Monthly Archive for September, 2012

Being an NBA Strength Coach

Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco is about to embark upon his second full season with the team, with his ultimate goal not only to get L.A.’s players as strong as possible without losing functionality on the court, but also to keep them healthy.

As head athletic trainer Gary Vitti likes to point out, DiFrancesco is uniquely qualified to do both since he owns a degree in physical therapy on top of his strength and conditioning background. He’s also no amateur in regards to nutrition.

DiFrancesco took some time to discuss his approach to his craft, the balance between building muscle while not pushing too far, why Kobe Bryant is who he is, the incredible care Metta World Peace takes with his body, what it’s like shopping for groceries with an NBA rookie and more:

MT: How would you define your approach to being an NBA strength and conditioning coach?
DiFrancesco: My overall approach is to try and keep everything as simple as possible. In our industry, there is a lot of crazy, YouTube training going on. An exercise becomes popular because it looks cool, and it spreads on social media and trainers decide to try it with their athletes. But for me, I need to know why I’m doing every single thing I’m doing. There is always a risk/reward. Anything you do in the weight room poses a risk of an injury if you do it wrong, if it’s too much or too heavy, but can also benefit an athlete if done correctly. If I can’t immediately find an answer for why I’m doing a certain exercise, I won’t do it. Fundamentally, with my background in physical therapy, I’m always looking at basic movement patterns. Can they do a basic squat? Can they do a basic single-leg dead lift patter? That gives me a road map with every player I’ll work with, and I’m not going to do anything extreme until I really figure out the movement patterns.

MT: You hear stories about athletes squatting absurd amounts of weight, only to injure themselves in the process. Where’s the balance?
DiFrancesco: That’s back to the risk/reward. Do we blow out a guy’s (back) because he wanted to squat 400 pounds? Congrats, but you won’t be able to do half of that for the rest of your life. We’d have to take a huge risk to get there, and an injury could result. Typically there aren’t bad exercises, there is just bad application of exercises. Especially at the NBA level, I cannot afford to injure players on my end. If a guy gets really sore on a given day and all he did was lift and shoot, then that could mean I (pushed too hard). What I do or don’t do can either protect the players or make them more susceptible to an unnecessary contact injury. I’m very cognizant of players improving performance wise and physically, but just not at the expense of an injury.

MT: Anybody watching these players glide and explode up and down the floor can see that they’re among the world’s most impressive physical specimens; but what is it like to specifically train an NBA athlete versus a football player, for example? Aren’t they doing different things in the weight room?
DiFrancesco: NBA athletes are really, really good at making their body do amazing things … within the scope of basketball. That’s what they love to do, what they crave doing. They want to play, on the court. Football players are very different, because they play only once a week. They do what the sport requires to build themselves up from a strength standpoint. Now, NBA players are of course genetic freaks, but doing basic level functional patterns is not typically as easy for them. They struggle with that at times. When you can clean that piece up for a player, it only enhances their already off the charts athletic ability. In other words, someone may have a great vertical and great speed, but what would happen if we added really clean movement patterns to that and got a guy stronger? Well, your career gets extended and you perform at a higher level. The levers of basketball players are a lot longer, and strength training isn’t as ingrained in professional basketball players as it would be in football players. Especially if some of our guys only went to one year of college and just started lifting there, that’s hardly any experience practicing such a skill, which takes time to develop like anything else.

MT: We know how manically Kobe Bryant has attended to his physique and fitness over his 16-year career. Is this an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ situation for you?
DiFrancesco: With a situation like Kobe’s, I never came in saying I want to get my hands on him and mix things up and put my stamp on it. The stamps are already there, and we all know the results. I don’t need to mess with something that’s being done so well at such a high level. That being said, at certain times that allow for my expertise to assist in what’s already there in his foundation, I enjoy that opportunity. Just from having been around him, a word that comes to mind regarding his approach to taking care of his body is ‘obsessive.’ I think it’s important that using the word obsessive doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. Most people that are exceptionally great at what they do for a long period of time are obsessed with what they do, and to me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. He understands as well or better than anybody what it takes to fine tune, to maintain or improve the function of his body and he’s constantly obsessed with that. He knows more than anybody that his weapon is his body and he maintains and cares for that weapon fanatically. That’s why he does what he does.

MT: Darius Morris has been a constant presence in your weight room since last training camp, and he’s gotten quite noticeably stronger and bigger. What’s been the key?
DiFrancesco: Darius bought in. He said, ‘You tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’ For example, contacted me at 8 a.m. on the day of Game 5 at (Oklahoma City) last year in the playoffs. He knew he most likely wasn’t going to play in the game, and it would have been easy to take the attitude of, ‘The offseason is coming soon, I don’t need to lift today.’ Instead, there we were getting an early work out in.

