The Art of the Rebound
How the best rebounders in the WNBA go about their business

May 1, 2007 - Without question, rebounding is the most underappreciated skill in the game of basketball. But that doesn't mean it has to be the hardest to learn.

Whether you play inside or out on the perimeter, whether you're talking about offense or defense and whether you play in the WNBA, NBA, high school or in the local rec leagues, rebounding wins games.

Rebounding is as much mental as it is physical.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

That it is why it is no coincidence that the top three rebounding teams in the WNBA last season happened to finish with the best records (Connecticut, Los Angeles and Detroit). The Detroit Shock, who led the league with 1,288 total rebounds during the regular season, went on to be the best rebounding team in the postseason as well en route to their second title in four years.

But in the WNBA (much more so than the NBA), rebounding is more than athleticism and height. The top rebounders in the WNBA will all tell you that the basic concepts are simple. A good rebounder wants to dominate the boards, focuses on every play and works hard to make it happen. Detroit Shock forward Cheryl Ford, who is also blessed with the gene for rebounding (in case you didn't know, her father is NBA great Karl Malone) led the league in rebounding last season with 11.3 per game and holds the WNBA career record with 10.3 rpg.

"Timing, hard work and then sometimes, it just falls right there," Ford explains. "But for the most part, it's just hard work, dedication, athleticism, passion and desire."

While luck may play a small part, rebounding is an art that many work at but few can actually excel in. Rebounding is every players' job and responsibility on the court regardless of their height or position (I'm talking to you, guards).

So what makes a great rebounder? Like most other parts of the game, rebounding is more than just physical ability and the ability to jump higher than the opposition. Any athlete that excels at their sport (speaking from example here) demonstrates a combination of mental focus, fierce determination, a tireless drive to succeed as well as a number of physical skills that can be honed with practice and experience (and the strong will to stay away from fast food restaurants on long road trips).

The Mental

Focus is difficult to actually define and may vary from person to person (wait, what was I saying again?). These intangibles could include things such as anticipating when a shot is going to go up, knowing where a rebound is likely to come off the rim and anticipating the movement of an opposing player.

"The first thing I think about is where the ball is shot from because a lot of rebounds are just based on the angles," Sparks center Lisa Leslie said. "A shot from the baseline will, more than likely, end up coming out to the other baseline. My goal is to get there or get around my opponent as much as possible."

Lisa Leslie has the most total rebounds in WNBA history 2,863 (not to mention total points, field goals, free throws and about 100 other statistical categories) over the past ten seasons.

"When the shot is in the air, don't just watch the ball," the three-time WNBA MVP says. "The best rebounders, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Yolanda Griffith, Cheryl Ford and myself, we do a good job of moving during that time."

The ability to focus throughout a game, to box out every time on the defensive end and always be alert for a put-back every time on the offensive end, is not something everyone can do.

"You have to go in with the mentality that every shot will be missed and you have to think about getting into position," Ford said.

Thinking it and really wanting it are two very different things (that's why only one team wins a championship each season). Determination and drive, the competitive desire and drive to compete for every rebound, to battle the opposing player and win out over them, are so important. In the WNBA, nearly all rebounds are taken below the rim (though that could change). Therefore, rebounding is a product not of great athletic ability, but attitude and desire.

The ability to excel in the paint requires an aggressiveness and courage to do battle in one of the most physical places in the world of sports (Third place behind UFC's Octagon and any competitive local bowling league). They elbow, shove, push and knock to the floor... but they never give up. Even when blocked out by a defender, they keep moving around and try for a better position.

And if practice and repetition is the key to improving physical skill, then studying is the key to improving the mental aspects of the game. (They're not watching cartoons during those film sessions on off-days.) The best rebounders study the way their teammates shoot, note the type of arc of those shots and then approximate where to go for the rebound.

