Had his brother been a better shooter, Kevon Looney might not be leading the UCLA men’s basketball team in rebounds.
Looney, who has displayed a magnetic-like connection to loose balls, maintains he knows where the ball will land when it leaves the shooter’s hand. His teammates have decided it’s a skill that cannot be taught, and Looney can’t explain it beyond crediting instincts.
It started when Looney’s brother, Kevin — father and both sons respond to the same first name; Kev-ON is just pronounced slightly differently — took him to the court at Stuart Elementary in Milwaukee for pick-up games. Kevon was 7; Kevin was 15.
“He shot all the shots,” Kevon says. “And he missed a lot of them.”
Looney would station himself in the corner to retrieve Kevin’s misses, and then feed the ball back to him. To prove himself, he learned to read the angles and beat taller and older players to the ball. He became valuable that way, and later grew and matured into the most skilled player on the court.
Looney has led UCLA in rebounding all four games as the Bruins have sprinted to a 4-0 start and jumped to No. 22 Monday in the Associated Press media poll. His 12 rebounds per game ranks eighth nationally and is best among freshmen.
No UCLA player before him had ever begun his freshman season with two double-doubles in three games. Looney has three in four — and he missed the fourth by one rebound. He is averaging 14.8 points, 12 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
“When you start looking at other players at his position around the country, there’s no one close,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford says. “Whether it’s a freshman or otherwise.”
Looney’s physical tools explain a lot of his rebounding success. He is 6 feet 9 with what teammates say is a 7-5 wingspan. (It was measured at 7-3 at the USA Basketball camp when he was 17.)
Norman Powell — who is 6-4 with a 6-11 wingspan — chuckles at Looney’s arms. Looney, he says, doesn’t even have to jump for rebounds.
But while Looney’s length is a factor, the fact that he always seems to be in the right position to grab a rebound is even more of a plus — and for that he can thank his brother.
“I don’t know what my percentage was,” Kevin says in a phone interview. “But I know I was shooting a lot.”
He laughed. “He probably was getting a lot of rebounds.”
By his final season in high school, Kevon was versatile enough to play guard but tall enough to play forward or center. He averaged 27.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists per game as a senior.
Kevon is quiet and polite, much as he was as a child, Kevin says. But Kevon also wields a bravado. Kevin said his younger brother never talked much trash — until he was good enough to back it up.
At UCLA, Looney has continued the banter with a surrogate, post player Tony Parker.
Parker expected to be the team rebounding leader this season, only to be usurped by a newcomer with arms like airplane wings.
When practice started, Looney told Parker he would out-rebound him, and their exchange of barbs has heightened from there.
Together, they clean the boards and crack wise.
Parker: “A lot of times, I find myself looking at Kevon while his man is right next to me, so I try to tip it to myself before he gets it.”
Looney: “He was trying to get some of my rebounds. But I told him he couldn’t beat me today.”
Parker: “This is Kevon’s theory: His man has to help box out because I weigh so much more than him. So he just sneaks in from the wing.”
Looney: “Last night I told him I was going to get more dunks than him. And he came out dunking.”
Were Looney not pulling his weight, Parker might tell the freshman to remember his role. But Looney has outpaced Parker every game thus far.
And Looney says he hasn’t yet shown his full game. His shooting must improve, he says, and his three-pointers need to start falling.
In Sunday’s win over Long Beach State, Alford said Looney had an off game.
For Looney, an off-game meant 10 points and 11 rebounds — another double double.