Mid-first-round picks in the NBA Draft are notoriously hit or miss, and for every Kobe Bryant and Kawhi Leonard there are dozens of other athletes who fade into obscurity within a few years. We won’t out any of those unfortunates, but there is one name to remember if you’re not already familiar: Tobias Harris.
Harris is a small forward for the Detroit Pistons and was the 19th pick overall in the 2011 draft. His ascension in the league has been steady but sure: After starting only 23 games combined in his first two seasons as a Milwaukee Buck and hitting about five points per game, the 6-foot 9-inch, 235-pound athlete has averaged mid-double-digits in scoring every year since, and has firmly established himself as one of the premier defenders in the Eastern Conference. The stat-geeky hoops website Basketball Analytics once even called Harris “the NBA’s Most Underrated Player,” classifying the 24-year-old as a modern-day “Versatile Forward” along with the likes of Leonard and LeBron James.
Now entering his sixth season as a pro and his first full season with the Pistons, Harris is determined to take his game to the next level by covering all the bases: basketball skills development, intensive strength training and clean-as-a-whistle nutrition. Fortunately, he’ll have some help.
Gone are the days when basketball players avoided the weight room, leaving the iron work to football players and bodybuilders. Gone also are the spindly, sub-200-pound physiques of the NBA small forwards of the 1970s and ’80s. Harris’ long, muscular frame is now the league norm and lifting isn’t just something he does because he has to.
“I am a workout guy,” states Harris. “I’m big into squats and lower-body strength in general. I do bench presses, jerks, powerlifting … I like it all. It gives me an advantage and I like to put in a lot of extra work.”
Harris’ weight training architect is Anthony Harvey, CSCS, the Detroit Pistons head strength and conditioning coach. Harvey was on staff for the Magic while Harris was playing in Orlando, so he is intimately familiar with his pupil and knows he’ll do anything and everything it takes to excel.
“Tobias is one of my favorite athletes to work with,” says Harvey. “He’s very meticulous and up front about how he wants to train and he’s a very hard worker. There are actually times when I need him to take a break and he wants to do more.”
Currently the main focus with Harris’ training is increasing leg strength and mobility and grooming him to play with a lower center of gravity, which allows him more leverage to move his opponent, according to Harvey. Sounds pretty simple, but a lot goes into achieving those goals, especially considering the NBA’s 82-game schedule and 48-minute games.
Harris’ offseason schedule is a complex program of strength, conditioning and flexibility sessions that include everything from traditional barbell moves to Olympic lifting to functional strength to yoga. He also does several weekly workouts on the track and the basketball court to enhance speed and endurance, and spends at least one day in the pool swimming for recovery and conditioning.
“Just seeing how he goes about his offseason training is remarkable,” says Harvey. “He’ll have his brother record [his lifts] and send them to me so I can critique them. You don’t have to hold his hand. You show him once, you show him twice, he gets it and it becomes a part of his routine.”
All Pistons Firing
Just like the weight room has become the absolute domain of Millennial players so has healthy fare replaced fast food and binge drinking as fuel for pro athletes. Harris excels here and is a superstar example of clean eating. “I’m a plant-based type of guy and I eat very well,” says Harris. “I think that’s one of the biggest things when it comes to changing the body and gaining strength — putting the right foods in your body.”
Some say Harris has a nutritional maturity beyond his years, and most people don’t start addressing their diets until they’re forced to do so in their 40s or 50s. Case in point, Tobias’ dad (and agent) Torrel Harris: “I’m 58 years old and I’m just now learning about nutrition and what to eat,” says the elder Harris. “And I’m learning it all from my son. The thing about Tobias is, anything he can do to be a perfectionist, he’s going to do it.”
Like a good perfectionist, Harris has enlisted one of the top professional chefs around to design his day-to-day fare: Sam Miller, owner of Progressive Wellness LLC in New York City. Though a vegan himself, Miller includes chicken, turkey, fish and occasionally red meat in Harris’ program, but the main staples of his meals are eggs, avocados and an endless assortment of fruits, vegetables, seeds and superfoods. Everything’s natural, everything’s organic and everything is intentionally rationed in the optimal amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
But hard training and clean eating aren’t the only things that will get you all-star status, and it takes a village to raise, nurture and develop a successful pro athlete. Harris’ village is working overtime these days, starting with his parents, dad Torrel and mother Lisa, who deserve big kudos for instilling a superior maturity and staunch work ethic in their son. It then extends to Harvey and Miller who provide Harris with strength and nutritional fortitude. But one of the largest cornerstones belongs to legendary Basketball Hall-of-Fame member George “The Iceman” Gervin, who serves as Harris’ hoops mentor and works with Harris on his sports-specific fundamentals, including ball handling, footwork and conditioning.
“Once you’re fundamentally sound, the game is mental,” says Gervin. “It’s all about your approach. Tobias is an all-star-caliber basketball player. I know that, but he’s got to prove that to himself. I can’t do anything with that. You’ve got to have your own mental toughness. And he’s got it. Now it’s time to be an all-star and let everyone else know what I know.”
