Illinois Strength & Conditioning coach Jimmy Price works with a player's whole body in helping him develop his maximum potential as a basketball player. But one thing all players want to improve is their vertical jump. They want to outleap opponents for shots and rebounds, and they want to excite the crowd with acrobatic dunks.
The vertical can be improved, but it is a complex process.
"We start with three things," Price relates. "One, we stabilize the ankles. If you're jumping off an unstable surface, you're not transferring as much force. If your ankles are unstable, your knees are gonna be unstable, you're hips are gonna be unstable.
"Two, we establish a strength base. Good squat form, good technique. Three, we start plyometrics and jumping. That's just processing your body weight under the influence of gravity with minimum force. That's where we start. Typically, we'll see pretty good results if you stick to those things."
While the vertical is on everyone's mind, lateral explosion is at least as important, especially for wing players. Exercises to improve lateral movement are essential.
"Basketball is more lateral based. Probably 75% of movements on the court are lateral. Everybody puts a huge emphasis on vertical, but that's maybe 15% of what you're gonna actually perform on the court.
"With the guards, we do more lateral-based movements because it's better for them to be able to create space laterally than to just jump off two feet. Most of their movements are created off of one leg in a lateral plane of movement. We'll do agility, lateral balance and step-up blocks, etc."
How much improvement can one make in their vertical and lateral explosion?
"I've seen as much as 5'"-6" improvement in vertical in a year. That's probably the most I've seen. A kid with really tight hips, very weak hamstrings and glutes, did all the ankle stability work and got stronger, gained that much from presummer to post season. Maybe not as much on the lateral.
"For lateral gains, it more like a visual judgment than a specific measurement. Are their knees more stable, do they have knee pain, can they get by people they couldn't get by before, are they able to cut people off? Trent Meacham made big gains in terms of lateral movements since he got here. He couldn't stop anybody when he first got here. Last year he was a key defensive stopper for us."
From Price's perspective, these exercises have a benefit far beyond vertical and lateral explosion.
"One of the things that's more overlooked than anything is the rehabilitation and prevention spectrum of things. Ankle stability, calf strength, tendon strength and flexibility of hamstrings and glutes is very key."
A daily component of pregame and prepractice conditioning is a drill Price uses to prepare the players for maintaining a proper defensive stance. They sit in a crouch, take a couple steps to one side and back, and then to the other side. After a few of these, Price has them hold the crouch for an extended position. He explains the value of the exercise.
"It's for getting in condition for defense and to develop some mental toughness. The shot clock is 35 seconds, so that's a period of time they may have to be in a defensive stance. Maybe they do that 4 or 5 straight trips.
"One, it's a conditioning thing. Two, it's a different strength because you're in a biomechanically strong position. You have to sit in that good posture. Half of being quick and being able to react is being prepared to move.
"If you're standing straight up with your back rounded over, your hips are too high, your butt's up and your chest is down, you can't react and move. It's gonna take you a lot longer to move to a certain position than if you're ready to move. You're reaction time is gonna be better, and maybe you get a steal or whatever.
"Half of moving is being prepared to move and being in position to move. That's more the discipline aspect of things, making sure if the ball's on the opposite side you're not relaxed. You're not over there kind of in la-la land but you're ready, you're down in stance, you're prepared to react."
The effectiveness of any drill or exercise is determined primarily by the dedication of the athlete. Price works on mental preparation daily.
"I'm not gonna tell you something that will help you be mediocre. I'm gonna say this is what you need to do to be a champion, to compete to be the best. You're already here, why not put in a little bit of extra work? Why not take an extra step?
"It doesn't involve that much more effort. That's the mental approach. That's why you have Michael Jordans, that's why you have Kevin Garnetts, the people that are very good. You may have some guys with similar talent, but they didn't achieve the same result."
Price's biggest battle is encouraging the dedication to excel among the players. Some have it naturally, some develop it over time, and some look for the easy way out. He can tell them what to do, but he can't force them to do it without their cooperation.
"Can you not do it, or are you making a decision not to do it? That's the small details of things. We're always emphasizing that."
Part three will discuss specific Illini players and the efforts they are making to improve.