Relentless work transformed Perkins' body - and his game - into NBA shape
Some pictures say a thousand words. But when Kendrick Perkins looked at "before and after" pictures of himself, he could say only one word.
Shown two pictures taken over two years apart (below), one from a December 13, 2003 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves (left), and the second from this year's November 25 game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Perkins was startled by the difference.
He's striking almost identical poses in the photographs -- hands on his hips, elbows flared as he prepares to take a free throw -- but that's really where the similarities end. Seated on a bench after practice at HealthPoint before the C's embarked on their five game road trip, Perkins was so taken by the vast difference in the pictures that he actually asked if he could keep the prints. While forcing his way into the starting lineup earlier this season indicated his on-court success, the photographic evidence demonstrates that Perkins' body has come a long way in two seasons.
"Wow! It's a big difference in my total body," said Perkins. "I'm more in shape, my face is not really as fat."
His face is conspicuously thinner, especially in person, but his newly sculpted upper body and leaner frame is what has helped Perkins elevate his game and made a night like his epic 12-point, 19-rebound explosion against the Philadelphia 76ers possible. Perkins first earned a starting nod in the November 25 game against the Bobcats and only recently relinquished his spot, as Doc Rivers opted to go with Al Jefferson to add more offense to the starting unit. Despite the fact that he's no longer in the game for tip-off, his minutes have remained around 15 per night. While he's still learning the NBA game and experiencing the growing pains that all young players encounter, he's thankful for the faith that Rivers and the Celtics organization have shown in him.
"I just try to keep improving and not let them down, because the Celtics drafted me. I feel like I owe them something," said Perkins.
Technically, the Memphis Grizzlies selected Perkins 27th overall and then immediately dealt him to the Celtics at the 2003 NBA Draft. It turned out to be a steal for the Celtics, since pre-draft reports had Perkins rated as high as the second best prospect in the draft that year, behind current NBA phenom LeBron James.
While playing at Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas, Perkins drew comparisons to Shaquille O'Neal and was often dubbed "Baby Shaq" thanks to his 6'10", 290+ lbs size at the time. At one point he committed to playing college ball for John Calipari at Memphis, but he worked tirelessly on his body in the summer of 2002, rising before dawn daily for two hours of running, a few more hours of weights, and a few hours of work on the court. This impressive regimen fueled speculation that he would eschew college hoop for a crack at the NBA.
Yet despite the hype surrounding him, the knock continued to be that he didn't have an NBA body and was carrying too much weight (some reports had him topping 300 lbs at times), a factor that allowed him to fall to the Celtics at the end of the first round. And when he arrived at training camp that fall, Perkins realized that his work had only just begun.
"I remember in my first training camp, I almost died," said Perkins, laughing. "It's a matter of going into the off-season and doing the work. Not only do you want to lose weight, but you also got to make sure that you keep your strength. So you've got to lift at the same time. You've really got to step your game up because this ain't high school no more, so you've got to elevate your game."
His game has certainly come a long way in that time, to the point where Celtics Coach Doc Rivers is comfortable starting the third-year pro at center and giving him an opportunity to learn on the job. And it's paid off, mostly in the rebounding department (he's averaging 4.9 in just under 15 minutes per game), something Perkins has a natural knack for, although his physical presence plays a large roll in that success. Perkins is easily the team's best pure rebounder; he ranks seventh in the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes (a staggering 15.8) and he's also an effective shot blocker.
But talent is only part of the story for Perkins, who seemingly improves with every game.
"The biggest thing from last year is that Perk is a worker," said Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, who's seen Perkins transform himself over the course of the last two seasons. "He just keeps working. He brings great energy, and he's a great student. Perk can be a great rebounder in our league."
As far as a "welcome to the NBA" moment, Perkins recalls a game against the Detroit Pistons where he only played 12 minutes but had absolutely no energy left when he was finished. But perhaps more of an inspiration was spending most of his rookie year on injured reserve, and playing just 35 minutes the entire season. While some players would have been discouraged by the lack of playing time, Perkins says he's grateful that the team gave him a chance to develop at his own pace.
So Perkins continued to work on his body and his conditioning, and over the course of the last three years he's lost 53 pounds of body fat and transformed his bulky frame into a constantly evolving NBA body. While at 260 lbs. he's not quite "chiseled" just yet, he looks to teammate Mark Blount for inspiration.
"I look at Mark Blount, and I think he's one of the best in-shape big men in the league, as far as running the floor and how his body looks," said Perkins. "Every year I just try to improve my body, and I'm not really done. I'm still working on my body and getting in shape. But he's a great example to me; he's in shape and cut up."
Perkins typically plays about 15 minutes a night, but foul trouble, not conditioning, is often limiting his minutes. It's just the latest hurdle in his development as he learns the intricacies of the NBA game in his nightly battles on the block.
"Defensively, Perk comes out with a purpose every night," said Rivers, speaking rather loudly within an earshot of his team after practice, perhaps sending a not-so-subtle message. "I think he's the only guy who gives us an identity, and he's starting to learn how to play physical without fouling."
Perkins admits that it's not always easy to know what he can get away with on the floor, citing the drastic difference in rules between high school and professional basketball. He's constantly learning the little things, such as how just knowing an official's name can help build a rapport that can sometimes earn young players the respect that veterans enjoy from referees.
"You know, it's coming slowly. On pick and rolls, I'd reach in, thinking the refs would just let us play. I think I was playing too physical and going out there and picking up cheap ones," said Perkins.
As for learning on the job, Rivers seems to give Perkins a decent amount of slack. Unlike many young NBA players, Perkins isn't looking over his shoulder at the scorer's table every time he makes a mistake.
He generally recognizes immediately when he's forgotten to trap a pick and roll or blows an assignment on the defensive end, but he now knows that his coach has enough confidence in him to leave him in the game even at times when he may have made "six or seven mistakes".
Perkins says he watches himself on tape after every game, looking for ways he can improve. He checks to make sure he saw cutters, set good screens and was in proper position on set plays. He sees improvement in his overall game on a daily basis, and he points to his post moves, an improved jump hook and the way he runs the floor ("At first I was just hurting getting up and down the court," he says) as the biggest strides in his development.
Said Perkins: "It's all about 'keep working', and when the time comes you've got to be ready for it."
The time is now, Perkins is ready, and he's certainly worked for it.