Playing for Canada in a stretch of four friendly matches over the weekend, Andrew Nicholson scored 60 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 93 minutes. No matter the level of competition, scoring 60 points in 93 minutes is no mean feat; by the same token, a 6-foot-10 power forward managing 10 boards in 93 minutes is hard to accomplish, but for different reasons.
Nicholson's struggles on the glass in international competition aren't a surprise. As an Orlando Magic rookie, the St. Bonaventure product averaged 3.4 boards in 16.7 minutes per game. He rebounded an estimated 11.7 percent of all available misses, a poor figure for a player his size. Earlier in the summer, he had six rebounds in 49 minutes in two friendlies against Jamaica and 13 rebounds in 112 minutes in the Orlando Pro Summer League. In 11 organized games since his rookie year ended, Nicholson's grabbed one rebound every nine minutes.
But Summer League and those six Canadian friendlies are behind Nicholson. I wanted to know about his future. Can the Magic and their fans expect the 23-year-old to improve as a rebounder as his career advances? To answer that question, I searched the last 10 seasons of basketball-reference.com's database to see where Nicholson's rebounding stacks up historically, and whether any comparable players became stronger rebounders.
In that span, a total of 65 rookies listed 6-foot-9 or taller--though Nicholson stands 6-foot-10, basketball-reference lists him at 6-foot-9--have logged at least 1000 minutes. Nicholson's rebounding rate of 11.7 percent places him 54th on that list, between Marvin Williams (11.8) and Al-Farouq Aminu (10.8), two small forwards.
As the table embedded in this post suggests, Nicholson's chances of significantly improving as a rebounder don't look good. The big men with rookie rebound rates in Nicholson's range only made modest gains on the glass as their careers advanced. Chris Bosh was the biggest outlier: a poor rebounder as a 6-foot-10, 228-pound rookie, he improved in that area over his next nine seasons to approach an acceptable level.
But by and large, the career trajectories of Nicholson's fellow poor rebounders lend credence to the idea that rebounding is an innate skill; players either have it or they don't, and though they can work on their bodies and their understanding of physics to make marginal improvements on the glass, they don't typically advance from mediocre to good. As Nik Vučević, Nicholson's Magic teammate and the league's second-leading rebounder in 2012/13, told me in February, "You can maybe learn [rebounding] a little bit but I think it's really more mostly natural."
The good news for Nicholson is that there's more to basketball than rebounding. The great news for him is that he's already reached elite, or near-elite, status in his greatest skill, i.e., scoring from the low post. His ability to sink set shots out of the pick-and-pop adds another dimension to his skill-set.
In other words, the Magic don't need Nicholson to turn into Dennis Rodman or Reggie Evans on the boards for him to be a rotation-caliber NBA player; his facility in putting the ball in the basket already makes him one. But there's no compelling evidence to suggest that Nicholson will even become a league-average rebounder. The Magic and their fans ought to manage their expectations accordingly.