Lessons From An NBA Training Camp

My view from behind the bench during the Raptors scrimmage game. (Pictured l-r: Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon, Alex English, Anthony Parker)

“Wow!” Three letters that sum up my trip to Ottawa for Raptors training camp. For the development coach in me, that easily was the best training camp that I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of in all my years working in the NBA.

I was able to squeeze a lot of other basketball observations into the mix outside of the Toronto Raptors training camp by taking in the Carleton University men’s and women’s basketball practices; attending a clinic put on by Mike MacKay at École Secondaire Publique Louis-Riel (Luis Riel Secondary School); and finally, wrapping the week off by attending an open tryout for NBA Development League team, the Idaho Stampede.

Lots of learning and new insights!

During each training camp I attend, the anthropologist in me comes out and I try and isolate one to two skills and/or movements. I then try to either disprove or reaffirm a certain theory about it. For example, one year I strictly isolated and watched feet. Reason being, there was a heated debate that came up around what part of the foot players actually use to pivot on. For decades we’ve taught a ‘toe pivot’ when in fact players will either utilize a full foot or heel pivot.

This year, one of the things that I was watching was what we typically think of as a drop step (e.g. change of direction on defensive slides). Here’s my field observations:

What We Teach…

…the traditional drop step and open up on defensive slides when changing directions.

What An NBA Athlete Does…

hip turn with what speed coach, Lee Taft, calls a plyo (push) step.

What’s The Difference?

…on a drop step, the athletes is asked to pivot and open up their stance (hips) to execute the change of direction. In teaching, what’s being asked is that the player keep, what in effect becomes their trail leg on the ground while doing the drop step. With a hip turn, an athlete will quickly execute a small hop as both feet temporarily leave the air as they redirect their hips so that they can move laterally.

The problem with what we teach is that it’s counter intuitive to what the human body already knows to be efficient movement. You see when you do a drop step, in order to generate lateral momentum the first movement to generate force must be a pull with the lead leg when it hits the ground. With a hip turn, the hop allows the body’s first ground reaction force to some to be with the trail leg as a push action.

Cross Training…

…this lateral (defensive) slide while changing direction is not unique to basketball. However, basketball seems to be the only sport that teaches this action the way it does. Why is that? Speed coaches don’t teach it that way. Neither does a football coach teach his lineman to move using a drop step. I’d argue that this movement can be found in other sports too (e.g. volleyball, badminton, tennis are a few that jump out to me). Have you stopped to notice how are they teaching that same movement pattern?

Just my observations with this group of NBA athletes. You watch for it and let me know what you observe.


#thankthepasser: I would be remiss if not to thank: Bryan Colangelo, Sam Mitchell and the entire Raptors coaching staff for allowing me complete access (and putting up with all my questions). And, a special note of appreciation to Gord Herbert and Eric Hughes for allowing me to jump in on the individual workouts with the guys. Keith “Babyface” D’Amelio… always, ‘preciate everything!!! Coach Smart, Coach Charles and Coach Desjardins, I’m appreciative of you opening your gyms to me.  Joan Ramon Tarrogo (aka Tarrrrrrra!)… Gracias.

Double D – I will continue to do my best to be a ‘disservice’ to you. None of it would have gone down without you. THANK YOU! And, certainly not least, Jama, glad to have been a part of the clinics you put on. Your energy, enthusiasm and sincerity are contagious!