It’s Halloween night in 2015, and the NBA is about to tilt on its axis.
Stephen Curry catches the ball mid-stride at the Smoothie King Center and 6’11” Anthony Davis, pedaling backward, cranes his upper body to the side like the top half of a twisting LEGO toy. The two meet 28 feet from the rim.
Davis looks active, agile, even predatory. He intrudes into Curry’s bubble and pokes the ball away, chiding the 6’3” guard with the invocation that basketball remains the domain of giants.
Curry recovers the ball at 30 feet and Davis, believing his own 7’6” wingspan is a security blanket, doesn’t follow him. He’s already on his toes, ready for take-off if the greatest shooter in the world launches a cruise missile steps from the half-court logo. In a split-second, Curry does just that. Davis pounces, but the ball arcs over his extended arms and drops into the net.
It is the NBA’s big bang. Curry proved that geometry can trump size, and they’ve been waging a war ever since.
Specialization is causing most athletes in other sports to get bigger or faster, but the NBA can’t decide whether it prefers speed or size, so it’s asking big men to do both. The game’s evolution is pushing the most athletic bodies to their logical extremes.
“When you’re big, a lot of times it’s hard to control where each joint is in space,” says Eric Leidersdorf, Director of Biomechanics at Peak Performance Project, or P3. “These guys have such long levers — their femurs, their thighs, their shins. It’s harder for them to control what’s going on at the end of that lever, which is where your knee is, where your ankle is. Those forces are so much bigger simply by being longer.”
“The big man position isn’t dying. It’s just, you know, transforming.”—Earl Ramsey
And few big men can keep up. Kristaps Porzingis could only be large, fast, and accurate from three-point range for so long before he tore his ACL last season. Derrick Favors has been plagued by knee ailments his entire career. Joel Embiid still induces anxiety when he falls to the floor. Davis himself missed 68 games through his first four seasons. So it raises the question: Did we call them unicorns because they were never meant to exist?
Davis, for one, is fighting back. He overhauled his diet and workout regimen two years ago and has only missed 10 games since. And the league has not given up on the allure of size, either: Five of the top seven picks in this year’s NBA draft were bigs.
The new crop is more agile than their predecessors. They are tech-savvy body-surveillors, trained with the knowledge of what the league now requires of them, and they are ready to battle against extinction.
“The big man position isn’t dying,” says Earl Ramsey, who trains Kings rookie Marvin Bagley III. “It’s just, you know, transforming.”
Pick-and-roll defense in today’s NBA requires making an inevitable trade-off. Playing conservatively means protecting against 3-pointers, but risking isolation baskets and layups on rolls. Playing aggressively means trapping those plays hard, but helping off shooters.
It’s July 10, 2018, nearing the end of the first quarter of a Las Vegas Summer League game, and the spindly, 7’1” prospect traps a Lakers pick and roll and almost intercepts the exit pass. He darts into the paint, nearly swiping Jeff Ayres on the block. When Ayres passes to the corner, Robinson gallops at the speed of the moving ball and swats DeMarcus Holland’s 3-point attempt.
Robinson’s pogo-stick hops and hand-flailing motions are solving the bargain defenses have made since the turn of the decade. The game is dictated by space, and Robinson shrinks the court. His skeletal frame and second-step explosiveness both delight and terrify Knicks fans, recalling Porzingis.
Robinson finishes the summer averaging four blocks a game, a Las Vegas record. While Trae Young, the draft’s third pick and potential heir apparent to Curry, struggles, Robinson looks like the future.
But he must learn from Davis’s past.
By the 2015-2016 season, Davis had accumulated impressive hardware for a 23-year-old: Rookie of The Year; two All Star appearances; and All-NBA and All-Defense bids. He was an MVP candidate-in-waiting, but injuries threatened to stymie his potential.
Indeed, Davis’ season ended in late March 2016 when he went under the knife to get a knee scope.
Making matters worse, doubts surrounded the Pelicans’ training staff, some of whom were reassigned from the Saints because the two franchises are chaired by the same ownership group. The Pelicans led the league in games and salary lost to injury or illness that season. An April 2016 ESPN story highlighted their old-school approach to injury prevention, led by now-former head athletic trainer Duane Brooks, who had been promoted to the Pelicans’ job after working with the Saints for 12 years. (He left the Pelicans this offseason and now works for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.)
Over time, the Pelicans made changes to revamp their training staff and methods. The team invested in new technology, including Catapult, a cryotherapy chamber, and a vibration massage machine. They hired assistant physical therapist Todd Campbell at the start of the 2015-16 season and later promoted Jason Sumerlin, who spent five years with the Spurs — vanguards of injury prevention — to head strength coach.
