The Hawks have learned that if at first they don't succeed, Zaza Pachulia will let them try, try again.
By Jon Cooper
Zaza Pachulia realizes that nobody's perfect.
That's why the 6-11 center is a firm believer in second chances — at least when it comes to his teammates.
While he knows the risks of venturing into the paint in pursuit of missed shots, Pachulia simply can't help himself. Getting second chances has become an obsession for the 22-year-old. It's in his blood and the team's best interests.
"It's very good for the team because they feel comfortable that even if they miss [a shot], I'll be there to go in and get it, either take it out or put it back," said Pachulia, who, beginning play on Dec. 4, was 17th in the NBA with 48 offensive rebounds and 12th with a 3.2 offensive rebounds per game average. "It's an extra possession. It fires up the team, motivates the team, gives energy to the team. It's good to have that kind of player on the team. Somebody has to do it. I can do it so I'm just doing it.
"Last year this is what I did," he added. "I was a guy who did the dirty jobs. So this year I tried to be more active offensively. I should rebound the ball because it's very important for this team."
Hawks Head Coach Mike Woodson believes Pachulia's energy contributes to his productivity on the boards.
"Zaza's an active big guy," said Woodson, who made Pachulia a fulltime starter for the first time in his career. "Last year he did a lot of the dirty work for us. We don't expect anything different this year. There's no reason why he can't be a double-double guy the rest of his career if he stays healthy."
The experience he gained last year, when he set career-highs for games (78), minutes (2,452), and minutes per game (31.4) and finished fifth in the NBA in offensive rebounds (264) and offensve rebounds per game (3.4), served as a valuable building block for this season.
"In years past he hadn't played that many minutes," said Woodson. "With the reps that he's getting by starting and playing the minutes, he'll improve because he works hard in practice. He's a good pro. So I can see the sky's the limit for Z."
While Pachulia may eventually reach the sky, he believes the fact that he can't reach it right now actually has made him a better rebounder, as it's made him rely on intangibles like gaining proper position and using his instincts.
"I can't jump like Josh Smith or Josh Childress but I have a feeling where the ball goes," he pointed out. "It's something that you feel. When Josh Smith goes to block shots, he has a feeling for when the ball is going to be in the air. That's inside of you."
What's inside Pachulia is important to his productivity, but so is what's around him, specifically, help. The Hawks’ off-season effort to add depth on the front line, signing veteran free agent Lorenzen Wright and drafting power forwards Shelden Williams and Solomon Jones, is a positive difference from last season.
“It's great compared to last year,” he said. “If I foul out or get two quick fouls I know somebody has my back.”
Case in point was the Hawks’ Dec. 3 win in Portland. Pachulia was held to a season-low three rebounds, ending his streak of four double-digit rebounding games, but his teammates picked him up, as Josh Smith grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, Williams and Joe Johnson pulled down six apiece.
The entire team getting into the act has been the rule more than the exception this year. Last season Pachulia was the only Hawk near 8.0 rebounds per game (he finished at 7.9 rpg), this year, Atlanta already has two players (Pachulia and Josh Smith) averaging over 8.0 rebounds a game. Williams is pulling down 6.3 boards, behind only Pachulia, Smith and Josh Childress.
Woodson believes that Pachulia’s enthusiasm can be contagious.
“Sure that's something that can rub off,” said Woodson. “Shelden and Solomon can learn a few things by working in practice, by watching in the game and when they're on the floor, trying to do the things that they're supposed to do when they're in the game.”
The Hawks head man also was quick to point out that Pachulia is still young and growing.
“We forget that Zaza's only 22 years old himself,” said Woodson. “We kind of look at him as an older guy but he's still a young player in this league. There's always room for growth and I think he has a great work ethic, he'll continue to work and he'll get better.”
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta