Rebounding is a Mental Skill

Stumbling on Wins offers the following two observations regarding rebounding in the NBA:

  • A player’s per-minute rebounding is very consistent across time.  Players who excel at rebounding, seem to always excel at rebounding.  Players who do not excel at rebounding seem to never learn this skill.
  • In moving from college to the NBA, rebounding appears to be a skill that continues.  In other words, players who are good at rebounding in college tend to be good at rebounding in the pros.  And those who do not rebound well in college do not rebound well in the pros.

All of this suggests that rebounding is a skill.  Yesterday Jonah Lehrer –– author of How We Decide (an excellent book on behavioral economics and decision-making) – posted Basketball and Jazz at  This post reviews research explaining the mental aspect of rebounding.

A few years ago, a team of Italian neuroscientists conducted a simple study on rebounding. At first glance, rebounding looks like a brute physical skill: The tallest guy (or the one with the highest vertical) should always end up with the ball. But this isn’t what happens. Instead, some of the best rebounders in the history of the NBA, such as Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, were several inches shorter than their competitors. What allowed these players to get to the ball first?

The rebounding experiment went like this: 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters, plus a group of complete basketball novices, watched video clips of a player attempting a free throw. (You can watch the videos here.) Not surprisingly, the professional athletes were far better at predicting whether or not the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two-thirds of the time, the non-playing experts (i.e., the coaches and writers) only got it right about 40 percent of the time. The athletes were also far quicker with their guesses, and were able to make accurate predictions about where the ball would end up before it was even airborne. (This suggests that the players were tracking the body movements of the shooter, and not simply making judgments based on the arc of the ball.) The coaches and writers, meanwhile, could only predict a make or miss after the shot, which required an additional 300 milliseconds.

What allowed the players to make such speedy judgments? By monitoring the brains and bodies of subjects as they watched free throws, the scientists were able to reveal something interesting about the best rebounders. It turned out that elite athletes, but not coaches and journalists, showed a sharp increase in activity in the motor cortex and their hand muscles in the crucial milliseconds before the ball was released. The scientists argue that this extra activity was due to a “covert simulation of the action,” as the athletes made a complicated series of calculations about the trajectory of the ball based on the form of the shooter. (Every NBA player, apparently, excels at unconscious trigonometry.) But here’s where things get fascinating: This increase in activity only occurred for missed shots. If the shot was going in, then their brains failed to get excited. Of course, this makes perfect sense: Why try to anticipate the bounce of a ball that can’t be rebounded? That’s a waste of mental energy.

The larger point is that even a simple skill like rebounding reflects an astonishing amount of cognitive labor. The reason we don’t notice this labor is because it happens so fast, in the fraction of a fraction of a second before the ball is released. And so we assume that rebounding is an uninteresting task, a physical act in a physical game. But it’s not, which is why the best rebounders aren’t just taller or more physical or better at boxing out – they’re also faster thinkers. This is what separates the Kevin Loves and Kevin Garnetts from everyone else on the court: They know where the ball will end up first.

Such research suggests that rebounding may not be a skill that is easy to teach.  If some people can see where the ball might be going before the shooter even takes the shot, these players will always have the advantage in the rebounding game.  And hence, the players with this mental skill will tend to be good rebounders (and those without the skill will not).

This suggests that NBA decision-makers should not believe that poor rebounders in college will some how change this behavior in the NBA.  It may be the case the poor rebounders are not suffering from a lack of physical skill or desire.  These players might just lack the ability to see where the ball is going.

Let me close by noting another result reported in Stumbling on Wins.  Stacey Brook, Aju Fenn and I recently published a study (a study detailed in the book) of what factors impact where a player is drafted.  Of the factors in the box score, rebounding and turnovers are the only factors that do not have a statistical impact on draft position.

Will that change this year? Kenneth Faried was an amazing rebounder at the college level.  Again, that suggests Faried will be a good rebounder in the NBA.  So will teams take notice and focus on Faried?  Or will the scorers (a skill that doesn’t translate so well) once again get chosen first?

– DJ

P.S. Hat Tip to John in the comments for alerting me to the Jonah Lehrer article (although I would have seen it eventually since I read Lehrer at on a regular basis).

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