Beyond the games, beyond the hours of team practice that NBA players put in on a weekly basis, lies the individual training that often makes the biggest difference.
Down a single point in the closing seconds of overtime against the Brooklyn Nets on December 20, Evan Turner of the Philadelphia 76ers calmly inbounded the ball to teammate Spencer Hawes as the shot clock began its final countdown.
Within six seconds, Turner retrieved the ball, rounded the key and connected on a one-handed buzzer-beater over Nets' center Brook Lopez.
It was easy to get caught in the moment. Turner's brilliance—an occurrence that has been on display all season—provided a breath of fresh air to 76ers fans. At the time, it was just a play.
Magnificent, but at the surface, still just a play.
But delving deeper, it's apparent that it was much more than a single play. As a whole, Turner's breakout performance this season has been much more than an arbitrary hot streak. It was the summation of hours of hard work and training—training that most fail to realize even occurs.
For Turner, much of that that training came at the hands of Micah Lancaster, one of the most respected skills coaches in the business and founder of I'm Possible Training. Lancaster, who has trained NBA players including Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Mario Chalmers and Kyrie Irving, represents that essential and indispensable aspect of a player's development.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lancaster regarding his role in the evolution of these top-notch athletes and the overall training process that often goes unacknowledged.
Origins of an Approach
Lancaster's training career began during his playing days. A high-schooler in Michigan, he first showed success in the field when he improved his own game before his senior season.
"I dedicated myself to eight hours a day, six days a week of training," Lancaster said. The results were impossible to miss. His scoring average skyrocketed, from a steady 12 points per game to a telltale 25, as he led his team to the state semifinals. "After that, people took notice and started asking me to train them the way I had trained that summer. Everything took off and progressed from there."
A few years later, his unique philosophy has given numerous stars a reason to approach him. Through team-training alone, Lancaster notes, players often focus more on improving their role within a team's system, rather than broadening their repertoire in a way that benefits the player more so than the team.
With Lancaster, the direction of a training session tends to be different. "I don’t worry about their role in their current or upcoming season, I ask the player what they would like their role to be two or three seasons in the future." This, along with role-specific training, ultimately produces the play that fans witness on a nightly basis.
But it isn't simply practice and produce. With Turner, Lancaster never practiced a wheel-route, off-balanced floater over a 7-foot center. The elements that ultimately combined to produce that buzzer-beater, however, were carefully developed under Lancaster's tutelage.
"Contrary to the normal approach of skill development, I believe that too much situational training can actually hinder players. Repetition alone isn’t the key to improvement; it’s game-simulated repetition that is needed. So instead of bringing players through game situations, [I] focus on the raw skills within those situations. My role is increasing the difficulty of the game-skill that will be required of them in each moment of the game. Instead of just giving them routine situational shots, I actually try to force their bodies into more game-realistic positions and actions to perform those situations better."
This idea draws its base in Lancaster's philosophy—the same philosophy (though improved) that helped him double his scoring average in his senior year of high school. His style is based on "multi-tasking and infusing chaos into controlled efficient training."
Though unorthodox in nature, Lancaster's training has stimulated a variety of improvements in players across the league.
Training Avery Bradley
What started as a push to improve on an individual level has continuously paid off for Lancaster, who, years later, found himself called upon by Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to train Avery Bradley after the Celtics were left without a head coach.
Bradley, often regarded as one of the league's premier defenders, is just 23. Drafted 19th overall in 2010, he appears to have a bright future ahead of him. When he approached Lancaster, Bradley had already garnered plenty of attention, but he was by no means a finished product.
Lancaster began with the basics. "For Avery, I started with his feet," he said. "When training in scripted situations, a player's feet only learn how to react in a scripted situation. Since the game is unscripted, the first thing our workout revealed is that he needed to learn how to stop and go based on reactions better." After a few workouts, the Celtics guard was able to "react and change directions, and make double moves and counters at such a higher level."
According to Lancaster, Bradley had been accustomed to practicing with a script, and hadn't merged his training with his gameplay. "[Great players] are always playing and feeling the game. The only thing a player like Avery needed to improve was the ability to train like he was playing. We worked a lot on producing game-like imagination in his approach while working on the necessary skills."