As gifted as she is physically, Tamika Catchings works hard to study the game.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

"You have to be thinking even before someone even shoots the ball at what angle the ball might come off the rim or backboard," Indiana's Tamika Catchings says. "That comes with studying the game. Then you need to position yourself in front of the opposing player, whether you're on offense or defense, and try and snap down the board."

"Coaches tell us that 75 percent of all missed shots come off the rim away from the shooter," she adds. "The further away the shooter is from the basket, the higher and further out the ball will bounce. Shots from the side almost always bounce to the opposite side. Shots taken straight on will generally bounce straight back to the shooter. You always have to think that every shot will miss. This will force you to think where the shot will come off the rim."

The Physical

Thinking about rebounding and wanting the ball desperately won't amount to much without the physical skills. There is no question that strength, jumping ability, explosiveness, conditioning, and timing are extremely important, but positioning techniques for blocking out are also vitally important.

A good strong position is the secret to both offensive and defensive rebounding. A quick first step enables a rebounder to reach that spot in the lane where they think the ball will come down (you always hear Doris Burke talking about good footwork for a reason). It is important not to get too far under the basket or be too far away from the rim, either.

"Once the shot is in the air, you have to beat your opponent to the best position," Lynx center Nicole Ohlde explains. "It's just going and getting it, working hard to go get that rebound. It also helps to have a pretty wide booty. But it's also about getting into position, knowing and guessing strong side or weak side."

Once in position, the player must be able to hold it and stay in for a few seconds while the ball is in flight (what good is being there if you can't stay there?). Coaches teach their post players to keep low with knees bent and spread their legs wide to provide a large and strong base. This keeps them from being pushed out of position by an opposing player.

"The first thing you have to do is throw a body on somebody," Liberty rookie center Jessica Davenport says. "Then I go up. If I'm on the offensive end of the floor, I keep the ball high and go back up with it."

To box out, make contact with the opposing player, then pivot so that you are directly in front of them and spread low to the floor (one coach calls it "putting your butt to their gut") and slide with them. It is also critical to keep the defender from pushing you in towards the basket, so you can maintain good rebounding position. (If you let them push you under the basket, the rebound will go over your head.)

Davenport also explained (but thankfully did not demonstrate) that you have to keep your hands up at least shoulder high when getting ready to rebound, which allows you to be ready for the rebound that comes off the rim quickly and low.

"When the shot goes up, the hands go up," she says.

The Offensive Rebound

The keys to the offensive rebound are the quick first step and the counter moves.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

It should come as no surprise that the two best offensive rebounding teams in the WNBA last season were the Detroit Shock and Sacramento Monarchs. The two teams gave us the best Finals series ever (five games of great rebounding!), but their work on the glass carried them all season long.

The mentality of going after defensive rebounds and offensive rebounding is basically the same. The difference, however, is positioning. In order to get an offensive board, you must get the inside position on your defender, who is trying to box you out. A quick first step is (naturally´┐Ż) the first step. This is the best chance to steal the advantage. Counter moves are key as you must "out- quick" the opponent, making some kind of move to get that inside position. The best rebounders keep battling until the play is over.

"Some of the best rebounders aren't as involved in the offense so they're already down there, so all they are doing is waiting for a rebound," Leslie says. "Those are the ones that are more effective. For those of us who are focal points in the offense as well, it's definitely an effort to get to the right spots every time."

Once in position, you still have to seal the deal. When you watch Cheryl Ford, Yolanda Griffith or Lisa Leslie come down with the ball, you'll see the same technique. They hold firm with both hands, bringing the ball down to their chest with elbows out wide for protection and to prevent a turnover (two things coaches shout from the sidelines - rebounds and turnovers). You never see them try to dribble the ball either. Instead, they almost always go back up strong to the basket immediately before the defense can set up again.

The best players in the world take the most pride in their offensive rebounds because they are harder to come by. But regardless of which end of the floor they are on, rebounding takes a lot of work, a lot of skill and, yes, even a little bit of luck.