A popular theory: Rudy Tomjanovich was simply ahead of his time as coach of the Houston Rockets throughout the 1990s. He understood spacing a basketball court better than most, given he had a Hall of Fame center in Hakeem Olajuwon and knew it best to allow him the most room inside to showcase what was some of the most incredible footwork in history.
The easiest way for this happen was to extend the floor offensively at all positions, to embrace and encourage the idea of developing players with the body of a power forward and the shooting prowess of a guard.
To promote the concept of a stretch four.
Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks wasn’t the NBA’s first one. He was the first great one. There have been others. The Pistons for years made stretch fours a main ingredient to winning. Matt Bonner is one of the league’s best 3-point shooters today. He’s 6-foot-10. LaMarcus Aldridge is a stretch four who’s more successful with a mid-range game.
It is a position that has revolutionized basketball at its highest level, a nightmare matchup that has to be defended at all spots. It’s also what young, big players want to exhibit now, this type of skill and versatility, what they believe is the fastest route to the league.
Let’s face it: They all want to be Kevin Durant.
“Big guys want to play on the perimeter more and more,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s something we deal with in recruiting all the time. You want guys to be versatile, to score on the block but also stretch the floor. But when you look at Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the world, you can see that he is just as good with his back to the basket and catching the ball in the mid- to low post and making a play.
“I have told our team and Chris a number of times that a big part of us being successful this year will be how well he establishes himself as a legitimate low post threat, how many rebounds and blocks he gets to impact games.”
The message to sophomore Chris Wood: Take some stretch out of your stretch four.
The Rebels who began practice Monday are all sorts of talented and all sorts of young and all sorts of small by most standards at the major college level, meaning those few UNLV players with size must familiarize themselves with that important area underneath the basket and bounded by the endline.
Chris Wood needs to fall in love with the key.
He has returned at 221 pounds and with 4 percent less body fat on his 6-foot-11-inch frame, knowing all too well that strength and fitness are the most important traits to surviving a long season of playing inside against bigger, stronger types.
He attempted 117 shots as a freshman and 43 percent of those came from 3-point range, where he made just 22 percent. He is like most stretch fours in that he can shoot the 3 but isn’t a 3-point shooter, and often last season settled for long jumpers that were hardly the best decision during a particular possession.
It’s a tough reality for many such players to accept, but it’s also true that Wood’s numbers over 30 games suggest there exists within him an ability to influence things much closer to the rim.
He played just 13 minutes a game last season, but in them contributed averages of 3.2 rebounds and a total of 29 blocks, second on the team to the fly swatter that was Khem Birch.
More than anything, it’s about creating a mindset within Wood that what’s best for UNLV might not be what a stretch four views as his greatest strength.
“It’s difficult at times, but I’ve worked hard on my low post moves and getting to the block and driving it,” Wood said. “I’ve made a lot of progress there. I’m better in the post now.”
This too will help: The Rebels have a senior point guard in transfer Cody Doolin who is as mature and bright as you will find at such an important position.
On a team that returns no starters and could offer an opening night lineup that includes three true freshmen and a sophomore, Doolin in his first and only season at UNLV is the presumed spokesman and team leader.
He sees immense talent in Wood.
He also knows where Wood will best aid UNLV’s goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
“First and foremost, Chris is a talented player,” Doolin said. “The way he moves for his size is outstanding. Very skilled. He can score in a number of ways, but I think as the point guard, I can help him understand that there are a lot of easy scores to be had around the basket — get fouled and get to the line, get offensive rebounds and putbacks, stuff like that. What he can do from a physical standpoint is impressive. Chris is going to be a big part of what we do this year.”
Stretching a defense is fine. Important at times, even.
So too is playing to the strengths most needed by a particular team.
In the case of Chris Wood and UNLV, that means this: Less stretch, more attack.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.