Bradley is still far from reaching superstardom, but he certainly made a significant jump since last season, especially on the offensive end. Improving his scoring average on a nightly basis, the defensive powerhouse is emerging as an effective and consistent two-way player.
Entering the season, Bradley was scrutinized and labeled as one-dimensional. Now, at the unofficial halfway point of the season, his former critics are singing a different tune. Converting on 57.1 percent of his attempts from the restricted area (per NBA.com/stats), Bradley is driving—and finishing—better than many guards. His 44.6-percent clip from mid-range also ranks above the league average.
His offensive improvement can be attributed to many factors, but Lancaster hopes his training philosophy—that "a balanced attack always accomplishes a more balanced player"—allowed Bradley the freedom to experiment offensively the way that Ainge desired.
The skills coach frequently stressed his desire to turn each of his students into well-rounded players.
"If I trained Ben Gordon or Reggie Bullock as shooters only, I would have missed opportunities to challenge their ball handling and ability to attack the basket and finish. If I looked at Jeff Green as a 6’9" player, I may have missed the opportunity to work on his ability to drop his hips on his offensive moves and overall ball handling ability. But when you go into workouts knowing you’re dealing with a player that wants a complete game, nothing will be missed."
Bradley entered with that desire to balance his game, and with an unparalleled ethic—Lancaster described him as "one of the hardest workers I’ve had the privilege of working with"—the Celtics guard made an important leap in his career.
He'll still a standout defensively; it's inevitable considering his innate aptitude on that end. However, he's no longer a defensive specialist by any stretch of the imagination.
"He's such a good defender, I don't think people realize how good of a scorer he is," Lancaster said about Bradley. "He can shoot, he can attack the rim, and he can finish. And as time goes on, he will be able to do all of that at different speeds."
Training Evan Turner
The 2013-14 season has been something of a watershed campaign thus far for Evan Turner, who has matured from an above-average talent to a budding star.
After posting a respectable, but modest, 13.3 points per contest in 2012-13, the Sixers' top dog has joined the ranks of the NBA's scoring elite, ranking seventh at his position (18.5 PPG). Like Bradley, it's impossible to ignore Turner's presence as a two-way player with numerous offensive and defensive assets.
Training with Lancaster and the I'm Possible Team for the past two seasons has sharpened and polished Turner's skills, resulting in the impressive output from the small forward that has been on display all season long.
Turner first approached Lancaster hoping to improve his conditioning and ball handling. Now, the skills coach pinpoints Turner's handles as one of his most underrated facets: "I’ve worked with incredible ball handlers, and Evan is right there at the top with them. His style of handle is a little more unorthodox, however, which I think has caused some journalists and onlookers to underrate him in that category."
Despite entering with a focus on handling, Turner "quickly expanded his skill enhancement wish list to cover his complete game," per Lancaster.
Though his entire skill set has been refined, Turner's offensive prowess has grown the most, specifically his driving (and finishing) ability and his mid-range jumper. Though Lancaster never claims to be the difference-maker for any particular player, he contended that if there was one area in which he helped Turner improve, it was the mid-range jump shot.
"Evan is very motivated to be the best he can be, and those players tend to strive for perfect reps every time," Lancaster asserted. "For the last two summers, we’ve taken all the perfect out of those shots for him, forcing him to be more uncomfortable, occasionally off-balanced, and out of rhythm in his training in order for him to gain more comfort in the chaos and contact of the game. The truth is, perfect practice doesn’t ever match up to an imperfect game. Evan has finally gotten comfortable training imperfectly, and I think that’s given him a boost."
This focus on imperfect training has become a trademark of numerous NBA trainers, including Jay Hernandez, who told Lucas Shapiro of Complex Sports, "When you are in training, you should not have perfect workouts. You should be making a lot of mistakes and embrace making those mistakes. Without resistance there is no growth, so we use the term 'make it ugly.' "
But more so than any specific skill enhancement, it is entirely possible that Turner's breakout can be attributed to greater freedom. After the 76ers traded Jrue Holiday on the night of the 2013 draft, Turner became a greater focus in the team's offense and has more opportunities to implement the different weapons refined during his offseason workouts.
And while Turner's offensive aptitude stands out, his work ethic will stimulate his journey to the top. Constantly working to improve, Turner—described by Lancaster as "determined" and a "workhorse"—even brought one trainer, Bryce Stanhope, with him on his family trip to Hawaii.
