December 28, 2020

How Can a Not-That-Tall Team Dominate the Boards?

Warren Grimes

There’s a lot to like about this season’s edition of Women’s Hoops.  A perfect record and a number 1 ranking are among the team’s achievements.  We’ll see how long these can be sustained.  Meanwhile, one feature likely to endure is the team’s impressive rebounding. 

At this point, the team is at the top of the conference in boards (48.9 per game average) with a 16.6 average margin over opponents.  These numbers will decline as the team matches up against tougher conference opponents.  Still, it was impressive that Stanford out-boarded UCLA, the third best rebounding team in the conference, by an impressive 14 rebounds.

What’s the secret?  It’s obviously not simply a matter of height.  Stanford has started a team with no one taller than 6’1”.  Yes, one of the starters is Fran Belibi with her 6’5” reach.  But Belibi is not the leading rebounder on a per game basis (that’s Haley Jones) nor on a per minute basis (that’s Cameron Brink). 

On last season’s team, taller players were in the starting lineup, including Maya Dodson and Nadia Fingall, but that team averaged 8 fewer boards per game, and had only a 6.2 rebounding margin over opponents.  Stanford’s offense is faster paced this season, putting up more shots.  That explains some of the difference, but there’s more going on. 

A lot more than height goes into rebounding. 

It’s blocking out.

It’s strength.

It’s leaping ability.

It’s court sense and positioning.

It’s quickness to the ball.

And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s focus and desire.

The best rebounders have a combination of these strengths.

Let’s start with Haley Jones, who leads the conference with an average of 10.1 boards per game.  For Jones, it’s strength, court sense, and desire that stand out most.  Yes, Jones can jump and is reasonably tall, but those traits alone do not make a great rebounder. 

Jones is averaging .372 boards per minute.  That’s impressive, but falls short of Cameron Brink’s .431 boards per minute.  Brink’s numbers may go down as she gets more defensive attention, but, for now, she’s amazing.  Brink is averaging just 15.6 minutes per game, but is the 10th leading rebounder in the conference on a per game basis (6.7 boards per game).  I’ve been impressed with Brink’s good hands, quickness, and desire.  When Brink cannot grab the ball, she keeps it alive for other teammates to grab.  And she’s a defensive presence.  Her 15 blocks lead the team on both a per game and per minute basis.

Then there’s Fran Belibi, who is the conference’s 19th leading rebounder at 5.9 boards per game.  Her rebounds per minute (.347) are just below Jones.  Belibi draws a lot of defensive attention that opens rebounding opportunities for others.

There’s still more.  Lexi Hull is averaging 5.7 boards per game, the 22nd highest of any player in the conference.  That makes four Stanford players among the conference’s best rebounders.  Hull, like Brink, is in the right place, battles for position and control, and keeps the ball alive when she cannot grab it.

Yes, Stanford’s rebounding may be the best of any Stanford team.  Stanford also leads the conference in points, in steals, and is second in assists.  And Brink, Jones, and Belibi are among the conference’s top 5 players in field goal shooting percentage. 

That said, this is a very competitive conference.  Stanford’s edge over other top conference opponents is not large.  For example, 49.8 boards per game is only slightly ahead of second place Oregon (45 boards per game).   There are multiple challenges ahead.

Meanwhile, the biggest challenge of all to a successful season remains Covid 19.  More games are likely to be cancelled or postponed before the vaccine is available.  Keep safe everyone!

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