- Sean M. Haffey/Getty
- One of the biggest adjustments NBA rookies have to make is keeping up with the physicality of the NBA.
- That adjustment can be challenging, as the schedule can leave little time for rookies to work on their bodies.
- It can take years before young NBA players are fully adjusted to the physicality of the league.
- There is also a mental adjustment that rookies must make in the NBA that can make staying on the floor even tougher.
When NBA rookies enter the league, they face many challenges – learning the playbook, cracking the rotation, living on their own, and handling the season’s travel demands, to name a few.
But perhaps the greatest challenge rookies face is the one of the most basic aspects of basketball – physically keeping up on the court.
This isn’t breaking news to anyone in the NBA, but it remains one of the roadblocks in developing rookies. The NBA world believes experience is crucial in developing young players, but in order to get meaningful experience, they have to be able to handle themselves on the court, and the physicality of the NBA is a true hurdle.
Brooklyn Nets 19-year-old rookie center Jarrett Allen’s answer about the physical adjustment spoke volumes.
“Playing against grown men, yeah,” he said, laughing, before a mid-January game against the San Antonio Spurs. “It [is] definitely tough.”
Age can be a major factor.
The one-and-done culture in college basketball has played a part in this struggle. Increasingly, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old players are leaving the college ranks to join the NBA to play against bigger, older, faster, and stronger players. Young players’ skills can be immediately evident, but their bodies, like their games, need to be refined over time.
“I think my rookie year I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready physically,” Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “Being able to have a whole summer just concentrating on my body, concentrating on the areas that I knew – trial and error – that I needed to get better at allowed me to make the next season stronger and just build on that.”
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Milwaukee Bucks GM Jon Horst compared the physical preparation of some of the Bucks’ recent rookies. Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and big man Thon Maker both entered the league at 19 years old, talented, but raw. Horst described them as “balls of clay,” being physically molded game by game, month by month, even still now.
Meanwhile, Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, the 2017 Rookie of the Year, was a four-year college player. Horst said Brogdon, at 22, was ready to play right away.
“[Young players], they’re just kinda trying to get to that point where they can physically keep up in this league throughout an entire season,” Horst said. “It’s a hard thing to do.”
To Jay Hernandez, a player development coach on the Orlando Magic, it goes beyond simply matching up with other players – it’s about learning how athletic other players are. For instance, a rookie guard may be able to match up against another guard, but they also have to learn to match up with the best athletes at other positions. For instance, a point guard may be able beat his man off the dribble, but he has to learn just how quickly help defenders can arrive.
The 82-game NBA schedule plays a big part, too. Like Conley, Horst said players have to save physical work for the offseason, because the regular season is simply too hectic.
“When you’re in the season, it’s really about maintaining,” Horst said. “It’s really hard, you just play so many minutes in so many games. It’s really hard to actually add a lot of strength and muscle and mass during a season.”
There’s a mental component, too.
Hernandez noted that in January, NBA rookies have already played more games than they would in a college season. There is a physical toll that all players pay, but for rookies, that mental adjustment makes it tougher.
“You get most tired when you’re thinking too much, your brain is working in overdrive, so that’s what happens to a lot of rookies,” Hernandez said. “They tend to be thinking about a lot of things at once. And obviously, the game is different, so you end up burning a lot of energy.”
Philadelphia 76ers guard J.J. Redick said that the game is so fast that long layoffs even leave him feeling a little behind.
“Even, like, coming back for preseason workouts, because I don’t play pickup during the summer, the first couple preseason games you gotta adjust,” he said.
Redick, however, said he thinks rookies can pick that up quicker than most people would expect/ Like Hernandez, he said the mental fatigue can take years to master.
“I think the thing that is sort of prevalent for any rookie … is making the adjustment to playing 82 games and playing essentially three to four games a week,” he said. “That takes a toll on your body and mind. The rookie wall to me is a real thing. There are certain times throughout the season where it’s hard to muster that energy that you have on Game 1 or a game after three days rest. There’s just certain games where you gotta create your own energy and it just doesn’t come as naturally. And not just rookies, I think sometimes young players, they don’t know how to do that yet.”
- Maddie Meyer/Getty
Player development is a balancing act in the NBA. Players can benefit from experience and from sitting out, learning hands-on or learning from afar. But there is no true method for mastering the basic aspect of the game – getting up and down the court and competing with other players.
“Some guys come in, they’re ready to rock, their bodies are just ready for the NBA, and it’s a quicker transition,” Horst said. “Other guys have to really work on their bodies so they can kinda keep up physically.”