According to Lancaster, "He is in relentless pursuit of excellence. He plays every rep like he’s in a Game 7 series competing for a championship. That makes our workouts extremely intense, because our goal is to make him make as many mistakes as possible. We still make necessary corrections as all trainers do, but when a player shoots below 50 percent in one of our workouts, I feel like I did my job well. That means the game was simulated at a high, competitive, and realistic level."
Having trained with Lancaster and his team in Hawaii, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Columbus, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Turner is undoubtedly devoted to improving and has already made quite a leap.
With a top-notch work ethic, a greater understanding of how to train imperfectly and a strong foundation, Turner is one of the most intriguing and captivating young talents in the league.
Chaos on the Cutting Edge
Speaking with Lancaster, there were two recurring themes concerning the way in which he approached his training.
The first was Lancaster's belief that training shouldn't necessarily vary from player to player. While it's inevitable that certain players will require him to tweak his approach, the trainer found himself less concerned with where a player was, as opposed to where he should be.
"My approach to training is the same no matter the skill level, size or age of the player," he said. "I always focus on producing mistakes and exposing weaknesses, no matter how hard those can be to find at times for the best of the best."
Only veterans, as Lancaster learned with Dwyane Wade, require a significantly different approach, as health becomes a primary concern. "With vets, I’ve learned to adjust the intensity without losing the challenge they desire. They can still grow and enhance their skills without being too strenuous on their body."
Aside from that specific situation, however, all players that go through Lancaster's system do so in a similar fashion. Whether it is Turner, Bradley, Irving, Green or Chalmers, Lancaster refrains from putting his players in a "box" and instead tries to mold them into multi-faceted individuals with versatile skill sets.
The other frequently discussed idea was the way in which players must practice imperfectly—which helps prepare them for the bigger stage.
Lancaster works hard to formulate drills that ultimately challenge players without the presence of teammates and defenders, "technically breaking down the smallest details of the game."
Because of this, Lancaster's training requires much more than a ball and a basket. His patent-pending Rip Cones have become an essential element in training players' perception and ability to react on the fly. "I can slide three cones towards a player in different directions, and if the player is able to see three moving defenders, create a situation in their mind and react in a game like way, we are able to simulate the game like never before."
The Rip Cones—a by-product of Lancaster's innovation—challenge a player's perception of practice—allowing them to create that in-game feel that is essential in ensuring that a player's growth is carried into games. "To really thrive in training, players need to be able to see with their mind, instead of seeing with their eyes. My eyes might send an image of a cone to my brain, but my mind sees a defenders hand or an ankle. I don’t see...training tools, I see situations and moving, breathing defensive units."
Chalmers, one of Lancaster's hallmark students, offered a personal sentiment regarding the way in which Rip Cones simulate game-like difficulty: "Micah Lancaster's training focuses on reactions. When working on a game situation, Micah slides the Rip Cones to spots on the floor and I'm forced to make reactions based on the game."
The Miami Heat point guard also mentioned the Medicine Basketball, another one of Lancaster's innovative tools. "When using the Medicine Basketball, I'm able to simulate protecting the basketball with contact. Micah's training replaces defenders and makes the training more of a challenge, just like a game."
Similarly, Turner touched on the game-like feel and how "[t]raining with Micah Lancaster and the training tools he uses is more than just routine training. It's game time, unpredictable repetition."
One of the most misguided assumptions regarding a player's training is that they often focus on mastering a certain play or move in order to be able to perform it in a game.
That's rarely the case, however. Lancaster stressed that there's no script to an NBA game, and rarely do things break down perfectly. It's this element of surprise that drives Lancaster to stress the necessity of training imperfectly, so that no irregularity ever goes unaccounted for. Contact will be made, players will draw double teams and angles don't always present themselves in an ideal manner.
But that's all a part of the training process, as long as players are prepared to make mistakes and learn from them.
"We want our players to drive into and through mistakes in training," said Lancaster. "If they never confront their can'ts, they will most likely never turn them into cans."
With the mindset that anything is possible, Lancaster improved on an individual level over a single summer. Now, years later, he's on a mission to spread this message to the world's top athletes in order to create balanced players whose growth never ends.
Garrett Jochnau is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Player quotes were received via coordinating help from Micah Lancaster.