Raptors Banking On Big Payoff From Improved Movement

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.comWhen Amir Johnson is on the court, his effort isn’t ever doubted. Johnson has become one of the most important players for the Toronto Raptors because of his willingness to do —and recognize — whatever is needed from him. 

“When [Amir] gets going, everybody [gets excited],” Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan said. “He’s our heart and soul.”

With Johnson, the most important task facing Toronto’s coaching and support staff is keeping him on the floor. Notorious for playing through injuries, Johnson has been plagued by recurring ankle sprains. In an effort to get his body right for this season, Johnson spent a chunk of his summer in Santa Barbara, Calif., joining Patrick Patterson at P3 — Peak Performance Project — learning how to correct things that were putting his body at a greater risk.

At P3, sports scientists and doctors are dedicated to gathering extensive information on each athlete to determine problem areas and help create a personalized training regimen to improve them. 

“Everything we do is about movement,” Marcus Elliott, founder and director of P3, said. “We assess these guys when we’re putting them in a 3D-motion analysis lab. Studying everything about how they move, create force, and how they operate in a performance environment similar to a basketball court.”

Patterson was effusively detailed in his praise for the training centre.

“They have a specific area that’s a building that’s for athlete training, non-basketball stuff,” Patterson said. “You’re there every day then after that a trainer goes to a basketball court and you do basketball. They have a foot specialist, doctors, all types of specialists there to help get your injuries healed and 100% percent. 

“They definitely pick out and pinpoint each problem area you have and make it better.”

The problem areas for Johnson were obvious. Years of rolling his ankles — and playing on bad sprains — had left them weak. P3’s testing revealed that Johnson was landing on his toes, increasing his risk of sprains.

It was Patterson’s second summer with P3. The longer a player works with them, the more detailed their folder becomes.

“The first thing [they] do is test you to see physically, everything you have,” Patterson said. “They put you in this video game costume and they tell you if you have progressed or if you have had not had progress during the year. They tell you what your weaknesses are, [as well as] your strengths they want you to improve on. You tell them what your problem areas are and from day one they help you hone in on that.”

Small Changes, Big Potential Payoff

After sharing the data with Johnson and explaining the importance of landing with his feet in dorsiflex position (landing on his feet rather than toes), P3 worked with him to get him comfortable with learning how to plant his feet after a jump. While it sounds like a simple tweak, the payoff could be huge.

Johnson showed everyone the bounce in his step during Toronto’s season opening victory against the Atlanta Hawks with a 16-point, 10-rebound, four-block performance. Known for easing his way into the things, Johnson’s game looked regular-season ready.

“It feels solid,” Johnson said. “Maybe not stamina-wise, not all the way there [yet], but physical wise, strength wise, I feel solid. That stamina’s going to pick up.”

He feels good and the results are undeniable.

“His lower body power is up about 12 percent which is meaningful,” Elliott said. “That means he’s jumping another three inches. His acceleration is slightly better, too. His lateral movement has improved. All of those performance pieces are important, but the biggest piece is keeping him on the court.”

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wasn’t expecting such a spirited performance on opening night from his 10-year veteran, but was thrilled to see the rewards of an offseason focusing in on attention to detail.

“He’s always got some nicks,” Casey said on Thursday. “That’s why you love him so much, because he’s always a warrior and plays through all of that. Last night was a product of him feeling good about himself. His body feeling good.”

Now that he’s away from Santa Barbara and daily sessions with the specialists, Johnson knows the key to continued improvement is commitment.

“It’s just [about] maintenance,” Johnson said. “After the season I went to go see three three doctors to ask if I needed surgery. They said I didn't really need it. I went ahead and made sure I did the right stuff [with P3] to make sure my ankles were strong. I did that all summer and I feel good.”