Hard Work, Positive Energy

Arnie Kander enthused after overseeing productive Pistons off-season

Pistons strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander looks forward to upcoming training camp.
Allen Eintstein/NBAE/Getty Images Sport
Brandon Knight is no longer the youngest Piston. At 19, Andre Drummond might hold that title for a few more seasons. Still, Knight is just 20, not an age when players generally ascend to leadership status.

Yet Arnie Kander, in his unique position as Pistons strength and conditioning coach and universally acknowledged guru of all things to do with the body and spirit, sees in Knight the qualities that have made him an unmistakable team leader even as he’s about to embark on his first full NBA season.

“I can’t say enough about this kid,” Kander told me this week after again pulling Knight off the court after five hours of conditioning, drills and pickup scrimmaging with nearly all of his teammates already at the team’s practice facility. “We all see his work ethic. You see the time he puts into this. Nothing happens by chance.”

The remarkable thing? Knight is standing out as a leader on a team that Kander sees teeming with young players of exceptional earnestness. In players like Greg Monroe and Kim English and Kyle Singler and Andre Drummond and others, Kander is as genuinely optimistic for the Pistons’ future as he could be.

Knight is a driving force, of course, displaying the type of work ethic Kander’s seen over the years from Ben Wallace, a work ethic that elevated Big Ben to leadership without ever having to be vocal. Wallace, in fact, was instrumental in passing the torch, recognizing in Knight a kindred spirit.

When Piston players gather together after practices, Kander said, “I would say to Ben, ‘We honor the circle. It’s on you, Ben. Ben says no, it’s on Brandon Knight.’ This is on Brandon now. Every day, he thinks of something to say (as the team joins raised hands after workouts), our ‘1-2-3: hard work.’

“After a while, it might get stale, every day we say the same thing. But thinking about it, ‘What do I want to say to this group today,’ that’s Brandon. Little things in leadership. Back in our weight room, if a guy isn’t working, sure, I can push him a little bit. But Brandon is, ‘C’mon, c’mon, let’s go, get it done, let’s get to the court.’ He’s always the first one to the BK7” – the contraption Kander designed, now named after Knight, for Pistons players to work on all varieties of ballhandling options – “ doing his device. What better leadership? You lead by example and you lead by voice. I always tell him, ‘Be impeccable with your word. You’ve earned the right to lead this team by what you do every day. You don’t have to wait.’ And he’s a natural leader.”

It’s rare for any single player – never mind one as young as Knight – to emerge as a team’s only voice of leadership, and that won’t be the case with the makeup of this team, either. In Monroe, Kander sees an ideal balancing force of leadership for Knight.

“Those two, hand in hand,” Kander said. “Greg has physically put the time in, like Ben Wallace did. Ben over the years hasn’t said a lot. He leads by his example. Greg has led by his example, but he’s also now put a voice to it when things in the room need to be picked up a little bit and guys aren’t pushing themselves, aren’t challenging themselves. He’s handling it, and that’s what you want from your bigs. They’re meant to patrol, get everybody right. Brandon can lead in his way, Greg can lead in his way.

“You’re starting to see a lot of people stepping into their roles and not afraid to challenge for that role of leadership.”

In his 21 years with the Pistons, Kander probably was never busier than he was this summer given the level of activity in the practice facility. He is effusive in his enthusiasm for the quality of character Joe Dumars has assembled with this bunch, for their eagerness to work and the way they embrace coaching and his guidance.

“The commitment I’ve seen started a while back,” he said. “It started early, with Rodney (Stuckey, who encouraged many of his teammates to spend big chunks of the off-season in Auburn Hills), Greg, committing time, pretty much everybody.”

He loves how the young players arrive and get right to business, not just logging hours in the gym but making it their mission every day to do something that makes them better.

“It’s been a building process,” he said. “I haven’t seen this level of competing in games (in summers past) – no bickering, no arguing, and guys don’t want to end games. They want to keep playing. We’ve made competitive tweaks, putting the shot clock at 16 seconds. Normally, guys might complain, but this year, with the no-nonsense we’ve committed to, they get right to it. They realize it makes them compete, get right into action. It’s not take the ball up slowly; you’ve got to push it.”

Players are given benchmarks for body weight and body fat percentage to start the off-season. Kander anticipates everyone will pass with flying colors. Already, he starts conditioning drills with sprints: three sets of six lengths of the court each. Guards are expected to do it in 27 to 29 seconds, forwards 29 to 31, centers 31 to 33. Nobody has failed to do it yet, most beating the mark by a few seconds.

“I’m seeing consistent times, not fatiguing, not getting tired, not complaining. That’s been, to me, the best indication of where guys are with their mental states in regard to their commitment and what we’re trying to do here.”

After a few trying seasons brought on by a confluence of factors, including the pending sale of the franchise followed by the transition of ownership and a lockout, Kander is positively buoyant heading into this season at the positive energy and camaraderie flowing through the practice facility.

“I can’t say enough good things about these kids,” he said. “They make it fun. I enjoy what I do, but it’s more fun to watch their smiles. It’s fun to talk about these guys. It really is.”

Check back Friday. I’ll have Kander’s quick individual observations on working with a number of Pistons players over the summer.