MT: Morris is clearly a gifted athlete; how has he developed since the first day of training camp last season?
DiFrancesco: Darius came into the league with pretty decent movement patterns, which saved me the time of cleaning much of that up, and let us get after it right away. Since he’s a point guard, we really focused on putting some additional lean mass on his already athletic frame. That can help at a position where you take a beating going into the paint, with that lean mass being bulletproof. So we got his weight up while adding in the right amount of protein to help him recover, and he really did a great job. I never had to follow up on him; he did everything I asked for.

MT: How much does nutrition come into play, using Morris as an example?
DiFrancesco: It’s generally a matter of being able to get away with not paying much attention to one’s diet thanks to being athletically gifted. But at some point, a player realizes that if he’s trying to put a puzzle together of being the best player he can be — and he takes care of his skill and lifting workouts — the other piece is nutritional. Many NBA players aren’t doing as well as they could there. Darius, this offseason, has started to realize that. He and I actually went grocery shopping the other day.

MT: Please, tell us more…
DiFrancesco: He showed me what he normally gets, and I tried to provide some better options.
For example, in the produce section, he said, ‘I don’t usually get much from here.’ I said, ‘OK, if these were in your fridge, what would you eat?’ We determined that he’d eat oranges, some mixed veggies laid out on a platter and pre-packaged salads. But he just hadn’t thought about having that stuff available. Moving on in the store, he said he likes honey mustard, so he showed me the kind he usually gets, but sugar was the first ingredient: high fructose corn syrup acts as sludge in the blood stream and makes everything less efficient. It’s never a malicious intent to eat badly, it’s just a habit, and it’s my job to show him the kind of mustard that’s more healthy.

MT: Still enjoying this. What else did he buy in the past to which you gave him a more healthy alternative?
DiFrancesco: He loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches*. Many of the ‘classic’ peanut butter like Jif or Skippy is nothing but saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup, and one of the last ingredients is peanuts. If you can instead get a whole wheat bread, a peanut butter like Justin’s (which has three ingredients, peanuts, salt, small amount of unprocessed sugar) and a better jelly, the PB&J can be much more healthy for you. So Jif to Justin’s is a simple change, but it makes a big difference.
*Editor’s Note: Show me an NBA player that doesn’t love PB&J and I’ll call you a liar. It’s definitely the most consumed item on the Lakers team plane every year.

MT: How about the things we drink? There’s Mountain Dew (my personal favorite) and other soda, Snapple and so on available on the team plane after every road game…
DiFrancesco: I’ll have a Diet Coke once in a while because I want the carbonation, but I try to keep it to water as often as possible. There’s no way for me to justify drinking calories. I want calories to make me feel full by eating them. It makes a big difference, especially in athletes, who don’t realize the impact that the nutrition piece has. It’s one thing that I can really bring to these guys to help them perform at their best, the knowledge when it comes to nutrition.

MT: Won’t Steve Nash help you push that nutrition mission, based on what we’ve heard about how great he takes care of himself?
DiFrancesco: Second hand, the information I have suggests that nobody gets that more than Steve Nash, so I’m really excited about it. Somebody that has that much credibility makes my job a lot easier when I’m trying to create good habits for Darius. It’s one thing coming from me, and another coming from a two-time MVP in this league.

MT: Apparently, nobody comes close to Metta World Peace in how to take care of one’s body?
DiFrancesco: He was extremely helpful for me last year because he does a great job with his nutrition and recovery habits. He takes that stuff very seriously, and younger guys in our locker room started to see that. (CLICK HERE for more on MWP’s fitness habits).

Dwight Howard Update: Sept. 26

On Sept. 13, we heard the first official Dwight Howard injury update from the Lakers staff, detailing his rehabilitation process.

On Wednesday afternoon, Howard continued to make progress, focusing on upper and lower body strengthening, core stabilization, light running plus some basketball activities.

FULL PHOTO GALLERY

Assistant coaches Darvin Ham and Chuck Person went through low post moves with the six time All-Star center (see video below), with Howard adding some shooting from the paint and the free throw line.

Howard dropped in a high percentage of his patented baby hooks with either hand, spinning either to the baseline or the middle depending on Ham’s defense, and showed his quick first step getting to the hoop when Ham closed out.

The team continues to stress that no timetable has been determined for Howard’s return, but allowed that there have been no set backs to this point in his rehabilitation.

LAL Scrimmage Notes: 9/21/12

With training camp rapidly approaching, more and more Lakers players have been working out at the team’s facility, going through individual drills, lifting and now getting some 5-on-5 run in.

