Using the Off-Season to Get Better

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In college basketball a player can coast on talent alone, but in the NBA talent will only get you so far. Everyone’s talented in the Association, but not everyone possesses the motivation to evolve beyond that point. Just think of the numerous players over the years that have failed to live up to expectations, not because they lacked the requisite physical gifts to play with the best, but because they were lacking in the work ethic department. Guys like Antoine Walker, Eddy Curry, and Kwame Brown could’ve had much better careers if they were more willing to work on the weaker facets on their game.

That the best players in the league possess supreme natural talent is undoubtedly true. But the best of the best have also spent countless hours working on their game, getting in shape, and studying game tape to see where they can improve. Kobe Bryant, who will go down as a top-10 player of all time when he finally hangs up his sneakers, is a notorious gym rat—the stories of him shooting in the gym until 3am after a bad game are legendary. Rajon Rondo, one of the league’s premiere point-guards, and maybe the smartest player in the game, spends hours of his own time studying game tape, looking for weaknesses in his opponent’s game as well as his own. And Roy Hibbert, who might be the best post defender in the league, didn’t achieve that lofty status by simply being big. While he would’ve preferred to relax at home, Hibbert spent last summer running defensive drills, working on defending the rim without fouling. That’s the kind of dedication it takes to become a better player in the Association.

For the rookie class of 2012, the off-season provides a perfect opportunity to work on the weaker aspects of their game, whether it’s defense, jump shooting, or overall fitness levels. The transition to the NBA was tough, but most guys will have a plan of action for the summer. As much as they would rather spend their months off relaxing by the beach, or hanging out with friends and family—essentially doing what normal guys in their early 20s do—hours spent in the gym and weight-room will pay off come November.

Bulking Up
 
 

Hitting the weight-room isn’t a basketball drill, but for some young guys it’s an essential part of improving their game and being able to compete with the pros. Terrence Ross, the Toronto Raptor’s swingman, could do with adding a few pounds of muscle to help him absorb the contact that he will take when driving into the lane next season. When discussing players who need to bulk up, however, Anthony Davis is the guy that immediately comes to mind.
The Pelicans’ (I felt weird typing that) first overall pick already possesses numerous qualities that some 5-year veterans are lacking—he’s a solid rebounder, a good defender, and has a promising offensive game—but if he wants to bang with the big boys in the paint without being pushed around, or worse, injured, he needs to add more muscle to his skinny frame. Being a power-forward or centre in the NBA is a punishing job and right now Davis looks like a child when compared with the likes of Blake Griffin, Nikola Pekovic, and Dwight Howard. Davis spent much of last season injured, which he’s concedes was partly related to the vigorous physical toils of low-post basketball. In the off-season he’ll benefit from a high-protein diet, and time spent on compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench pressing. Bulking up and increasing his explosive power in the process will only complement Davis’ already impressive skill-set.

Working on Endurance
 
 

While some players, like Davis and Ross, need to spend their off-season adding muscle; others, like Andre Drummond, have to work on their overall endurance. Unlike Davis, Drummond entered the league with a body that was NBA ready—at 7 feet tall and 280 pounds, Drummond is definitely big enough to bang with the big boys down low. But setting aside his numerous fundamental issues—his raw offensive game and atrocious free throw shooting, for example—Drummond will benefit this off-season by simply working on his cardiovascular fitness.

Drummond has time to work on those fundamentals, but he won’t be of any use to the Pistons next year if he doesn’t improve his fitness levels—he needs to be able to run the floor and utilize his gifts on the glass in what will be, as Pistons fans hope, a much-expanded role next season. And to Drummond’s credit, he’s going to be spending the summer working on his endurance. According to Rotoworld.com Drummond will spend the off-season working with conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, who will have Drummond exercising in the pool and running soccer drills to help with his cardio. The NBA season is a grueling 82-game slog and it’s no place for guys who are winded after 20 minutes of playing time.

Working on that Jumper

 
 

While some young players need to improve their overall fitness, or increase their strength, others would benefit from concentrating on good old-fashioned basketball drills this off-season. The jump shot, an essential skill for any backcourt player is a good place to start. Dion Waiters, the 4th pick in last year’s draft, has already stated his desire to work on his shooting in the off-season. Waiters shooting percentages in his rookie season—just over 40% from the field—weren’t atrocious, but suggest that he’ll need to run plenty of drills in the summer. 2nd overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will also benefit from working on his jumper. Kidd-Gilchrist is already a good finisher around the rim, but if he can develop a solid mid-range jumper, defenders won’t be able to ignore him 15 feet out, and he’ll get far more opportunities off the dribble.

While Kidd-Gilchrist could do with working on his shooting form, a guy like Waiters just needs to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Legendary shooting guards like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller honed their craft by spending hours and hours hitting jump shots in the gym—it may be have been painstakingly boring, but it paid off in the long run. Young shooting-guards like Waiters need to camp out in the gym this summer and spend hours executing catch-and shoot drills, shots coming off screens, shots off the dribble, pull up jumpers, pump fakes, jab steps, and numerous other skills that will aid in improving their shooting percentages in the coming season.

Getting Better Handles
 
 

It’s no revelation to state that possessing tight-handles is a pre-requisite for today’s NBA point-guards—guys like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul look like they have the ball on a string at times. But in today’s modern game it’s essential that shooting guards, and even small-forwards, be able to handle the ball and advance it up the court. There are even centres and power-forwards that can handle the ball like guards today—Anthony Davis and Joakim Noah are two that come to mind. If a team’s wing players can handle the ball it takes a lot of pressure off the point guard, when he’s trapped or being pressed in the back court. And possessing great handles opens up a player’s offensive game off the dribble. Terrence Ross, who already possesses a sweet jump shot, is a player who would benefit from working on his ball handling skills in the off-season. He did a decent job finishing around the rim, but at times he turned the ball over in transition because of his less-than-perfect handles.

One great ball-handling drill—a drill that would benefit lots of young guards in the off-season—requires the ball-handler to dribble the ball with one hand, making lateral movements as well as dribbling up-and down the court, while throwing and catching a tennis ball with the other hand. It’s great for hand-eye coordination, and the ability to multi-task and make quick decisions on the move.

Working on Defense
 
 

While the offensive side of the game usually comes quicker to NBA rookies, on the defensive end it’s a much slower process. Playing good defense is tough. It requires a lot more effort to guard a skilled offensive player one-on-one, or defend the pick-n-roll, than it does to shoot a jump or get in the lane. But defense is half of the game and players should never be considered truly great unless they have a positive effect affect at the less glamorous defensive end of the floor. Michael Jordan was the greatest offensive player ever, but he also won Defensive Player of the Year and made the NBA All-Defensive First Team on 9 occasions.
This season’s Rookie of Year, Damian Lillard, was sensational at the offensive end. He put up almost 20 points per game and led the Trail Blazers in assists. But as a defender Lillard was distinctly lacking, and he knows it. According to Dime Magazine Lillard will spend much of his off-season working with Gary Payton, one of the greatest defensive point-guards of all time (the only point-guard to win Defensive Player of the Year), and the guy who was the most effective at guarding Michael Jordan. Working on his defensive stance, his ability to stay in front of his man, and to fight around screens, will be high on Lillard’s agenda this summer. And it should be high on the agenda for any young player hoping to improve their overall game.

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