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Is Oscar Tshiebwe the Best Rebounder Ever?

Even in today’s era of apositional weirdos, basketball stardom is informed by certain biases. You need to score a lot, ideally by hoisting tough shots over a defender’s outstretched arms. Your passes need to be infused with smartness and surety. But most of all, you have to dribble. On the most basic level, dribbling creates a certain degree of self-sufficiency, an ability to go out and make shit happen. This is why the balls themselves are made perfectly round to bounce predictably and why basketball is a cooler sport than netball. Dribbling is the most elemental part of being a great player; it’s the foundation of almost all on-court self-expression and actualization. Just as opposable thumbs separate man from beast, dribbling is what separates Steph Curry from Seth Curry. 

Conversely, Oscar Tshiebwe, the University of Kentucky’s center and the presumptive National Player of the Year, would prefer not to do that stuff. This is not to say that his game is devoid of skill or nuance, but rather that he plays basketball with a judoka’s sensibility. He has never taken a three-pointer across his three years of college and is hitting just 34 percent of his jumpers from any distance; he has a grand total of 30 assists this year, against 54 turnovers. Whereas his contemporaries in the National Player of the Year race are swashbuckling scorers with deep bags of floaters or post moves, Tshiebwe dominates through physicality and instincts. 

When Tshiebwe is on the court, he’s going to get the ball, preferably by force. He’s arguably the best rebounder in the history of college basketball; his 15.3 rebounds per game are the most that any player has racked up since at least 1992. On a game by game basis, his rebounding totals boggle the mind—of the 26 games in which a player has had 20 or more rebounds this year, Tshiebwe is responsible for five of them; he’s led Kentucky in rebounding in 27 of their 28 contests; in just 27 games, he set a school record for rebounds in a single season. Although rebounding isn’t quite held in the same regard it once was, Tshiebwe represents a convincing counterargument for its enduring value. Despite unremarkable shooting percentages and shot profile, Kentucky has the nation’s fourth best offense in large part because Tshiebwe ensures that they have so many more opportunities for offense; their 38.4 percent offensive rebound rate is second-best in the nation while his own personal 20 percent offensive rebound rate is better than that of 10 entire teams. 

As such, Tshiebwe’s best trait is that his offensive production is almost entirely additive; while most players demand some degree of schematic accommodation, Tshiebwe produces 16.4 points per game of pure gravy. He converts lobs and dump-offs when given the chance, but nearly half of his points are unassisted putbacks that are the result of his offensive rebounding—thanks to his soft touch and insatiable rebounding bloodlust, he’s basketball’s preeminent composter, turning waste (i.e. missed shots) into something productive and good (i.e. points). In this sense, Tshiebwe is a new kind of star, precisely because he’s so unlike the normal conception of one.