DALLAS – There’s a lot about Angel Reese that can capture the attention of a basketball fan.
Maybe it’s how the 6-foot-3 forward can run the floor so effortlessly, sprinting from one end to the other to block a shot or finish a lay-up.
Sometimes it’s her attire, like when she wore the exclusive Nike Kobe 6 Grinches — a gift from Vanessa Bryant — in LSU’s Elite Eight win over Miami in Greenville, South Carolina. And she always wears a sleeve over her left leg. That’s there for two reasons, by the way; the Baltimore native likes to cover a scar on her shin where a rod was surgically inserted two years ago, and she also does it to emulate two players she looks up to in Te’a Cooper and A’ja Wilson.
For Bob Starkey, there was one thing about Reese that caught his attention right away.
“She has amazing instincts,” said Starkey, LSU’s associate head coach. “She has not just an understanding of where the ball is going to come off [the rim after a miss], but she has that habit of going to get it.”
Starkey is talking about Reese’s prowess as a rebounder, and the 63-year-old coach has seen some of the best to ever corral a missed ball off a backboard or a rim.
A native of Charleston, West Virginia, Starkey has been coaching in college basketball since 1984. From 1990 to 1996, he was an assistant on the LSU men’s team, and in those first few seasons, a player by the name of Shaquille O’Neal dominated backboards for the Tigers across the SEC. Years later, he became an assistant coach for the LSU women’s team led by Sylvia Fowles. Fowles’ teams went to the Final Four each year she was on campus as she gobbled up rebounds and stacked up accolades.
For Starkey, Reese has the potential to be just as extraordinary as any other rebounder he’s seen. The junior leads the country this year in offensive rebounds with 6.5 per game and is third in rebound rate with a 24.3% mark.
Reese’s rebounding will be crucial as LSU plays in first Final Four since 2008 on Friday night at American Airlines Arena. In the house that Dirk Nowitzki built, Reese’s No. 3 Tigers are taking on No. 1 Virginia Tech – a team riding a 15-game winning streak.
“She’s got size, she’s got length, and she is unbelievably mobile for her size. There are not other post players who can move laterally like her, which makes her a nightmare to try and block out,” Starkey said. “But when you got that talent, that athleticism, and then you get the mindset of ‘every rebound is mine,’ that’s when you get something special like Angel Reese.”
When Starkey got confirmation last spring that Reese was transferring to LSU from the University of Maryland, he popped in the tape and started studying the newest Tiger. LSU head coach Kim Mulkey likes to call Starkey a “film junkie.” As he watched the tape he looked at Reese’s stats. A number jumped out.
“I’m like, ‘What coach is just playing this kid 20 minutes a game?’ Well, I know,” Starkey said. “It’s the coach who has to take her out because she’s in foul trouble.”
Indeed, indiscipline on the court was an issue with Reese during her sophomore season with the Terps. She averaged 3.1 fouls per game and fouled out of four games, all of which were against ranked opponents. Reese picked up four fouls in seven other games too, and only topped 30 minutes of playing time in seven contests last season.
To fully unleash Reese, Starkey knew that LSU would have to rein her in. For her to be the most impactful player she could be, she had to cut down on her fouling.
And Reese did that. Her fouls went down and her minutes, points, rebounding, assists and blocks all went up. She averages 2.5 fouls per game this year in 33.6 minutes per game.
Reese has only fouled out twice this season, in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, both of which were wins for LSU where she notched double-doubles.
“There’s an absolutely phenomenal quote from Doc Rivers: ‘How hard can you play without losing your discipline?’ Because when she fouls, it’s because she’s playing hard, her intentions are good,” Starkey said. “But we had to make sure we refined her discipline a little bit. And she had a great desire to want to improve that part of her game. She knew that was holding her back.”
By lowering her fouls and increasing her production in scoring and rebounding, Reese hasn’t just turned into LSU’s top weapon; she’s one of the most efficient players in the country. Reese is second in the nation in player efficiency rating, or PER, at 44.8, second in win shares (11), 10th in offensive rating (128.7) and 11th in defensive rating (70.2).
“LSU needs Angel Reese to stay on the floor because their bench isn’t deep,” said Carolyn Peck, an ESPN analyst who coached Purdue to a national championship in 1999.
Reese was named an All-American this season by the Associated Press, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Athletic, and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
Starkey isn’t the only one impressed by Reese’s ability to vacuum up those missed shots. ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo — a former WNBA All-Star in the post — is often wowed by what she sees in Reese.
“It’s her rebounding. And it’s her knack to get there and she’s relentless in her pursuit of it,” Lobo said. “She has a knack for knowing where it’s going to come off, and sometimes it’s her own shot and that’s a little easier, but oftentimes it’s not. … People try to stop her and they can’t.”
Reese has had 32 games with a double-double this year, which ties an SEC single-season record.
“Angel Reese is a handful because of her second jump. If you don’t allow her to score the first one, you got to guard her twice in the same action,” Peck said. “And she has the ability to rebound it and then lead the break on the dribble.”
Against Virginia Tech though, rebounds — and shots close to the basket — might be harder to come by. The Hokies are anchored by Elizabeth Kitley, the 6-foot-6 two-time ACC Player of the Year who averages 18.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Kitley is eighth in the nation in defensive win shares with 2.8.
But as much as Reese might have trouble with Kitley, Kitley might have problems battling for position with Reese. It’s a Final Four matchup that is sure to include some bumps, bruises and perhaps even fireworks in the paint.
Reese’s rebounding and newfound discipline could be the difference.
Mitchell Northam is a journalist based in North Carolina. His work has appeared in USA TODAY, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation, and he is the author of the book “High School Basketball on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: A Shore Hoops History.”