'Overlooked' rebounding machine has the athleticism and work ethic that should fit nicely at the next level
POSTED: Jun 3, 2016 2:47 PM ET
Joel Bolomboy, who averaged 12.6 boards in 2015-16, ended his career as Weber State's all-time career leader in rebounds.
It's a rare achievement in NCAA Division I basketball for a player to grab 20 or more rebounds in a game. Last season it happened just 28 times, three by one man, Weber State's Joel Bolomboy.
The 6-foot-9 Bolomboy, thanks in equal part to athleticism, work ethic and his analytical mind, is a rebounding machine. NBA scouts talk all the time about how a player needs to have just one exceptional, next-level skill to make a roster. Rebounding is Bolomboy's thing. It's been that way ever since he was a gangly teenager, when he correctly reasoned that grabbing missed shots was a good way for him to earn playing time.
"I started playing basketball later than most kids," said Bolomboy, who was born in the Ukraine, where he spent the first four years of his life before moving to Texas. "At the time, I couldn't really do much. For me, the way to get on the court was playing as hard as I could, defending, and rebounding."
I don't think there's anyone that has his size, skill, athleticism.
– Xavier coach Chris Mack on Joel Bolomboy
Bolomboy was right. At Keller High School in Fort Worth, Tex, he chased after every rebound, grabbed more than his share, and attracted the attention of several power conference schools. Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic Coast Conference were particularly interested, but the coaching staffs from both schools wanted him to redshirt his freshman season, not surprising considering Bolomboy weighed, at most, 200 pounds. A year away from the court and in the weight room might have done him some good, but Bolomboy wasn't that patient.
That's why, when Weber State coaches began recruiting him, he listened. Though it's tucked away in a mid-major conference far from the national spotlight, Weber State has a winning tradition. And there was recent precedent to suggest coach Randy Rahe and his staff could develop a player with NBA potential. Damian Lillard played there.
Weber State actually got a bit lucky with Bolomboy. Former assistant coach Phil Beckner spotted Bolomboy fairly early in the recruiting process, when he was still a junior in high school.
"Phil came back [from a recruiting trip] and told me about this kid, so I went down and saw him," Rahe said. "He was only about 6-8 and 200 pounds at the time. Extremely raw. But you could see he had some potential."
Weber State was the first school to offer a scholarship, and as Bolomboy has said many times over the years, that meant something to him. He visited the campus and was impressed by the family atmosphere created by Rahe, his staff and players. That was enough for Bolomboy. Resisting those power conference offers was easy. Weber State wasn't asking him to redshirt.
"They told me I could play as a freshman," Bolomboy said. "But they didn't promise me anything. If I was going to play, I was going to have to earn it."
That's where Bolomboy's family background came in handy. His father is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his mother from Russia.
"I come from a hard-working family," Bolomboy said. "Growing up, seeing my parents' struggles and how they overcame them, that was a great example for me. I've always worked hard to get what I've gotten in life."
The value of hard work was clearly illustrated to Bolomboy after he and his mother moved to Texas. Neither one spoke English.
"At elementary school, I was in ESL [English as a second language]," Bolomboy said. "My mom was going to college trying to get a degree, and learning more English. I was learning at a fast rate, so she would always have me help her with her college work. So while I was learning my own work, I was learning even more by helping her."
His work ethic established early, Bolomboy also developed a healthy dose of attitude, especially during his high school career while he was being recruited.
"I kind of felt overlooked," he said. " 'Oh Joel, he's OK. Give him a couple of more years and he might get there. We have this guy we like better than Joel.' It's always been like that for me. I've always thought I have something to prove."
For the last four years, Bolomboy has done everything in his power to prove his worth. He showed up at the Ogden, Utah campus of Weber State the summer before his freshman year and barely left until his career finished. While his teammates lifted weights four days a week, as was their requirement, he lifted five, sometimes six days. Other players took part of the summer off, but not Bolomboy. He stayed in Ogden, working on all facets of his game.
