In my experience as a high school girls basketball coach, each team gets roughly 70 possessions per game. Games are 32 minutes long. That means that the average time of a possession is 13 or 14 seconds. Different coaches have their clichés and maxims that relate to these precious 140 sequences. “Value the basketball.” “Push the pace.” “We need two back.” And of course, “Box out.” One part of the box out that does not receive enough attention is free throw rebounds.
In one of my team’s games last season, we led by one point with nine seconds to go and the opposition at the line for one shot. They missed the free throw and immediately fouled our rebounder with seven seconds remaining. We then went down to the other end of the court to shoot a one-and-one. We missed our free throw and they got the rebound, but in the excitement of the moment, the outlet pass got deflected and we regained possession. Once again we were fouled, and once again we missed the free throw. This time we forced a jump ball. The possession arrow pointed in our favor and with two seconds remaining we inbounded to win the game.
The Data in Free Throw Rebounding
Three plays where free throw rebounds are required in the span of seven seconds is extreme, but free throw rebounding in a high school game is common. And it is especially prevalent in youth basketball where free throw shooting is worse and fouling is portrayed differently by officials. On average my team saw over 9 rebounding scenarios off of missed free throws per game last year.
Among the 11 games that I viewed individual free throw data from, there were more than 2.5 offensive rebounds per game. A rebound is the birthplace of a possession. When only 70 possessions per game occur that means, more than 6% of the time a possession is coming out of a missed free throw. In close games, everything matters including who wins the free throw rebounding game.
Teaching Defensive Free Throw Rebounds
There were four things I noticed watching my teams attempt to box out and watching our opponents attempt to box out.
Substitutions Causing Role Ambiguity
First, there were several instances where teams sent three players in the lane instead of four.
Perhaps keeping two players outside the lane is related to an up-tempo strategy, but I never saw a transition attack executed. It is more likely that the teams that utilized three defensive rebounders in the lane simply failed to communicate.
There were numerous plays where the offensive player’s path toward the sideline took x4 and x5 out of rebounding position. The defense still had no trouble securing a rebound in this instance since two defenders were left to cover the shooter who could not leave until the ball hit the rim. Without the extra defender in the lane, the shooter was much more dangerous to get these types of rebounds.
To ensure four defensive rebounders are in the lane, players and coaches need to communicate. Players should communicate with each other about who is supposed to be where. Players can also communicate with the referee to hold the ball until the fourth player arrives. The x4 and x5 are the most essential communicators. In the NBA, you often see these players leave the lane on the first free throw and rebound the ball. In this process, these players should double check the lane the same way a punt returner counts the number of players on the field. Coaches should make it clear what players should be the primary players who box out and who should be in the third and fourth spots in the meeting rooms with players.
Free Throw Process Strips Player Intensity
Players tend to relax on free throws. And after watching 100 missed free throws that resulted in rebounds, I do not think the first free throw puts them to sleep. The teams that gave up more offensive rebounds gave them up because one player’s effort was inadequate. That player had inside position and failed to get proper contact or just got outraced to the opposite block. Before the free throw was released that player was standing upright instead of bending down. The arm closest to the player that needed to be boxed out was not extended into the lane. The only explanation I can find for why it was happening with my players is that I never explicitly taught it. Seeing it on film this offseason will help ensure that it does get emphasized next season.
Writing a blog with the term growth mindset it hurts a little to say height matters, but it really does. One of my more aggressive and physical short players had the inside position on one free throw. She executed a textbook box out driving the offensive player back by a step only to have that player legally go over her back for a rebound.
If you have a choice on quickness versus height, definitely opt for height. And try to match up the tallest player with the opponent’s tallest player. That might sound like common sense, but if the players never hear it, you risk them not acting on it.
Rebounders often have trouble maintaining balance. Part of the problem is a result of having the opponent bearing down on them. The other part is that their teammates are scrambling into transition offense. The game is increasingly positionless today, but some rebounders cannot handle the ball. Executing outlet passes is a valuable part of the free throw rebounding equation.
The solution to maintaining balance and more importantly possession is simple in principle, but hard to execute. Players need to practice their balance every day. It is a core skill in rebounding, post-ups, driving, shooting, etc. Villanova forces players to get balanced after finishing full speed lay-ups and catching an outlet pass. I am a fan of the plyometric exercises from Beach Body to increase balance, strengthen muscles, and get players more confident in squat positions for things like rebounding and defensive stances. I recently read an anecdote from Greg Norman. He claims that whenever he brushes his teeth, he balances on one foot to build core muscles. Building balance is a long term goal, but players need to start somewhere.