Dr. Misty Suri, who also worked with the Saints, was brought in as the team’s head physician and director of medical services following the 2015-16 disaster. (The Saints ultimately fired him when one of their player’s injury was misdiagnosed, but he stayed with the Pelicans.)
“The guys they had before Jason, they were more football,” says Marcell Scott, Davis’ personal trainer. “You can’t train everybody the same. They’re two different sports. You’ve got players that are 5’2” [sic] and you’ve got players that are 7’2” in the NBA. That’s what their problem was before. But the guy they have in place now, he really focuses on their body movement, so he knows how to deal with it better. They got better.”
Davis has always been strong, but that strength didn’t always translate to the dynamic, awkward positions players find themselves in mid-game.
Following his knee surgery, Davis’s braintrust convened to solve a $100 million Rubix Cube: how to stabilize his lengthy joints so he could withstand blows from opponents who outweighed him by 20 pounds, without compromising his God-like agility.
Years of pushing weights to catch up to an eight-inch growth spurt in high school left Davis with a litany of biomechanical imbalances. He had the torque, the hypermobility, and length, but the smaller muscles that supported his bigger, more developed muscles were weak. So was his core.
“I thought maybe we can improve his mechanics, his ability to absorb shock, his efficiency with running,” Dr. Suri says.
The dumbbells hit the shelf, replaced by yoga mats and exercise bands. The treadmill gave way to low-impact cardio: boxing, cycling, beach volleyball, and exercises in the pool.
One particular exercise involves Davis dipping to the bottom of a single-leg squat. Sumerlin put a 225-pound bar on his back and has Davis raise up just an inch and hold for 20 seconds.
“We started focusing on balance and trying to maintain a strong base,” Scott says. “That was a problem. When he got hit in the air, he’d always get off balance and fall to the ground and get injured.”
Davis has always been strong, but that strength didn’t always translate to the dynamic, awkward positions players find themselves in mid-game.
“We’re doing end-range strengthening,” Sumerlin says. “We’re trying to get him as low as possible, like when he’s playing defense or he’s on the block and he’s taking a stride and doing a counter move.”
Hip stability and strength are the holy grail for big men. They’re key to explosive lateral movement and determining how efficiently the knees track while running, according to P3’s Leidersdorf. The squat position extends Davis’s hips to the end of their range of motion, a process they repeated for other joints.
“He’s off the chart, he’s so hyper mobile,” Sumerlin says. “Now we’re trying to strengthen in there. You’re not going to see injuries in the shoulders, the toes, the hips, the ankles, stuff like that — knock on wood.”
It’s Feb. 10, 2018, and the Pelicans are in double-overtime against the Brooklyn Nets, after losing in Philadelphia 24 hours earlier. Davis is lined up at center court, readying himself to play his 46th minute of the night. The Pelicans have dropped five of their last six games after DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles, and are in danger of falling out of the playoff race.
Davis wins the tip-off and unlocks an extra gear. He scores six points, grabs four rebounds, and picks Spencer Dinwiddie’s pocket in the final OT to lead New Orleans to victory. He finishes with 44 points, 17 rebounds, six steals, and three blocks on the night.
In the two games before the All Star break, Davis drops 38 and 42 points, respectively, in back-to-back Pelicans wins. This burst couldn’t have arrived a moment sooner.
When Cousins got hurt, the medical staff had a “come to Jesus moment,” as Sumerlin puts it, with Davis and Jrue Holiday, who spent the season dipping in and out of the league’s top-10 in minutes played.
The Pelicans leaned heavily on the WHOOP Strap — a fitness wearable that resembles an Apple Watch. It measures imbalances between the sympathetic nervous system — think fight-or-flight response — and the parasympathetic, which relaxes the body.
Davis’s sleep, workouts, and practice minutes — practically any activity he performed throughout the day — were monitored and sent to the medical staff, who determined how much time he needed to spend in a parasympathetic state. That could mean any number of things: more time in the hot tub, more cryotherapy and yoga, less weight training, fewer minutes.
“We progressed them to play the minutes they did at the end of the season and all the way through the playoffs,” Sumerlin says. “We knew that it was coming. We just had to prep for it as best we could.”
In that moment, the Pelicans needed Davis to be in nearly all the time to save their season. It was a risky proposition in a league that is increasingly concerned with minutes management, but the Pelicans believed the new and improved Davis could handle it, especially if they ramped up his recovery.
Davis finished the season playing 36.4 minutes per game — eighth-highest in the NBA — but it’s a trade-off he and the Pelicans’ medical staff accept.
That meant no more cheat meals or slipping out after losses because he was too angry to seethe in the cold tub. If WHOOP data said Davis wasn’t getting enough sleep, it meant sneaking in a nap. Down the stretch, both Davis and Holiday were held out of multiple team practices.
