The ball bounced off the rim at Estrella High’s basketball gym. Shaun Wahlstrom jumped in the air and came down with it, making the opposing defenders of Combs High look small in a 60-30 dominating victory on December 18.
Wahlstrom leads 4A – and all major-size schools in Arizona – in rebounds, with 12.4 per game. Standing 6-foot-8, he often towers over those guarding him. He said he does not pay attention to the statistics, thinking of each rebound opportunity as a separate challenge.
“I always think every one of them is mine,” he said. “That’s what my dad always taught me, to use my height and size to go up and grab them, so that’s what I always do.”
His ability to sweep the boards, on defense and offense for second-chance baskets, is a major factor in the Wolves’ successful start to the season. Through eleven games, Estrella Foothills was 7-4, with its only losses coming against some of the state’s highest-tier squads. The Wolves even secured a season-opening 65-63 win against 6A foe Chaparral behind a 33-point, 10-rebound performance from their top player.
“He’s such a crucial player for us, because he’s our best guy, but leads so well, too. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, and our guys follow his work ethic on the boards and on the court,” coach Rich Gutwein said.
Basketball, especially at the high school level, is becoming more of a perimeter-oriented game, following in the footsteps of the college and professional levels. Shooting, ball-handling and fast-paced play dominate Arizona’s gyms, which makes Wahlstrom’s skill-set stand out even further.
With the simple ability to secure a position near the basket with defenders on his back, and make a couple easy baskets a game on post moves, Wahlstrom has been able to dominate opposing centers.
“It’s great, because it is unique, so a lot of teams really don’t know how to guard against a traditional center, because it’s not what they’re playing against. So, that gives me even more of an advantage when I’m playing that way well,” Wahlstrom said.
Often, opposing teams will double-team Wahlstrom when he gets the ball in the post. That leaves extra space for teammates. One beneficiary is senior Dean Grant, who hit 33 three-pointers through 11 games – a top-ten total in 4A.
Wing players like Grant, or the other high-level ball handlers, have extra space to shoot, dribble and make their own plays as a result of the extra space Wahlstrom demands with his dominant post play.
“It gives me a ton of opportunity to shoot. We kind of flow through him, because he sucks so many guys in and there’s that extra bit of space, so all we have to do is make the shot or the pass,” Grant said.
On defense, Wahlstrom contests and blocks shots near the basket. Able to clean up mistakes if his teammates get passed on the dribble or are screened off the ball, it allows Estrella’s guards to play more aggressive in man-defense.
“We can kind of go a little harder to try and get steals or take chances, as long as we’re not out of control, because we know he’s back there to have our backs if we do get beat,” Grant said.
As much production as the Wolves get from his presence near the basket, Wahlstrom is also lethal in transition. His points on fast breaks add another dimension to the Wolves’ offense when the half-court game is struggling to produce points.
With good dribbling skills, and the ability to finish shots and draw fouls near the basket, he often grabs defensive rebounds, and dribbles all the way to the opposing basket for easy lay ups.
“He really can play from the perimeter well, too. We don’t always use him that way, because we kind of need him to be that big guy down low, but those fast breaks are kind of his chance to do it. He’s also able to shoot threes and do a lot of other stuff from outside that he doesn’t do as much here. When he goes and plays at Arizona Christian next year, I think you’ll see even more of that,” Gutwein said.
Though he has the skills and work ethic to keep improving, and eventually have success at the college level, his focus is on his last high school season and going as far as possible.
The Wolves have made the playoffs each season since 2012-13. They hope their team chemistry, work ethic and willingness to do the “little things,” inspired by Wahlstrom’s play, are what helps them capture a championship that has eluded them for seven seasons.
“I can’t say we’re the most-talented team I’ve ever been a part of, but we work really hard on the small stuff. Boxing out, rebounding, defending hard, all the stuff that doesn’t take talent to do, that’s what we’re good at,” Wahlstrom said. “Hopefully that’s what we’ll use to do well late in the season.”