Grunt Work

Pistons players keeping Kander busy overseeing summer regimens

Arnie Kander has had a busy summer overseeing the workout regimens of multiple Pistons players.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Arnie Kander is a busier man today than he was a year ago. If you’re a Pistons fan, that can’t be a bad omen. Hopefully, it means he won’t be quite as busy tending to sprains, strains and spasms next season as he was last.

Kander doesn’t like leaving much to chance, and while there’s always the fluke element to consider when an ankle gets twisted or a groin muscle strained, the Pistons’ strength and conditioning coach fully believes that the work players put in over the summer goes a long way toward training their bodies to avoid situations that put them at risk for injury or building the strength and flexibility to withstand stress without incident.

This summer, by all appearances, Pistons players are investing in their bodies.

On Wednesday at their practice facility, Ben Gordon kept Kander busy in the training and weight rooms, rehabilitating his ankle. Charlie Villanueva hollered from the basketball court for Kander to give him his next assignment as he goes about the mission he announced for the summer: rebuilding his body.

Jonas Jerebko, after completing a vigorous 75-minute workout on the court, went back to join Gordon in the weight room. Rodney Stuckey, back in town from Seattle and looking dramatically leaner, was last off the basketball court and petitioning Kander to oversee his stretching.

Villanueva very publicly said at the end of the season that he planned to tie himself to Kander’s hip and dedicate his summer to coming back stronger and in better overall condition. So far, so good, Kander says.

“It’s always a process,” he said. “You don’t want it to occur overnight, because then the change is never permanent. It’s the little steps, the connecting the dots, as we call it.”

Kander has a very specific list of qualities he’d like to see Villanueva improve on the basketball court, and to that end he’s formulated a painstaking regimen for Villanueva to follow to get there.

“The No. 1 thing, we want him to become a better runner,” Kander said. “I want to see him be able to run the court with more proficiency. We’re going to improve his stride mechanics so there is less resistance in his body when he’s running.

“We’re going to work on his defensive stance, get him stronger in the hips to hold his base. A little quicker on the first step – we’d really like to see him get by people a little faster. He’s a guy that’s got a really explosive jump. He’ll take those last two or three steps and you’ll be like, wow – where did this incredible power come from? So he’s got the potential for power, but I want to see him be able to maintain more of the small things that build up to power. So run the court better, better stance on defense, better first step and a little more athletic on the court.”

More athletic? Is that attainable?

“You can definitely work on it. Reflexes can be modified and changed. They’ve been developed over time and that’s why I say we really try to break things down to reflex science, understand what develops a reflex. It’s a lot of repetitive movement, over and over again. It’s like changing a shot. It’s not a one- or two-day sequence. You’ve got to commit to it. As we go through the phases of conditioning, it takes a long period of time to develop.”

In one drill, Villanueva backpedaled from the baseline to the free-throw line along the lane, then got in his defensive stance and shuffled as quickly as he could around the top of the circle to the other side of the free-throw line, then sprinted to the baseline and repeated the drill, over and again. All of Kander’s drills approximate motions that a player would use in a game, this one emphasizing the transitioning from one type of movement – running or backpedaling – to another, in this case defensive stance and lateral movement.

“(Lateral quickness and movement) can be improved, absolutely,” Kander said. “It all comes off of stance, getting stronger in your legs, stronger at your rotation, being able to turn quicker through your trunk. It’s a lot of cross-training. The foot speed of soccer, the rotational speed of boxing, the flexibility of martial arts – the gifts of each one, combining everything to produce the optimal athlete.”

Kander has worked with the Pistons for 18 years and seen what early attention to conditioning and nutrition can do to improve and extend a player’s career. Some of his earliest pupils included Grant Hill, Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston. Hunter retired midway through last season as the NBA’s oldest player at 39, Hill – once he got over the ankle problems that became magnified during his tenure in Orlando – has proven remarkably fit and durable, and Houston was one of the NBA’s best-conditioned players until a chronic knee problem forced his retirement.

Getting young players to fully appreciate the relationship between what they put into their bodies and how they train with how they perform at the NBA level is one of Kander’s enduring missions.

“We didn’t have a lot of guys in last summer,” he said. “We got Charlie in at the end, Ben Gordon at the end, Rodney for a couple of weeks at the tail end. For all of our guys, everyone has to look in the mirror. Sometimes, these guys can look like they’re in great condition, but we’re talking about the difference between playing 34 minutes a night and 40 minutes – it’s a huge difference.

“Not just the physical aspects, but the mental aspects. Diet and nutrition is huge for the mental capacity. Hydration – what we hydrate with. That’s connecting the dots and making sure you do all the small things to take your level of performance to a higher level.”

Kander establishes a baseline of conditioning for each player, so when they check in and out of Auburn Hills over the course of the summer, they can’t fool him about what they’ve been doing out of town once they get back to the practice facility.

“Nothing happens by accident,” he said. “Guys aren’t able to do things without nutrition. They’re not able to do things without volumes of training. It never lies. If a guy comes in and tells me what he’s been doing, let’s see within 45 minutes where your body is at. We have programs set up – a little different for each guy – and when they come back they should be at the same level. It shows real quick.”

When Villanueva has spent a long weekend or a week away from Auburn Hills since he started training seriously in early May, Kander has been pleased every time with what he sees upon his return.

“He’s been very committed,” he said. “I always say, in the summer I don’t want you here every day. I don’t want you to burn out mentally. But when you do go away and you continue to train, understand what it’s about. It’s easy for guys when they’re here to do it. Then they leave and come back and sometimes it’s like they took two steps backward. With Charlie, every time he’s left to go home or spend time with his family, he comes back and I see progress.”

I talked at length with both Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey this week and we’ll have interesting stories with each of them over the next week on, but here’s a quick note on Ben Gordon and his status from Kander.

“He’s doing very well. We’re taking our time with it, but his ankle looks great. Probably the hardest thing with Ben is to slow him down. He wants to start running and jumping. I told him we have plenty of time for that. We’re probably looking at mid-July to the tail end of July (before he’ll grant full clearance), but we’re setting it up now so he can get into some movement on the court.

“We’re building up his body, getting him a lot stronger, building his leg strength, his ankle flexibility, doing all of those things before we start to run. If you don’t do this first, then you suffer the effects of running too early.”

Kander said that because Gordon’s obligations to the British national team would require him to be with them in mid-July, he likely won’t be joining them this summer.