Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Rebounding is one of those things you can thrive at if you put in the work. On the other hand, you could be born with a natural ability to sort of float to wherever the ball seems to come off the rim.
Dwight Howard has both of these things going for him.
It’s well-documented that Dwight works harder than most guys on the court. He logs more minutes, takes more of a beating, and has the supernatural ability to outwork and out-hustle guys who are half his size.
What I noticed, though, in watching some video from some of his more dominant rebounding games this year, is that it’s more than just elbow grease and size that gives Dwight an advantage under the hoop. Dwight has the uncanny ability to be in the right place when the ball clangs off the rim. He dances and floats and positions and schemes and at first you wonder how he was right where he needed to be to get a rebound. But on closer analysis, you realize that there is an art to this thing called rebounding, and Dwight specializes in it.
In watching dozens of Dwight’s rebounds using Synergy Sports Technology, I noticed a few things. First, Dwight doesn’t always box out, because he doesn’t always need to. Second, Dwight’s vision and ability to keep his man, the hoop, and the ball in a perfect triangle is probably his strongest attribute when it comes to defense and rebounding. And finally, Dwight is crafty and does not position himself the same way against every player, nor does he position himself the same way offensively as he does defensively.
Let’s start with the first observation, which is that Dwight doesn’t need to box out a lot of the time. All of these observations sort of flow in and out of each other, so bear with me. Part of the reason that Dwight gets so many rebounds is that his positioning is so good that his opponents recognize when he has position. And frankly, there are times when players will just bail when Dwight is in the paint with his big wide base waiting for the ball to come off the rim. One of the things that makes Dwight so great is that this “position” is simply him being near the basket a lot of the time.
Very few times, especially late in games, do players challenge Dwight when he is under the hoop. In situations where he uses his body more actively, like when he’s facing Andrew Bynum or DeJuan Blair, those players will try to get a hand over the back of Dwight and cause some problems. But when he’s facing weaker opponents like Pau Gasol or Tim Duncan, it’s just a matter of being in the right place. Those players will usually shy away from putting up a fight.
Is it a respect thing? Maybe. But really it’s more of a inevitability factor where guys realize, “What’s the point here? He’s got position.” But that shouldn’t go overlooked. Getting to that position is an art in and of itself.
That ties directly into the second observation, which is that Dwight creates perfect triangles and has an impeccable sense of what’s going on around him at any given moment. This sixth sense is a big part of what makes him such a phenomenal rebounder.
Dwight floats through the paint, and if you watch him react to where the ball is, where his man is, and where the hoop is, he always creates a triangle where he is between his man and the hoop, with a direct line at the ballhandler. This puts him in perfect position to help out if he needs to, to jump the pass on his man if he needs to, to close out quickly, or (most importantly) to be the first guy at the rim no matter who shoots the ball.
Note: if you’ve ever been to a basketball camp, this is Defense 101. Thing is, not everyone practices the rudimentary stuff like Dwight does.
This tactic is more difficult when he’s guarding a big guy like Bynum in the post, and is most aptly executed when he roams around guarding a guy like Gasol where he can keep the perfect triangle in tact.
It’s the mental part of the game that often goes unrecognized for Dwight. Yes, he’s got the body, the build, the size, the strength, etc. But he also has a mind for the game. He’s a student of the game, and plays on the defensive end smarter than most.
Note: most of Dwight’s offensive rebounds come off long threes. His positioning and timing here is pretty unreal as well. He baits defenders into getting position, and floats out a bit if his teammates shoot from deep. A high percentage of his offensive boards are caught 5-7 feet from the hoop, which is not where he’s being played. Oh, and he’s always real casual about it too. It’s fun to watch.
Now, this high IQ leads into the final observation, which is that Dwight’s schemes change depending on who he is playing. This is crucial. Personally, sometimes it looks like Dwight is more comfortable playing an inside-out big like Gasol or Duncan where he can play his angles and worry less about being physical inside. That is not to say that he is worse when he is physical, but it appears that Dwight excels when he’s dancing around the paint and creating “easy” rebounds for himself. Plus, he tires slower this way.
Similarly, when he is guarding a bigger center on the low block, it tends to take away more of the “automatic” or “inevitable” rebounds that exist when he is floating. Because again, guys don’t seem to challenge him when he’s alone under the hoop. A guy like Andrew Bynum is going to challenge Dwight to a certain point, but then slowly start conceding rebounds when Dwight has position. That’s just the nature of the beast.
So what did we learn in all of this? That Dwight is a master of his trade. There is an art to rebounding that, if coupled with hard work and dedication, makes it possible to rebound more than 20 times per night. Very few guys have it. Dwight Howard is certainly one of them.
Nate Drexler is a contributing writer for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.