Making an All-Star: TRAINING
Designed by Pistons head strength and conditioning coach Anthony Harvey, CSCS, Tobias Harris’ training program is complex. Harvey gave M&P a glimpse into the small forward’s offseason schedule — without giving away any trade secrets!
Harris trains five days a week in the gym. He focuses on upper body on Mondays and Thursdays, lower body on Tuesdays and Fridays, and does active recovery workouts on Wednesdays.
His six-week summer program is further broken down into three two-week phases, and each of the following four major movements are performed once per week for four sets of three to five reps apiece: squat, leg press, bench press and lat pulldown. When performing those exercises, Harris uses these techniques to develop power, strength, endurance and stability:
1. Eccentric Phase Using a two-week cycle, Harris varies the time of the negative portion of his reps, lowering the weight for 3 seconds during Week 1 and 5 seconds during Week 2. He then explodes up on the positive. The load is the heaviest during this phase — more than his one-rep max — so a spotter is required.
2.Isometric Phase In this phase, he lowers the weight as fast as possible on the negative, holding the transition point for 3 to 5 seconds, then explodes up on the positive. The load is lighter than in the previous phase.
3.Concentric Phase This involves performing both the eccentric and concentric portions as fast as possible with no isometric hold during the set. The load is lighter than in the previous phase.
In addition to the four basic exercises, Harris does accessory moves with standard rep speeds to develop overall, total-body strength. Harris also performs Olympic lifts to boost his full-body power. “We’ll do clean pulls with a barbell where he doesn’t have to flip the bar,” says Harvey. “If I want him to do a power clean or hang clean, as long as it’s a lighter weight, he’ll use the bar. But if I want him to focus on power and a heavier weight, we can do that either with dumbbells or a Renegade, an attachment to a Landmine station where the handles rotate to keep your wrists straight.”
Active Recovery (Wednesday)
The focus is on bodyweight exercises such as push-up variations and TRX rows; coordination, balance and stability training; swimming; or extra conditioning. Harris also does yoga for active recovery.
“Yoga is helpful for Tobias because his flexibility isn’t the greatest,” says Harvey. “If you’re getting stronger and more powerful, your muscles are going to create more tension. With the creation of more tension, your body becomes stiffer, so you need to keep your range of motion. I’m not trying to get him into a full split or anything, but if he wants to get stronger, he has to increase his flexibility.”
Court Conditioning (Twice a Week)
On the court, Harris does two main conditioning drills:
1. Three minutes of running baseline-to-baseline as many times as possible, where 27 to 29 lengths of the court is considered good.
2. Ten down-and-back sprints (one sprint equals two lengths of the court) with 20 seconds rest between sprints.
As he gets closer to training camp in the fall, he adds more conditioning work on the court to emphasize quick changes of direction.
Track Conditioning (Twice a Week)
Endurance is the focus at the beginning of the offseason, with 4 X 800s being performed one or two days per week. Over time, 200s and 400s are added in and the 800s are decreased and eventually dropped. By the end of summer, speed is the emphasis and workouts consist more of 200s, 100s, 50s and below. Sprints are typically performed at a work-to-rest ratio of 1:3-5 (i.e., 10-second sprint followed by 30-50 seconds rest). When 400s and 800s are incorporated, total running distance is approximately two miles; when 800s are dropped, the total distance drops to about one mile.
Pool Conditioning (Once a Week)
In the swimming pool, Harris either does laps or works on running mechanics while submerged in the water.
Making an All-Star: NUTRITION
Chef Sam Miller, owner of Progressive Wellness LLC in New York (where Tobias Harris spends his offseason), prepares fresh daily meals for Harris. Below is a sample day of big eating for the Pistons small forward.
• Omelet made with two whole eggs and three egg whites, mixed with sauteed onions, kale and arugula, and folded over ½ avocado
• Two pieces toasted, sprouted-grain bread; Earth Balance vegan spread
• Smoothie consisting of mixed fresh berries, unsweetened vanilla hemp or almond milk, two ripe bananas, several Medjool dates, maca superfood powder, flaxseeds and one scoop of vanilla plant-based protein powder
• A red-chili sprouted-grain burrito wrap filled with sweet potato, kale, quinoa, diced onions, diced peppers, fresh garlic, parsley and cilantro, topped with a raw tahini and lemon dipping sauce
• Fresh mesclun salad leaves, spinach and/or arugula, topped with basmati rice mixed with sauteed vegetables in a light coconut-amino dressing
• Marinated chicken breast or turkey breast over brown-rice pasta with fresh marinara sauce mixed with mushrooms, rainbow chard, onions and garlic sauteed in light sunflower oil
Preworkout and Postworkout Nutrition
• Snacks from local organic markets, such as brown rice cakes with sunflower butter and honey, Medjool dates, nuts and fruit, and sprouted-grain bread with almond butter or all-natural peanut butter
• Cold-pressed fruit juices such as pineapple and mango; organic, 100 percent all-natural fruit-based smoothies with plant-based protein for energy and recovery
Find Chef Sam Miller online via Facebook (Progressivewellness LLC) or Instagram (@Progressivewellness).