Thursday, May 14, 2015

Life Lessons In NBA Training Taught At Elev8

Lil Wayne's "Let The Beat Build" pumps vociferously through the speakers inside the built-in, 94x50 court at the D-Plex in Coconut Creek.

The man once synonymous with high school basketball in Kentucky, Darius Miller grapples through discernible fatigue while launching a series of 20-footers.

The music is cranked up a notch, mirroring the intensity which only the waning stages of a workout can necessitate.

Miller continues to let fly a fusillade of deep jumpers.

A sea of onlookers, with Elev8 Ganon Baker Basketball emblazoned on their shirts, paste star struck eyes on Miller.

Miller's form won't waver, the motion of his wrist and his release point steadied.

 Critics once pegged the lack of a deep jumper as the notable knock in Miller's game, albeit the issue seems rectified just about now.

Sweat cascades down Miller's XL white t-shirt profusely.

The 2011 SEC tournament MVP at Kentucky and the state's Mr. Basketball of 2008, Miller's role has been reduced to supplementary piece the last six years of his career.

A bruising and perilous scorer, blessed with Wolverine-sized hands and the build/athleticism blend of a tight end, Miller continues to fire in shots.

Rebounding and doling out passes is Cody Toppert, the professional basketball trainer who has diligently propelled him through three painstaking workouts this afternoon.

One of few homegrown products to play for head coach John Calipari at Kentucky, Miller was an integral piece on the Wildcats 2012 NCAA championship team.

Miller was simply a 10PPG scorer, he of the knack for floating above defenders and crunching home lob passes from Jeff Teague and Doron Lamb, though his role went well beyond that.

Miller was the vital veteran presence on a squad laced with callow freshmen.

 He was there for direction, praise, and the occasional earful that Coach Cal needed him to provide.

The glory of that championship is well in the rearview mirror.

Miller has yet to return to that stage of basketball nirvana.

Miller's hard-to-guard arsenal, underscored by a natural ability to bulldoze smaller defenders into the paint, vaulted him to local hero status in tiny Maysville, Ky.

 The road to sustained life in the professional ranks hasn't been as easy, with ditches and detours along the way.

In late November of 2014, Miller was cut from the New Orleans Pelicans. It was the first time in his life he'd been "cut," so to speak.

 For a guy who won a state championship and NCAA championship and garnered countless MVP and personal accolades along the way, it could be considered the considerable setback.

 Though it may have initially dented his psyche, Toppert's work helped Miller discover an inner X-factor.

There was no question, Miller wanted his second chance in the NBA. He could have weighed his professional stock overseas, penning a six figure deal without even glancing in the rearview.

With the help of Toppert, known for molding NBA draft prospects and fringe players for the rigors of the 82-game schedule and playoffs, Miller's NBA focus hasn't faltered.

At the D-Plex, sources of motivation are hard to find.

Distractions seem overwhelming.

There's a sparkling outdoor pool bordering the gym.

A quartet of scantily-clad women smack a volleyball around in the back entrance.

With the chlorophyll-green hibiscus plants and adorning the property and the white Range Rovers and souped-up BMWs stacked behind each other like dominos, there is a sense of South Florida prosperity to the joint.

Whether it is in-your-chest defensive pressure or excessive hand-checking, Toppert will not let Miller's focus wither.

Toppert, while pushing him through three hard workouts alongside Ganon Baker and Tony Falce, has helped smoothen over some of the mental aspects with Miller.

Using analogies and original motivational adages to hammer home his point, Toppert has also reminded Miller of the priority list he must subscribe to.

Miller now understands it. He's cognizant that he must hit corner three-pointers.

He must fight through sweat-soaked times and surf the chaos of intensified pressure. He must be a reliable source for knock down duties during those waning moments. He must make fitness a workaday commitment and more importantly, a life style.

If he adheres to these, Toppert reminds him, he'll be capable of turning a 10-day contract into an eventual 10-year contract.

As the music intensifies, the bass kicking in, so does the one-on-one workout. Heavily contesting Miller's shots and providing draping pressure, Toppert (Cornell's second all-time leader in 3-pointers with 237) ensures that every bucket must be earned.

"We've been applying drills like that to keep (Miller's) motor up the entire 50-60 minutes," said Baker, a world renowned NBA skill development guru, with clientele such as Lebron James and Kobe Bryant.

