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.
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.