As any star in any sport will tell you, there is no real “offseason.” When it comes to NBA players, most will admit to playing more hoops away from the team than with it. But being a gym rat doesn’t necessarily equate to success. In order to claw their way into All-Star games, dunk contests, playoff victories and eventual championship appearances, the young stars of today’s NBA are thinking outside the box — and outside of box jumps — to get a training edge. In this exclusive feature, we spoke with two rising hoops stars, Mike Conley Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies and Chase Budinger of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Both athletes take a unique and grueling approach to offseason training.
Muscling Up in Memphis: Mike Conley Jr.
It takes a lot of willpower to live in Memphis, Tenn., and lay off the world-famous barbecue. It takes even more if you’re a self-professed lover of ribs and you live within a few square miles of some of the best smoking pits in the United States. But Mike Conley Jr., the starting point guard for the Grizzlies, has work to do, and the dry rubs and pulled pork will have to wait. Conley spent the offseason trying to pack on muscle to prepare his body for the punishment he receives when he takes the ball to the rim during the long NBA season.
“Normally I lose weight throughout the year from the number of games I play,” Conley says. “I usually try to put on 5 to 10 pounds of extra muscle in the offseason. So if I lose some weight during the season, I’m still back to where I was.” Specifically, Conley is working on strengthening and bulking up his shoulders so he can maneuver better and absorb the impact from the bigger guys as he drives to the basket. “I’m focusing on finishing plays this year,” he says. “My shoulders are a big area for me because I’m using them to get people off me or as a brace for impact when I’m running into guys. Adding some size will allow me to become better in the paint and take the hits.”
Working Harder Than Ever
As Conley enters his fifth season, the former first-round draft pick is coming off a year in which he ranked fourth in the NBA in assists per 48 minutes and second in steals per 48 minutes. When you consider that the NBA is currently top-heavy with elite point guards (Chris Paul and Deron Williams, to name two), you might see those numbers and be impressed. Conley, however, sees room for improvement, which is why he found himself in the weight room at 8:30 nearly every morning of the offseason.
“I’ve been doing lots of Olympic lifting this year,” Conley explains. “We do lots of exercises that require the whole body to work hard. Cleans, snatches, deadlifts, squatting. We do them all. I think it really helps with strength and endurance. I lift before I go to the gym to play basketball, so my legs are already tired. Hitting the weight room first allows me to get used to shooting and dribbling while I’m fatigued.” Those of you who have been bold enough to throw heavy sets of squats, power cleans and snatches into the same workout: Remember how those sets make you feel, then imagine playing basketball at the highest level for three or four hours afterward, and you’ll have an idea of what Conley is talking about when he says “fatigued.”
After his lifting session, Conley often headed to the courts at Ohio State University (his alma mater), where he works out in the offseason. The scrimmages there aren’t just run-of-the-mill pickup games. Conley says the courts are filled with plenty of NBA talent, including former Buckeye stars like Michael Redd and guys who just got drafted into the NBA like Jared Sullinger. “When it comes to my conditioning in the offseason, I play a lot of basketball, but I also work in other stuff, like swimming, biking and runs in the sand pits we have here in Columbus, [Ohio],” he says.
Those sand-pit workouts sound like something that might come out of a Spartan Race or a Navy SEAL Hell Week. “We do everything in that deep sand,” he says. “We’ll do sets of sprinting intervals, defensive slides, close-out drills. We’ll run suicides in the sand, and we even have days where we flip heavy tires. It’s so unconventional. It’s stuff that you would probably think that someone in the Marines or Army would have to do.”
Conley, of course, isn’t preparing for real battle, but he is preparing to lead his team in a season-long fight against Western Conference powerhouses led by some of the biggest names in the game: Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Kevin Durant and the Thunder. But sometimes, those aren’t the guys who give Conley the most trouble. The big men who make their living in the paint are the ones he’s training so hard for. “Kendrick Perkins, the power forward for the Thunder, has put me on the ground a few times,” Conley says. “Kenyon Martin is another very physical guy, as well. He does a good job of making sure you don’t get your shot off. In the playoffs, I got around my man and I knew it was going to be me and him. I took off and we met in the air. Normally, I fall down and land awkwardly, but I took the hit and landed on my own two feet. I could do that because of the strength training I’ve done and because I’ve learned how to get into a guy before he gets into me.”
With another 5 to 10 pounds of muscle packed on to his frame heading into the 2012-2013 season, there shouldn’t be too many guys left in the NBA that Conley isn’t ready to take head-on.
