Zach Randolph and the Art of Creating Space

May 21, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) drives to the basket as San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) looks on in game two of the Western Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at AT

In a sport and league predicated largely on athleticism, Zach Randolph has managed to succeed despite a lack thereof. While there are nightly highlights showing off the quickness and leaping ability of players across the league, Randolph, who was blessed with neither, is busy toughing it out in the post. He makes his living largely because of his footwork and ability to create space down low.

At just 6’9”, and with little leaping ability, the man affectionately known as “Z-Bo” has found a way to both score on the post, and become a rebounding force. He has been in the top 5 in rebounding 3 of the last 4 years. (He only played 28 games last year.) This year, Randolph put up a little over 15 points and 11 rebounds a night for the Grizzlies, and has averaged 17.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game in his 11-year career.

To see Randolph at work, let’s go to the tape, featuring plays from Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. (The Grizzlies lost 104-93 in overtime, despite 14 points and 15 rebounds from Randolph.)

First, let’s look at this possession from late in the 2nd quarter. Keep your eyes on only Randolph this possession. (He’s wearing number 50 in white and starts off near the right block being guarded by Matt Bonner, who wears number 15 in black.)

He starts off the possession by setting multiple screens. He then moves down to the paint, where he posts up Bonner. He doesn’t get the ball from Marc Gasol, but he keeps moving and looking for position. Then, a shot goes up that misses, but the Grizzlies grab the rebound. As Conley drives the lane, Randolph slides away from the defense, looking for the pass – but Conley shoots instead, and Randolph, who has moved into great position, outduels three Spurs (while hardly jumping) for the offensive rebound. He ends up missing the put-back and a second tip attempt, but that isn’t the point.

Look how much work Randolph did this possession. None of it took exceptional athletic ability. It was just hard work and smart positioning. While it didn’t pay off this time, this sequence exemplifies Z-Bo’s game.

Now, we’ll check out a couple plays in the 4th quarter. Three consecutive trips down the floor, Randolph fights his way to offensive rebounds.

For the first possession, Randolph is along the baseline as the shot goes up. It looks like Bonner should have the position to box him out, but Randolph gives him a little bump and gets Bonner on his hip. From there, he uses his strength and outworks three Spurs for the rebound.

Randolph begins the second possession by setting a screen for Conley. Following this, he makes his way into the paint. He gets his body into his defender, and seals him on his backside. At this point, Randolph has the control. Gasol doesn’t give him the ball on his first post-up attempt, instead choosing to skip the ball to the corner. Once again, Randolph gets himself good position, but doesn’t get the ball. As Bayless shoots the three from the corner, Bonner, who is guarding Randolph has the inside position for the rebound since Randolph sealed him to get post position. But once again, Randolph uses his footwork (and a hip bump) to move Bonner out of the way, drawing a foul from Bonner in the process and gaining the Grizzlies an extra possession.

In the third possession, Randolph once again finds himself on the baseline, presumably out of position for a rebound. But once again, as the shot goes up, he forces his way to the right spot. Bayless shoots the three from the right wing, and Randolph battles his way to the left block. This is the best spot for an offensive rebound because, as Kirk Goldsberry showed in this excellent piece, rebounds go to “the other side” – when a field goal is attempted from the baseline or wing areas and it misses, chances are the rebound will occur on the opposite side of the rim.

The Grizzlies never got Randolph the ball on three separate trips down the court, even though he had excellent position on a few occasions. Despite this, Randolph kept working, and got himself to the right spot and in the right position to grab crucial offensive rebounds for his team.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at a few instances in which Randolph actually did get the ball on offense, and put it to good use.

In the first clip, Randolph gets the ball on near the three-point line. Tiago Splitter tries to shade him to the right, but Randolph, smartly goes left, making Splitter drop his right foot before being able to slide with Randolph as he drives to the basket. It gives Randolph space to start his move. Splitter is able to recover however, due to Randolph’s lack of quickness. To counter, Randolph fakes a spin to the middle and comes back to his favorite left hand for a jump hook that he hits after creating space with the fake.

In the second possession, Z-Bo gets the ball near the elbow with his back to the basket, near the elbow. After a few dribbles, he starts to spin for a jump hook, but pump fakes and turns it into an up-and-under. His defender falls for it for a split second, giving Randolph the time to step through and shoot a little leaner.

In these two examples, Randolph uses his array of fakes and moves to give himself space when he has the ball. He doesn’t have the quickness to dribble past guys or the leaping ability to shoot over them, but he makes up for it with footwork with the ball in his hands.

Though often overlooked, just like Randolph himself, this is an impressive ability. Great footwork and knowing how to give yourself space is vital, especially when you aren’t blessed with all the athletic gifts other players have. Without it, Randolph might not even be in the league, never mind an important piece on a Conference Finals team.