On Friday morning, veterans like Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake joined youngsters such as Darius Morris and Darius Johnson-Odom for a full court scrimmage.

FRIDAY SCRIMMAGE PHOTO GALLERY

We took some notes:

- Metta World Peace is in absolute peak shape. Much was made last season about how MWP came in out of shape and didn’t find himself until halfway through the season due in part to injuries he wasn’t able to treat during the lockout. But he says he’s 15 pounds lighter than he was last fall, and from watching him play, he’s not lying. We interviewed Antawn Jamison after the scrimmage, and he couldn’t stop raving about how great MWP looks and is playing. With attention focused on Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, this could spell trouble for opponents.

- Speaking of Antawn Jamison, you can see almost immediately why he’s averaged 19.5 points per game for his career. The guy just has a knack for the bucket, whether it’s utilizing his unique array of floaters and leaners, or finding the space in the half court to get himself open for a jumper. He told us how excited he is about the team vibe he’s already feeling, with new/hungry blood from himself, Nash, Howard and Jodie Meeks* joining the likes of Bryant with a championship in mind. Jamison can’t stop smiling as he walks around the facility.
*Meeks was also in the building, but did not scrimmage.

- Steve Blake looked good for the Lakers late last season and in the playoffs, earning many of the crunch time minutes over Ramon Sessions, and earning the trust of his coaches and teammates in the process. Several assistant coaches mentioned how consistent Blake has been in workouts this summer, and noted that he played for Eddie Jordan his first two seasons in the league for Washington. That he and Jamison are familiar with Jordan’s system is a nice benefit for the Lakers.

- Darius Morris has improved his jumper over the summer, not to mention his physique, thanks to leading all Lakers in time spent at the team’s facility. His hard work looks to be paying off so far, with the test to come in training camp when he’s matched up against Nash or Blake.

- Jordan Hill looked very good in the scrimmage. While watching him dunk, rebound and even hit some face up jumpers, assistant coach Darvin Ham said he expects Hill to have a fantastic year off L.A.’s bench, backing up Howard and Gasol with his constant energy and activity at both ends that earned him playoff minutes last season.

- Darius Johnson-Odom was described by one coach as “bouncy,” and you’ll agree when watching video of the scrimmage. The rookie was flying all over the court, even treating us to a version of J.R. Rider’s “Eastbay Funk” afterwards. DJO is the type of player that plays better when those around him are better (Las Vegas Summer League wasn’t his type of atmosphere), and his defense and athleticism stood out in the run.

- Derek Fisher, a free agent, was in the building to work on his game, permission granted by GM Mitch Kupchak. Fisher is of course not on the roster, but it’s not uncommon for free agents or players on different rosters* to play at other team’s facilities before camp starts.
*Thunder guard Lazar Hayward was also in mix, often chatting up his college teammate at Marquette DJO.

- Big men Robert Sacre and Jeff Somogyi showed themselves capable of playing with the more experienced bigs on L.A.’s roster, and will have a chance to show what they can do in training camp. Each 7-footer did some scoring, some boarding and some blocking in the scrimmage. Making the roster isn’t going to be easy for any of the younger players, but the opportunity will be there.

LAL Podcast: SI’s Lee Jenkins

Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins joined us via podcast to discuss some of the bigger picture story lines surrounding the Lakers since the summer (mega) additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.

We debate how Howard’s personality will mix in with L.A.’s over-30 stars, go over what Nash’s team-building style does for a team, talk about how the new look Lakers match up with Oklahoma City and more.

To listen, click below:

LAL Assistant Coach Roles

With Friday’s announcement of Mike Brown’s new assistant coaching staff, we took a look at where each addition might focus in the 2012-13 season:

EDDIE JORDAN:
Lakers fans may remember Jordan as a player on the 1982 title-winning team, but he’s best known as a coach in the NBA headlined by a six-year stint with the Washington Wizards from 2003-09 and for his use of the Princeton Offense. As Brown has discussed this summer, the team will be incorporating the Princeton into the rest of the offense*, and Jordan happens to be an expert who learned from its creator, Princeton’s own Pete Carril. Last season, assistant John Kuester was charged with some of the offensive system, but the team is heading down a new road to best take advantage of the personnel. Kuester has been reassigned as an advanced NBA scout and will be based on the East Coast.
*Highlighted by Steve Nash pick and rolls, and post ups for Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant as well as Metta World Peace at times.

