Many basketball players have trouble gaining muscle mass. The game requires elite cardiovascular conditioning to handle constantly running up and down a 94-foot court. In turn, it’s harder for them to gain weight.
Some players are burly physical specimens, such as LeBron James and Zion Williamson, who each have 6-foot-8 frames carrying 260 and 285 pounds, respectively.
That’s not in the genetic makeups of Phoenix Suns 6-foot-7 small forward Mikal Bridges and 6-foot-10 power forward/center Jalen Smith. Bridges and Smith, who have nicknames “Praying Mantis” and “Stix,” are listed as weighing 209 and 215 pounds.
At Suns Media Day last month, Bridges and Smith looked somewhat more chiseled and thicker in their arms and shoulders than last season.
They worked hard on weight training over the brief two-month offseason, adding a new element of strength to their arsenal that should allow them to initiate and accept more contact in games.
“Being stronger, that helps with everything, defensively and offensively, in every single aspect,” Bridges said. “That’s why I always want to keep things for me to add a little muscle in the offseason. Obviously, we didn’t have that much time, but for guys like me, it’s hard to put on muscle as much as I can lift and eat.”
Bridges averaged 11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists in playing 32 minutes per game, starting 22 during the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals. He’s now in his fourth season, the final year of his rookie contract as the Suns figure out his rookie extension situation along with that of center Deandre Ayton before Monday’s deadline.
Bridges’ added muscle strength is vital to helping Phoenix defend stronger guards on the perimeter and occasionally helping in the frontcourt.
Bridges said he worked with Villanova strength and conditioning coach Josh Shackleton back in his native Philadelphia, where he played college ball at the school, and Suns strength and conditioning coach Corey Schlesinger, who set up meal and weightlifting programs this summer.
In the Suns’ preseason win over the Lakers on Oct. 6, Bridges had 15 points, five rebounds (four defensive), one assist, one steal and and one block in 25 minutes played.
“Some bodies of people are just different. I can feel getting stronger,” Bridges said. “That’s always been my thing. I know when I’m getting stronger with the weights and everything. Sometimes it might not show. Some people just blow up and it shows they get stronger. You can tell in my numbers I got stronger and I feel stronger in general.”
The Suns are thin at the four-spot, and the second-year big Smith is looking to fulfill a much-needed rebounding role to go along with his improved shooting and strength.
Dario Sario still is recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the finals, but Smith still has to find his role behind veteran big Frank Kaminsky. Head coach Monty Williams lamented after their Game 6 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that he wished he played Kaminsky more during that series.
To compete for his spot, Smith focused on improving his upper and lower body strength by doing one-to-two workouts in the weight room per day during the offseason.
He looked to gain confidence in Summer League in Las Vegas, with his goal to lead it in rebounding, showcasing his scoring prowess including shooting open 3s (he led all frontcourt players in attempts from deep, but shot just 27%), and his agility defending guards. He ended up as the Suns’ Summer League team’s top scorer (14.2 ppg) and rebounder (12 rpg) through five games.
Plus, Smith said his increased muscle mass has him weighing 228.
“No matter what, I never shied away from contact,” Smith said. “I mean, It’s contact. You’re gonna get hit. It’s a game that you should expect. Obviously, the added muscle is gonna be another major impact for me to withstand hits a lot longer and being able to guard bigs and wings as well.”
He produced just 2.0 points, 1.4 rebounds in just 5.8 minutes for the Suns last season, and was sent multiple times to the G-League. Smith and the rest of 2020’s rookie class didn’t get to compete in the canceled 2020 Summer League because of the pandemic and a tightened NBA schedule last year.
In this year’s preseason opening loss to the Sacramento Kings on Oct. 4, Smith tied guard Landry Shamet as the Suns’ leading scorer and best rebounder, with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Against the Lakers two days later, Smith had four points and was the Suns’ second-highest rebounder, grabbing nine behind Deandre Ayton’s 11. In the Suns’ second preseason win over the Lakers on Sunday, Smith showed more signs of his potential as he posted 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench.
“His body looks a lot better, but it wasn’t bad. He’s put on some muscle, but he’s just gotten stronger, and his conditioning is at a higher level,” Williams said. “That’s probably the toughest thing for young guys is, one, the game’s moving fast, and two, they don’t understand the level of conditioning that it takes to play in a Summer League game, let alone an NBA game.
“We feel like his summer was a positive just based on that. He was in better shape, I thought the game slowed down for him a little bit, and an indicator was his ability to rebound. You can’t rebound like he did this summer if you’re not in great shape.”
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