TORONTO — Jonas Valanciunas stands on the charity stripe in an empty arena, surrounded by a diamond of orange pylons set up around the free throw circle, each with an LED light affixed to its top. He wears a red Raptors training shirt, black shorts and white shoes, waiting patiently with his legs spread just past shoulder-width apart and the bemused resting look he steadily features plastered across his face.
Alex McKechnie looks on. He’s the Toronto Raptors Director of Sports Science, a unique position created specifically for him which means the gregarious Scot’s fingerprints are all over every aspect of the team’s strength, conditioning and rehabilitation programs. Six weeks ago he watched Valanciunas fracture his left hand’s ring finger while driving up to the basket in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Most people saw misfortune in that play. McKechnie saw an opportunity.
Suddenly, one of the LEDs directly in front of Valanciunas flares up and the big Lithuanian darts forward to wave his hand over the light, which senses the motion and turns off. As the LED in front of him is deactivated, the one behind him comes to life, and Valanciunas scrambles backwards to nullify the threat. Then it’s the one to his right, then in front of him again, then to his left, and on and on for 24 seconds in total, as Valanciunas scrambles around the circle, being careful to maintain a low centre of gravity and proper positioning while focusing on speed.
At the end of the round Valanciunas stands up straight and goes for a brief walk, his hands swaying at his sides with the injured one braced and taped tight. The lights instantaneously feed information on Valanciunas’s reaction times and pace into a tablet in McKechnie’s hands, which accumulates the data and measures his improvement over past sessions. Working in short, high-intensity shifts, Valanciunas returns from his walk and goes again. And again, and again. For six long weeks.
This is how McKechnie had Valanciunas spend his time while the Raptors starting centre waited for his hand to heal. While the injury precluded Valanciunas from working on his shooting or dribbling or even weight training (he worked to maintain his upper body strength using pulley systems tied around his wrists), it didn’t limit what he could do with his feet, which is why McKechnie designed a thorough training program shortly after the big man was injured with the goal of improving his quickness, agility and footwork.
"We took it as an opportunity," McKechnie says. "The injury was an unfortunate situation. But we took a different thrust with it and actually got a lot of good work done with his feet."
In concert with the Raptors coaching staff and Jon Lee, the team’s strength and conditioning coach who did much of the heavy lifting when it came to running Valanciunas through his workouts, McKechnie set out to improve the seven-footer’s work without the ball. They used the LED light system—a FitLight Trainer, officially—as well as a Catapult vest to measure Valanciunas’s movement and exertion, as well as analyze his balance and how he was loading his weight on each foot when moving laterally. They ran him through gauntlets of agility and footwork drills, working in those 24-second patterns in order to accustom his legs and feet to moving aggressively when closing space.
Sometimes they would vary the colours of the lights and instruct Valanciunas to only touch the ones that flashed red or blue to test his reactions. Other times they would affix the lights to freestanding poles of varying heights surrounding Valanciunas in order to increase the physical challenge. The idea is to make Valanciunas smoother and fleeter on his feet, and allow him to work more effectively when he doesn’t have the ball and must hustle to set screens and create space for his teammates.
"The footwork is sometimes missed because everybody who wants to play basketball wants to just pick up the ball and shoot. But people tend to forget that most of the work is done off the ball," McKechnie says. "There’s 10 people on the court at all times and there’s only one ball. So when you actually look at it and figure out how many times a player touches the ball in 48 minutes, it’s not a whole lot."
McKechnie also had the Raptors revisit Valanciunas’s nutrition plan and design a new diet for the 255-pounder, which allowed him to lose some weight and, as McKechnie puts it, "lean him out." While he wasn’t facing the physical demands of playing in games, he was burning plenty of calories from the high-intensity agility training, which allowed Valanciunas to actually improve his conditioning while sitting on the bench for 17 straight games.
"It’s about identifying where his breakdowns are and where his weaknesses lie," McKechnie says. "If it were an ankle or a knee then we couldn’t do these things; we’d have to address the whole program differently. But a fracture’s a fracture—it’s going to heal when it’s going to heal. So, we treat locally, but we rehab globally. The rehab program is a complete body program."
Valanciunas will never be one of the most graceful, fluid players in the NBA. In fact, the best parts of his game are generally when he’s using his sturdiness and power to set screens and create offence from within the paint. But McKechnie and the Raptors figure that if they can increase Valanciunas’ agility and the quickness of his footwork even just slightly, it will given him an added edge and continue to aid the 23-year-old’s development.
"You have to maximize your potential at all times," McKechnie says. "We identified some of the areas that he was lacking in a little bit and worked towards developing quick movement patterns in different directions. We call them aggressive movement patterns—functional movement from proximal to distal."
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey marveled at how well Valanciunas played in the first half of his first game since the injury in Chicago earlier this week ("He was active—full of juice," Casey said). He then watched as Valanciunas started Wednesday night’s win against Washington with a flurry, putting up six points and three rebounds in his first seven minutes.
Valanciunas remains far from a perfect player, but he’s clearly getting better. And that’s not the easiest thing to do when you take six weeks off from the game.
"Sometimes when injuries happen you have to take the good with the bad," McKechnie says. "You say, okay, we can bring him back in a different form or a different shape and make this a positive thing. That’s how we looked at it."