The privacy concerns triggered by devices like the WHOOP are as inevitable as their spread. LeBron James, who led the league in minutes last season while playing all 82 games, uses one. So do some members of the Clippers. Holiday started using one with his trainer Mike Guevara, who is now also a consultant for the Pelicans. Eventually, Holiday bought straps for the team.
Participation is voluntary. Some players on the Pelicans have chosen not to use it, and the Pelicans’ coaches and front office executives don’t have access to the data. They don’t know who only got two hours of sleep, and who was drinking all weekend.
The medical staff’s job isn’t to lecture players on their lifestyle. It’s to measure strain and adjust workload and make suggestions accordingly.
“If I know he only got three hours of sleep, I’m going to change my workout program,” Sumerlin says. “If he had a good quality of sleep, he can probably have a heavier day in the weight room.”
Davis held up, leading the Pelicans to 48 wins and a surprise sweep of the higher-seeded Blazers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. They ultimately fell to the Warriors in five games in the second round.
He finished the season playing 36.4 minutes per game — eighth-highest in the NBA — but it’s a trade-off Davis and the Pelicans’ medical staff accept. He also played a career-high 75 games, as he did the season before, and his goal is to play all 82 this season.
With that in mind, seven weeks after the season’s end, Davis is in a gym in New Orleans, where Scott is devising a drill that compresses a two-hour workout into 25 minutes: two circuits of 25 single-leg squats on both sides; 100 crunches; shoulder press; push-ups; and so forth — one exercise for each muscle group.
“If you train slow, you’re gonna play slow,” Scott says. “If you train fast, you’re gonna play fast. It helps you get through fatigue faster. We always train for the fourth quarter.”
Afterward, Davis’s knees are weak. He bumbles out of the arena, desperate for fresh air, drenched in sweat and on the verge of puking, undertaking the exacting task of excising the old to make room for the new.
Tucked away in a gymnasium at Sierra Canyon High School in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles, Marvin Bagley III is glistening. He catches the ball at the wing, faces up against his trainer, Earl Ramsey, and makes a bee-line drive to the rim for a dunk. Later, the 2018 No. 2 overall pick dribbles between his legs, crossing over on Ramsey’s cue and pulling up for step-back jumpers.
Gone are the days of dialing up Hakeem Olajuwon and learning to Dream Shake. The 6’11” Sacramento Kings rookie has spent the summer guarding the switch on pick-and-rolls, doing dribbling exercises, and borrowing face-up moves from Paul George. He’s practiced Kevin Durant’s two-dribble pull-ups and watched old tape of Danny Granger and Rudy Gay.
He’s also been an early adopter in the biomechanics revolution for bigs: Bagley first had his biomechanical profile scrutinized when he was 17 years old — before he even went to college.
“Guys like Marvin are exciting for us because they’ve taken their development on at a young age,” Leidersdorf says. “There are a lot of factors that contribute to an athlete sustaining an injury, but they’ve given themselves some good tools early on that should help them have a productive career, which counts for a lot. I think we’ve seen that slowly shift in basketball over the last handful years.”
Ramsey says Bagley is “wiry strong” and shouldn’t bulk up. He emphasizes building core strength through a steady diet of resistance band training, yoga, and plyometrics. Analysts who saw Bagley as a defensive liability built for a bygone league balked when the Kings selected him at No. 2, but Ramsey considers Bagley position-less and believes he has the tools to stay in front of quicker guards.
“Switching on Marvin will probably be a bad idea for most people,” Ramsey says. “He can sit down. He can really play D.”
Bagley will have to prove it. The league has run roughshod over big men who were too slow to adjust to the modern game, and Bagley’s on-court skills are not natural fits for the modern NBA. But unlike his predecessors, Bagley has a head-start, equipped early with the blueprint and technology to catch up.
“In general we would suggest that young big men, especially entering the NBA today, are a little more physically prepared than their counterparts have been a few years back,” Leidersdorf says.
It’s late July, and inside another high school gym — this one in Chalmette, just west of New Orleans — Mitchell Robinson spends the morning in the weight room.
The Knicks’ 20-year-old rookie trudges ahead with the delicate experiment of being big, fast, and healthy at the same time. He works out his shoulders so he can absorb contact while driving, but he doesn’t want to impede his lift.
Afterward, Marcell Scott, the trainer transforming Davis, leads him to the pool.
“It was God’s gift that I was actually able to work with [Davis] and figure out how his body rotates and moves laterally, because I train Mitchell the same way now,” Scott says.
Robinson steps into the pool and runs backward and forward, then sideways. He is mimicking basketball movements, performing defensive slides and squats.
The water at his hips, he’s pushing back against resistance, inching toward a future that belongs to him.