Mike Conley’s Weekly Workout Breakdown
8:30 a.m.: weight room: lower-body training followed by court workouts and conditioning (three hours total)
12 p.m.: nap
4:30 p.m.: pickup basketball games
8:30 a.m.: weight room: upper-body training and core training
12 p.m.: nap
4:30 p.m.: pickup basketball games
Rest day from lifting — functional work: stretches, ankle mobility work and foam rolling
8:30 a.m.: weight room: lower-body training and core training followed by sand-pit running
12 p.m.: nap
4:30 p.m. pickup basketball games
8:30 a.m. weight room: upper-body training and core training followed by shooting drills and conditioning drills on the court
12 p.m.: nap
4:30 p.m.: pickup basketball games
Mike Conley Jr. Stats
Birth Date: October 11, 1987
College: Ohio State University
Draft: No. 4 overall pick, 2007 NBA Draft
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Position: point guard
To casual basketball fans, Chase Budinger is the guy who dunked over P. Diddy in the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. To casual volleyball fans, Budinger is the former phenom who was named National Volleyball Player of the Year as a senior at La Costa Canyon High School in Southern California. To the uninitiated, you’re probably wondering how tall P. Diddy is (6 feet) and what Budinger’s vertical leap must be to jump over him (about 40 inches). Now you know the type of athletic talent we’re dealing with when we talk about the 6-foot-7-inch, 218-pound small forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before the professional hoops and the insane hops, Budinger was just a kid who liked to shoot baskets on the hard court and play pepper on the sand court.
“I grew up playing both sports,” Budinger says. “I started playing basketball when I was about 6, and I picked up volleyball around 11. I went to a volleyball tournament when I was 13 or 14 and played nonstop for a week. After I got home from that tournament, I was just dunking the ball with ease.”
Cut to 10 years later, and that otherworldly leaping ability had him participating in the most famous jumping event outside of the Olympics: The NBA Slam Dunk Contest. “Being invited to the dunk contest was definitely a career highlight,” he says. “It was something I had dreamed about doing. My favorite dunk is throwing it off the bounce and going through my legs off two feet. Most guys are one-foot jumpers, so that dunk off two feet is tough.” That two-footed jumping style was no doubt influenced by his time on the volleyball court, where jumping off two feet is helpful when heading to the net for a block.
A Strong Volleyball Influence
“After that first volleyball tournament, I just saw my jumping ability improve with each sport through the years, especially once I got into beach volleyball,” Budinger says. While many athletes rely on some form of running in the sand to improve strength, explosiveness and stability during their sport’s offseason, Budinger’s love for beach volleyball turns what most athletes feel is an excruciating part of their workout into a good time. “I play a lot of volleyball,” he says. “It’s a great cross-training sport for me. It helps keep my ankles and feet in line. It keeps me in great shape. It strengthens my legs. I try and get on the beach as much as I can.”
In addition to the training being complementary, there are plenty of other aspects of beach volleyball that help Budinger out on the basketball court, especially in the area of rebounding. One of the keys to spiking a volleyball is knowing how to time the peak of the jump with the moment of contact with the ball. Having gained this ability from volleyball, Budinger can out-jump guys on the basketball court when the ball comes off the rim. Some of this is, of course, because of natural talent, but Budinger can’t simply play volleyball a few hours a day and maintain his near three-and-a-half foot vertical leap. For that, he needs to do it the old-fashioned way: by grinding it out in the weight room.
“When I first got to college, I was hitting a 41-inch vertical,” he says. “But I was 25 pounds lighter. I’ve put on weight through lifting, and the main thing for me right now is to try to maintain my jumping ability. When I got to college, I was scrawny. Now that I’m in the NBA and I’m going up against guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, I gotta have the weight to take those guys on. They’re all very physical players.”
In the weight room, Budinger focuses on his core and his legs by supersetting a traditional weight exercise with an explosive plyometric bodyweight movement. For instance, he’ll stack four sets of 10 front squats with four sets of eight box jumps. “With a workout like that, we’ll do a heavy set of front squats or regular squats, and then I’ll follow it up immediately with a set of box jumps. We load with heavy weight and then go straight into the power movements,” he says.
The goal of these exercises is to improve lift off the ground and to build a strong, muscular lower body, which means feeding those muscles properly is extremely important. “I eat a diet that is high in lean protein, brown rice and vegetables,” Budinger says. “Our bodies get so beat up during the season that diet is one of the most important things you can keep up with. I take a multivitamin and fish oil every day, and I also drink lots of protein shakes after practice.”
In between trips to the gym, Budinger heads back to the beach for a full battery of sand work, including ladders, plyometric jumps going forward, backward and lateral, as well as wind sprints. “I try to estimate the length of the basketball court in the sand as a starting point,” Budinger explains. “Then I’ll run lots of intervals. That should help keep my legs strong for the upcoming season. I felt like I didn’t have enough dunks last year. I could have had more, so this season I’m going to attack the basket more and use my athleticism.”
After spending the summer pushing his legs to the limit on the beach, more dunks shouldn’t be a problem as he looks to lead the Timberwolves to the playoffs.
Bounce Like Budinger: The Vertical-Leap Superset
Birth Date: May 22, 1988
College: University of Arizona
Draft: 2nd round, 2009 NBA Draft
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Position: small forward