"He was like a newborn colt when he first got here," Rahe said. "When they're born, they're kind of wobbly and not too sure where they're at. Joel was raw. He had to work on some things. His feel for the game had to improve. His skill level -- handling, passing, shooting -- had to get better. But he's just such a hard worker. He lived in the gym. And every year, he continued to improve."
Bolomboy's career numbers bear that out. He didn't start as a freshman but averaged 7.0 points and 7.1 rebounds. The next year, his scoring didn't increase that much (8.7), but his rebounding soared into double figures (11.0). The next year, Bolomboy added a 3-point shot to his arsenal. After taking only one 3 his first two seasons, he made just enough (15-for-41, a solid 37 percent), to force opposing defenses to come out and guard him. His scoring increased to 13.3 points a game and he averaged 10.2 rebounds.
As a senior, Bolomboy's numbers shot up again -- 17.1 points, 12.6 rebounds en route to being voted the Big Sky Conference player of the year and defensive player of the year. He finished his career as Weber State's all-time career leader in rebounds (1,312). That's also a league record, and more boards than anyone who ever played college basketball at a school in Utah. That takes in some ground, including the University of Utah and BYU.
Last year, Bolomboy was a treat to watch as he helped lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament. Asked to describe what it's like to see one of his players grab 20 rebounds in a game, Rahe had a ready answer. "It's a comfort, I can tell you that," he said."
Bolomboy's glass eating might have been a comfort to his coach, but it caused some occasional grief for his teammates.
"In a couple of those games [Bolomboy racked up two 23-rebound games and another one of 20], I didn't realize Joel had that many until afterward," said Rahe. "During the game, I was getting on my other players. 'You guys aren't getting enough rebounds.' And they'd say, 'coach, we're trying, but we couldn't get any. Joel gets them all.' "
Bolomoby was such a natural, and prolific, rebounder, Rahe and his coaching staff had to develop a different strategy to coach him. Fundamentals didn't apply to a guy with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and a 41-inch vertical leap.
"We didn't talk about boxing out with Joel," Rahe said. "He doesn't need to box out. Maybe look and check and put an elbow on somebody now and then. But he would have been wasting time trying to make contact and pivot and get his elbows up. We told him from day one, just go get it."
Over the years, Bolomboy, ala Dennis Rodman or any great rebounder, developed a knack for knowing where missed shots were going to come off the rim. During practice, he was always willing to rebound for his teammates. He watched every shot, studied trajectory and spots on the floor where the shots came from, and eventually built a base of knowledge to help him track down misses.
I've always worked hard to get what I've gotten in life.
– Joel Bolomboy
"He's got a little bit of a sixth sense for the ball," Rahe said. "He has an idea where it's going. But even more so than that, he's got a terrific motor. Great rebounders have great motors."
Opposing coaches were at a loss to explain Bolomboy. Asked whether he could compare Bolomboy to anyone he's seen or coached, Xavier coach Chris Mack couldn't.
"I don't think there's anyone that has his size, skill, athleticism," Mack said during the NCAA Tournament.
Bolomboy has never stopped trying to prove that. After Weber State's season ended with a first-round NCAA loss to Xavier, he went to work. At the Final Four, he played in the Reese's College All-Star Game, contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds and lead his West team to a victory. He was voted the game's MVP.
A few weeks later, at the NBA's Chicago Draft Combine, Bolomboy tested well -- his 40.5 standing vertical was the fifth best there -- which helped boost his confidence.
In workouts, he's tried to show he can do other things besides rebound. He's a monster in the pick and roll, on both ends of the court. Offensively, he's a threat to sprint to the rim and dunk. Defensively, if he gets caught on a switch and has to check an opposing point guard, he can contain.
Rahe knew Damian Lillard would be a great pro. He doesn't think Bolomboy will average 25.1 points, as Lillard did this season in earning second-team All-NBA honors, but he knows Bolomboy has a place in the league.
"He's turned into a really good player," Rahe said. "But he's a much, much better person than he is a player. He's got all the character in the world. All the integrity in the world. He's very motivated, cares more about winning and his teammates than he does himself. And he works. Hard. He's got one great NBA skill right now. He'll develop more."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.