbrook as a freshman. The Thunder actually schemed for Westbrook to grab as many boards as possible, especially on the defensive end. It’s what led to the conversations about uncontested rebounds, an obvious and fair point as long as it didn’t lack nuance.
Westbrook broke defensive conventions so that he could head to the block and consume boards, no question. And no matter what the team said publicly, there were constant private conversations about how to turn Westbrook into more of a defensive contributor without hurting his rebounding numbers.
He led the NBA in uncontested rebounds, per NBA.com’s SportsVU data. But that, alone, didn’t turn him into a pedestrian rebounder. He still corralled the second-most contested boards of any guard. And keep in mind, no matter how many jokes there were about him phoning a hitman whenever another Thunder player would steal a rebound: If Westbrook and a teammate had an equal chance at a board, the Thunder wanted it to be Westbrook’s. And not just to manage ego.
Howland reached back to the Bruin days to summarize why.
“The thing that I love that Russell did rebounding-wise was when he got that defensive rebound, he would [fast] break himself,” he said. “He was so good at it.”
Donovan wanted to play the season at a fast pace, and eliminating an outlet pass by letting one of the league’s fastest players get the ball right off the rim was his best way. It’s how the Thunder put up shots fifth-fastest of any team on possessions that followed defensive rebounds, per inpredictable.com.
It’s possible the strategy didn’t work as well as Donovan would have hoped. Though Westbrook is the human embodiment of those cartoons whose legs start kicking up dust clouds before they even begin to run, the Thunder were actually one of the NBA’s least efficient teams in transition this past season. (Of course, operating on the break is so effective that their low-efficiency in those situations was still better than that of a top-tier half-court offense.)
Yet, it’s why Westbrook may not grab as many rebounds this year. Maybe him sliding over from prime defensive position to snag a board will be even less worth it with more weapons around him in the forms of Paul George, Patrick Patterson and other developing young players.
He’ll still dart after defensive and offensive misses, alike. That’s part of his basketball DNA. But a tamer Westbrook may be the goal with a deeper roster. Besides, Westbrook would still probably remain the NBA’s top rebounding guard even if were to take a more conventional approach.
"What makes him a great rebounder besides the strength and athleticism, he is great at following the flight of the ball,” Donovan said. “He understands where it's going to go and he gets his speed and quickness and athleticism off the floor and into the game, because he knows where the ball is going to go.”