”We don't just throw people in workouts with Steph. We know you're the no.1 player in the state and that's cute, but you have to earn your way into that workout." That's what Brandon Payne, Steph Curry's trainer told his other client, Jaylen Brown when he asked to see how the unanimous MVP does it. Once Jalen finally earned the chance to work out with Steph, a doughy rookie from Slovenia joined the workout and instantly proved he has what it takes.
The most important muscle...
...is the one between your ears. Not just from thinking the game level - the top-level workout guys are thinking about skill and athleticism improvement in terms of neuroscience. Brandon Payne is at the top of that game.
I guess what he saw from Luka playing in Europe convinced Payne enough to grant Luka the opportunity to work out with Steph - the same opportunity Brown has been asking for and proving himself worthy for years. Here's Payne describing the scene on The Habershow podcast. ”A day or two before the workout, I got a call from Bill Duffy [Luka's agent], saying 'Luka's going to be in town, and we'd like to have him work out with you.'”
Payne said OK, but let Duffy know Brown is also going to be there, implying the level of work is going to be elite. He knew Brown was ready for it; Luka was still more of a question mark. But Duffy knew what he was asking and started prepping Payne that Luka might not be in top shape, given he had just won Euroleague MVP playing a long season for Real Madrid and Slovenia.
“We get those three guys in a workout. For Luka, given it was his first time seeing any of the stuff that we did, it was incredibly hard. The thing that struck me, the guy had a smile on his face the entire time - he was eating it up. It'd be a rough 30 seconds or a minute of something, and you'd see it smooth out, he'd start to get it.”
That's what the elite coaches are looking for in a franchise cornerstone. Luka didn't just have the right attitude, but he enjoyed sucking at something as it meant it was an opportunity to improve. It didn't take long for Dončić to figure stuff out on the fly, meaning he was using the most important muscle in his body.
“Luka started finding his rhythm. He didn't shoot it as well as he wanted to that day, but you could tell he was a guy that was going to pick things up quickly. You could also tell his ability to stop and change directions, even not being in the greatest of shapes that day, and that's one of the most underrated things folks don't realise - how these guys were able to create space.”
The mental dedication required to be on the highest level is probably what fans underrate the most - particularly the mental dedication that goes into everything we don't see. When we work out, we're on our phones, often doing things to satisfy a number— x number of reps, y number of sets. For top-level athletes, a lot of focus and dedication goes into every single thing they do, the quality of everything they do.
Look past the drill
So who's the best guy that came in for a workout with Steph and figured things out quickly? Michael Alex Conley Jr. In a short period of time, Conley managed to catch up and maximize the workout. The crucial part is what Payne means when he says someone was impressive in a workout.
“A lot of it is this. In order for players to come in and really attack how we're trying to do things, they have to be able to look past the drill. They have to be able to locate the layers of benefits that come from each drill. If you're a surface guy, you're going to have a hard time going through this stuff, because you're not gonna understand how it's helping you. Guys that are deeper thinkers, guys that ask questions, typically do a bit better.”
Some guys work out to get it done for the day. Others attack each workout with an intensity and dedication of a playoff game. The mental strength to do that each day is what makes a difference in a Game 7. That gets you to a place where dropping 49 seems like a normal thing.