"Miller's heart rate is up. He's getting transition work. He's getting defensive mobility work. He's getting cuts, he's getting contact."

Molding the physical and mental toughness of young minds is Elev8's Tony Falce.

Possessing the build of a bar room brawling behemoth, Falce has helped push Miami Heat big man Chris "Birdman" Andersen out of his comfort zone.

 Falce's system has helped propel Andersen, once the introverted kid who toiled into obscurity. Initially failing to utilize his 6-foot-10 body to his advantage, Anderson has revitalized his career in the form of former CBA to NBA cover boys such as Ben Wallace and John Starks.

Incorporating the right footwork and manipulative post moves and awareness to his game, Andersen fled from the journeyman lifestyle.

No longer entrenched in a town-to-town basketball odyssey, including stops at Blinn Community College, The IBL, and the D-League, Andersen surfaced as a key cog on the 2013 NBA champion Miami Heat.

Once a 3-point triggerman at Cornell, where he and a core of highly-touted recruits passed up bigger offers to alter the Ivy League program's culture, Toppert's initial passion has evolved into a livelihood.

If the pressure of Ivy League academics seems overbearing, try playing for then-coach Steve Donahue.

Compliments do not come easy under either the coaching staff or the recruiting class with which Toppert emerged. Being able to handle excessive criticism in positive fashion, having the mental fortitude to withstand hardass discipline, which many confuse as "pressure," is essential for day-to-day survival in an environment which forever altered the perception of a once-downtrodden Ivy League program.

Thin skin, insecurities, and a failure to buy into team concepts would get you exposed in this system.

The militaristic meticulousness of the coaching staff, along Donahue's hardened style, were essential ingredients in resuscitating a program that struggled mightily prior to Toppert (Donahue's first recruit) and his class' arrival.

A fiery little guy with unbridled adrenaline surfing through his veins, Donahue was hard but fair.

 His no-nonsense style helped Cornell thrive, years after taking a back seat to Fran Dunphy's balanced, hot-shooting UPENN teams.

"We flat out learned the game," said Toppert, touching on his experience with Cornell's culture shift.

"We learned the habits necessary to win. He wanted us to create the future of Cornell Hoops and there was no option but to outwork everyone."

He continued, "Shootouts were all-out wars and we took some lumps and long bus rides, but the work paid off. Coach D's genius game planning kept us in game's against talent-rich programs."

Imploring him to realize the respect must be earned, Donahue had a simple understanding with his most reliable 3-point ace. Toppert would have a titanic green light with Donahue, as long as he didn't disappear or put together a clank fest on big stages.

Toppert answered, burying 7-for-10 from beyond the arc against Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick, and Gerry McNamara-led Syracuse.

Prior to this, Toppert seized the hot hand in a nationally televised home-opener against Georgia Tech, connecting on 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.

 Toppert poured in 21 points against New Mexico, pulling-and-popping from way beyond the arc.

 Fran Fraschilla, the head coach of New Mexico at the time, did not recruit Toppert despite his stature as one of the state's highest all-time scorers, lethal for his spurt-ability.

For much of the 03-04 season, the tandem Ka'ron Barnes and Toppert were the second highest scoring backcourt in the nation.

The first? St. Joe's (Pa.), a then-sleeper team featuring pitbull guard Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, both of whom went on to the NBA.

Donahue could be confrontational, demanding, ultra-tough and even personal. Toppert values their relationship to this day.

If not for Donahue and the unparalleled work ethic he ingrained in his first recruiting class at Cornell, Toppert's all-or-nothing style may have never surfaced.

"What I learned from (Donahue) never left my mind, my game, or my willingness to work," Toppert said.

 "It's no surprise the tides turned and Cornell became an Ivy League powerhouse."

The NBA may seem like a cushy and care free lifestyle. There is fame. There is  fortune.

There is shoulder-rubbing with other celebrities across the world.

 There is a surplus of cash and freedom with money like few other professions. There are high-horsepower Range Rovers and Bentleys and the mansions, many of which seem well-suited for MTV cribs.

Baker and Toppert's work ensures that the workaday grind, as well as the high-order commitment to the physical, mental, and skill-set aspects of the NBA don't wither.

Stay tuned for more on NBA Pre-draft.