I was messing around, making some graphs with advanced stats from Basketball Reference‘s Advanced stats, when I noticed something interesting. Something remarkable.
There are two ways you can give your team an advantage in possessions: you can force turnovers from the other team, or you can grab offensive rebounds. Players can excel at one or the other of these, but there aren’t very many players who excel at both at a high level. They don’t make Ben Wallaces very often.
Looking at a graph of Offensive Rebound Percentage (the percentage of possible offensive rebounds that a player grabs while he’s on the court) and Steal Percentage (the percentage of opponent possessions ended by a player stealing the ball) of NBA players this season, there’s a pretty clear tradeoff between frequently getting steals and frequently getting offensive rebounds. There really aren’t many players who are elite at both.
Most players don’t get a lot of offensive rebounds, either because they’re playing on the perimeter or because they’re better off getting back on defense. The players who excel at getting offensive rebounds tend to be lumbering, physical players — not exactly prime candidates for getting a lot of steals.
Wait, what’s that up there all alone in the top right? Is that… Houston Rockets’ rookie Tari Eason?
Looking at Tari Eason’s counting stats, they look solid for a rookie, but nothing incredible. But a deeper look shows that he has shown a unique blend of fantastic steal percentage (3.4%, second only to Philadelphia’s De’Anthony Melton among players with at least 400 minutes played this season) and a great offensive rebounding percentage (13%, 9th among players with at least 400 minutes). No one else is even close to being top 10 in both.
How Tari Eason does what no other NBA player can
If you’re like 7.9999 billion out of the 8 billion people on the planet, you probably have not watched a Houston Rockets game this season. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it is art on the court. But if you crave roughly 19 minutes of extra possessions excellence from a guy who was built in a factory to rack up both steals and offensive rebounds (6’8″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, quick, with college experience playing center), it is the best place to get your fix.
Tari Eason gets steals by pretending the ball is the last bread on earth
Watch these steals he gets during a recent game against the 76ers. He’s yanking the ball out of hands like he’s an action movie protagonist, the ball is the McGuffin, and we’re rapidly approaching the 90 minute mark. He’s poking and swiping at the ball any time it comes near him (and sometimes when it doesn’t). If there’s a chance he can get the ball for his team, he’s going to take it.
All this aggression leads to 4.1 fouls per 36 minutes — nothing unprecedented by any means, but more than you’ll eventually want to see. Kevin O’Connor’s draft analysis of him has so far proven true on the defensive end; he’s quick and long, attentive and aggressive enough to take advantage of it, but sometimes he’s a bit too aggressive. With time, he’ll almost certainly get better at recognizing when a steal opportunity is worth the risk.
The Houston Rockets can’t shoot, but Tari is prepared
The Rockets are the worst shooting team in the league at 44%. They average nearly 50 missed shots per game, so if you’re a Rockets player looking to add some value on the offensive end, a pretty reliable way to do it is to prepare for your teammates (or even yourself) to miss, which Tari Eason does well. He flies into the paint and stays there fighting for position until the play is over.
While all the missing the Rockets are doing might help with the raw numbers of offensive rebounds Tari gets, it doesn’t explain his high Offensive Rebound%, which is the percentage of possible offensive rebounds that he gets. If anything, it means his high offensive rebounding percentage — sandwiched between 7 footers Rudy Gobert and Jonas Valanciunas — is less likely to be a total fluke.
While he would need to put on 30lbs of muscle, grow his hair out, and get his bench press up to 460lbs to become Ben Wallace, he is already offering that rare combination of offensive rebound and steals in a more modern NBA player. He’s already shown a proficiency for success playing a high risk, high reward style, which bodes well as he gets more experience and improves at reading situations and choosing when to gamble. And what better way to get your young team more reps than to have a player dedicated to getting his team the ball whenever he can?