Jonas Jerebko, more than an hour into another workout during what amounts to an extended personal training camp, gets an impish sparkle in his eyes as he throws down a dunk during a drill in which Arnie Kander has admonished him before: “No dunking!”
But that’s as far as he pushes it. Kander’s told him no basketball this summer – two on two, five on five, half court, full court – and Jerebko, to no one’s surprise, is dutifully following orders.
“He’s a great student,” the Pistons’ strength and conditioning coach says of Jerebko, who missed all of what should have been his second NBA season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the preseason opener last October.
Kander has no question that Jerebko, who will head back to his native Sweden in early July, will return to Auburn Hills on course for a full-fledged return to basketball. Jerebko doesn’t know when that return is due, he says, a nod to the possibility of a July 1 NBA work stoppage. But he’ll dutifully follow the rehabilitation blueprint Kander has mapped out for him.
“He could be in Alaska, he could be in Sweden – he knows his routine,” Kander said. “He’s someone who really understands the concepts, what’s behind it, the foundation of the movement. That’s what you’re looking for – someone who really takes it to heart. It’s not just a step-by-step process, it’s a true understanding.”
Kander even leans on Jerebko to show other players how to execute exercise movements.
“He’s almost a mentor,” he said. “I would say, ‘Show him the shoulder routine. Show him the legs. Show him what we’ve been doing with the back.’ ”
Jerebko is itching to play competitive basketball and is confident he’s ready for it, but Kander would prefer most young players – not just ones coming off of injury – to devote their summers to repetitive drill work that builds strength and endurance while simultaneously expanding their comfort level with the basketball in their hands. Kander builds almost all of his exercise routines around ballhandling drills.
“They produce movements over and over to the point of mundane,” he said, “but you have to do it to get it in your body to know all the edges. Repeat it and repeat it – how to push this way, how to push across, get in better shape. That’s the type of conditioning I like to see, not just going up and down the court.”
Jerebko, Kander says, is about at 85 to 90 percent along in his recovery with the final 10 percent really just about regaining strength in the muscles of the right leg and building endurance of the muscles along with the strength.
“You have to relate strength and endurance,” he said. “How long can they maintain that strength before the leg fatigues? Of course, it will fatigue quicker than the non-surgical side. So that’s why we don’t dunk. I want to see how high you can finish without dunking. A dunk is just over the rim, but a high finish is up here” – Kander holds his arm a foot above a tabletop – “over the rim. I want to see it off your left, off your right, and look to see if he’s starting to drop down in his jump. To watch him, you don’t see much difference with either side. You have to look closely.”
There is still a noticeable difference – though not a big one, and a smaller difference than even a month or two ago – in the size of Jerebko’s right calf compared to his left. Part of that, Kander said, is that the left calf grew bigger while compensating after the injury to the right leg.
“After the injury, you load the non-surgical side so much – you’re on crutches, you build that one up even more. So this isn’t even the norm any more.”
But rebuilding the muscle size is a tedious process. Kander said he still sees a difference in the sizes of Elton Brand’s legs, nearly four years after Brand suffered an Achilles tear.
Kander does strength testing to measure left and right legs, but he always trusts what his eyes tell him as he watches Jerebko in drills to see how he holds up at the onset of muscle fatigue.
“I go by when their mechanics become perfect and they can keep those mechanics and perfect them over and over,” he said. “They’re not simple drills we’re doing. We’re not just doing layups. You’re coming off hard, one dribble, go up, lots of angle cuts.”
Jerebko has bulked up to 240 pounds, about 15 more than he played at during his rookie season, and Kander says it’s “true weight.”
“That’s a good weight for him and he’s maintaining it,” he said. “It’s one thing to get to 240 and then you start to run and you go to 230. We’ve been able to maintain that with running, which to me is true weight. You want to build endurance into the muscle strength. All along, we’ve been running and holding that weight. He’ll lose a little when we get into training camp. Not a lot, though, because this is a modified training camp – an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes of pretty intense, hard movements. We’re just giving him a little bit more recovery time.”
Recovery time – that’s something Jerebko has had in abundance since last October. Whenever the real training camp arrives, no one will dare tell him he can’t dunk.