It seems every year, rookies are getting more and more athletic. They’re jumping higher and running faster. But in the NBA track meet, unfortunately it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Start with training camp, where for a month straight you have two-a-day practices on top of eight preseason contests. Then you have that grueling 82-game grind that’s filled with long road trips, a dozen or so back-to-back games and infinite flights, hotels and bus rides. And if you’re on a good team, add another two weeks to two months of that routine to your season.
When you are a 19 to 22-year-old rookie, you are basically multiplying your college schedule by three. Eventually, those bodies and minds start to break a little and that’s when the “rookie wall” comes in. Most guys hit the infamous wall at some point in their inaugural NBA season.
“I think everybody hits [the wall],” says Knicks guard Larry Hughes, who was a rookie during the ’99 lockout season. “Everything is devoted to basketball and traveling, so you expect that. Probably now, a lot of rookies are probably feeling it, if they’re playing a lot of minutes. The thing is how fast you come out of it.”
The rookie wall is somewhat like the NBA’s version of Santa Clause. Some people believe in it, some people don’t. One person who knows it exists based on experience is Al Thornton. A rookie in ’07-08, the Clippers’ forward estimates he hit his rookie wall somewhere around the midpoint of the season.
“Your body becomes very lethargic after awhile,” recalls Thornton. “You just wake up tired. I remember I had four days off that year and it still felt like somebody beat me up when I got out of bed.”
When Hawks guard, Mike Bibby, was a rookie with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999, he described to Sports Illustrated what effects the “wall” was having on his body.
“I’m tired,” Bibby said in the article. “It feels like I’m running in sand sometimes. Today in practice I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere. Coach said to pick it up and go hard. I thought I already was going hard.”
Others refuse to buy into the rookie wall theory.
“The first thing I do is I try to reinstate in their head that [the wall] is a fictitious thing that we have created,” says longtime Denver Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess. “My belief is all these limits we set and we put into our minds. As soon as they mention it, I say, ‘I don’t even want to hear that. I don’t want to discuss it, I don’t even want to talk about it. You got to get this whole wall concept out of your head.”
Hess doesn’t like to use the term “rookie wall” he likes to call it a “drop in mental focus.” When their bodies start to look tired, Hess and his staff will do everything from alter a players’ diet and workout load to getting them messages. One thing he won’t do is let them use the wall as an excuse. He says he starts to see some first-year players start to break down around this time of season.
“It seems to be a little bit like when I was in university writing exams,” adds Hess. “And the last two days of exams you’re like, ‘what the hell is going on?’ It seems to be a drop in mental focus.”
“Why do some hit it and others don’t? So forget about that.”
The Clippers’ second-year guard, Eric Gordon is a perfect example of Hess’ point. As a rookie, the former Indiana standout averaged 18.1 ppg and 2.9 apg, while scoring double digits in every game except three after the start of January.
“I don’t think I hit the rookie wall last year,” says Gordon. “Actually towards the end of the year, I played a lot better.”
Rookie sensation Brandon Jennings is a perfect candidate for someone who could hit the wall. Although he is averaging an All-Star caliber 20.3 ppg, 6.2 apg, 3.9 rpg in 35.5 mpg, Jennings is frail (6-1, 165 pounds) and didn’t log a whole lot of minutes in Italy last season. So it’s a possibility that his numbers could take a hit in the next month or two.
For someone who’s been there, Thornton has advice to Jennings and every other rookie that is either experiencing the wall now, or will be soon.
“You have to take care of your body,” Thornton says. “You have to eat the right things, you have to get your rest, you have to stay with the trainers and stay on top of your treatment. That will help you get through it more smoothly.”
As for the mental aspect of it?
“You have to grind through it,” says Al. “There’s no easy way around it and you have to stick with it. You have to remember that this is what you signed up for.”
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