BERNIE BICKERSTAFF:
Bickerstaff first hired Mike Brown back in 1992, Brown’s first job in the NBA as a video intern for Denver, with the inverse now occurring in 2012. Bickerstaff was the Nuggets President and GM at the time, and went on to coach the Nuggets for three seasons (1994-97), out of his 39 total years of coaching experience. Most recently, Bickerstaff was an assistant with Portland. Bickerstaff is expected to take on part of the role occupied last season by Ettore Messina – who along with fellow 2011-12 Lakers assistant Quin Snyder will be coaching CSKA Moscow next season – by looking at the big picture of the team, and not focusing on any particular area. Neither Bickerstaff nor Jordan will likely scout specific teams to set up game plans, leaving that duty for new hire Steve Clifford along with returning coaches Chuck Person and Darvin Ham.

STEVE CLIFFORD:
Having spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach in Orlando under head coach Stan Van Gundy and alongside new Lakers center Dwight Howard, Steve Clifford will step into a role for Mike Brown occupied in part by Snyder last season. In addition to setting up specific game plans for a third of L.A.’s opponents, Clifford will work with both the defense and the offense, not necessarily focusing on one or the other. His previous NBA coaching stints came as an assistant with the Knicks (2000-03) and Rockets (2003-07).

Person and Ham will continue their respective roles from last season. Person focuses more on the defensive end (plus beating players in three-point shooting contests) and Ham more like Snyder (then) and Clifford (now) on both ends while also working with the big men.

Metta World Health

You guess: which Lakers player paid the closest collective attention to his diet and work out habits last season?

Kobe Bryant … right?

Maybe not.

Now don’t get me wrong – Bryant absolutely keeps himself in fantastic shape and has changed his dietary habits in the last several years in particular after his absurd metabolism carried him through a pregame routine of burgers and fries earlier in his career. He’s just not our answer in this case.

How about Steve Nash? He’s extremely well known around the league for keeping a strict diet and putting himself in the best possible shape to maintain his elite level of play after all these NBA seasons.

But it’s not the Canadian MVP, who has yet to sit down with the team’s training staff.

The answer is: Metta World Peace. Don’t look so surprised.

According to Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, MWP is absolutely the man.

“Metta was extremely helpful for me last year because he does a great job with his nutrition and recovery habits,” DiFrancesco detailed. “He takes that stuff very seriously, and younger guys in our locker room started to see that.

“He takes it to a whole different level; he’s really in tune with a lot of high level nutrition approaches. He doesn’t just want to know what a good peanut butter is made of, but where it was made, what’s in it and how he can get a better one. He wants to really put the nutrition program together like an actual nutritionist might.”

In fact, World Peace makes a point of traveling with the right types of food that he knows fuel his body most efficiently during the season when the team is out of town. And he’s just as serious about his work outs.

“He cares about the ‘why,’ DiFrancesco continued. “Metta wants to know why we’re doing each exercise. On multiple occasions, he and I would stay after games lifting into the late hours of the night, and he’s always willing to go the extra mile. He’s very, very easy to work with.”

World Peace came into camp last season noticeably out of shape – just ask coach Mike Brown, or MWP himself – but for a reason. He’d carried some injuries out of the 2010-11 campaign, and with the lockout starting in July, was unable to work with the team’s training staff to address those problems.

Issues with his back and Achilles made it difficult for World Peace to work out as he normally does through the summer and fall, and when the season suddenly started – as a surprise to many players – in December, he wasn’t close to being ready.

“It was a product of the lockout,” said DiFrancesco. “But once he flipped the switch and got healthy, he put it all together with lifting, working out, nutrition and everything. It wasn’t rocket science, he just ate clean, worked out hard and consistently and recovered and slept the right way.”

After shooting 34 percent prior the to All-Star break, World Peace shot 43 percent afterwards, and discovered the kind of lock down 1-on-1 perimeter defending that has been the hallmark of his career.

If you’ve seen him around the team’s training facility this summer (OK, there’s no way most of you could have), you’ve noticed that he’s in fantastic shape.

“Compared to last year at this time, it’s not even close,” concluded the strength coach. “Metta told me he’s feeling on the court like he felt when he was playing for the Pacers, when he was at the top of his game athletically. It’s because he’s put his time in.

“He decided he needed to stay focused on this track and not take much if any time off. You saw it last year from a production standpoint on the court around the All Star break last year, and he’s at that level now coming in. The last thing he wanted was to come in anywhere near where he was lats year, and he’s far, far from that.”

Dwight Howard Photo Gallery

Can we interest you in 24 photos of Dwight Howard from Aug. 10, the day he was introduced as the newest member of the Lakers?

PHOTO GALLERY: DWIGHT HOWARD AS A LAKER:

Follow along as Howard walked towards his presser with Mitch Kupchak, held up his No. 12 jersey for the first time and went on about his day.