Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves

The importance of the pre-game warm-up for NBA athletes

The pregame warm-up is an integral component of game day in the NBA and across all sports. The activities that occur during this time are important for preventing injury and helping the athlete achieve a proper frame of mind.

It’s a frigid, clear Friday night in Minneapolis and every seat in the Target Center is covered by a Carolina blue t-shirt meant to symbolize the roaring waters of the nearby Mississippi. In approximately 90 minutes, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be debuting their brand new City Edition Jerseys during a nationally televised contest against the formidable Los Angeles Clippers. As the echoes of season ticket holders and dribbled basketballs swell up to the rafters, Wolves’ back-up center Gorgui Dieng gathers a feed off of a simulated screen-and-roll from player development coach Brian Randle.

The 6-foot-11 Senegalese big man rises to throw down a half-hearted dunk “over” his defender, Wolves’ assistant coach Bryan Gates. Ex-NBA player Pablo Prigioni, who is assisting bench point guard Shabazz Napier with his 3-point stroke, abandons his post with ill-intention. Prigioni, who is in his first season as an assistant coach for the Wolves, swats the ball out of Dieng’s hands and screams, “Get that out of here!” while bluffing a faux machismo. A surprised Dieng bursts out laughing.

At some point, Andrew Wiggins walks by with his toddler daughter in his arms and signs a jersey for a young fan decked out in Wolves’ neon green; the kid nearly died of excitement, though thankfully he was able to pull through in the end. Robert Covington, who’s not one to hesitate from pulling the trigger on a deep 3, hoists up shots from approximately 35-feet; the ball’s arc is so high and it’s spin so tight, it’s impossible not to wonder if the Coriolis Effect will ultimately impact the trajectory. Jarrett Culver, who is shooting a meager 43.4 percent on free-throws during his rookie campaign, is putting up attempt after attempt, in an effort to improve his mechanics and confidence from the line.

A few minutes later, as a local Minneapolis high school’s pep band seamlessly transitions from LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem to Smash Mouth’s All-Star, Clippers’ center Ivica Zubac attempts his best Paul-Bunyan-participates-in-yoga impersonation as he wriggles and sways while power pressing a weighted cylinder that mimics a hollowed-out oak log. Landry Shamet, who has been out with a grade-2 left ankle sprain for nearly a month, participates in some basketball-related activities that typically signify a nearing return to game action (Shamet would ultimately return during the Clippers’ next contest). The relatively diminutive — he stands a trifling 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds — guard cuts sharply and stops on a dime, with emphasis placed on planting on his recovering ankle; the net cracks crisply after every shot attempt.

These are typical sights experienced before every NBA contest, and while they may often seem like a formality, just another hoop to jump through before the game begins, the pre-game warm-up is perhaps one of the most important components of athlete performance and injury prevention in existence.

Over the years, the pre-game warm-up has evolved from lay-up lines and static stretching to a more dynamic and performance-oriented affair. If one keenly observes the goings-on during the pre-game warm-up, they may quickly notice that not a single static stretch is performed. Gone are the days of V-sit hamstring stretches, never to return again; joint mobility and neuromuscular priming are the new kings of the domain.

And for good reason: Static stretching not only doesn’t reduce an athlete’s risk for injury, but it may also have a deleterious effect on in-game athlete performance. However, there is good evidence that supports the notion that a dynamic neuromuscular pre-game warm-up reduces athlete injuries.

The dynamic neuromuscular warm-up usually consists of stretches and activities that focus more on repetitions and engaging certain muscle groups rather than holding specific positions for prolonged periods of time. These motions allow the muscles to loosen by increasing the blood flow running through them while simultaneously increasing the amount of nervous system stimulation; this allows the muscles to retain their flexibility without needing to compensate with a corresponding loss of strength and power.

This is why Dieng foam-rolled his hamstrings and teammate Jeff Teague performed single-leg bridges with a moderately elastic exercise band around his thighs at mid-court while Karl-Anthony Towns and Napier took jumpers. It’s why Clippers’ forward Patrick Patterson wrung out his spine with the aid of a semi-rigid walking stick apparatus while a member of the Los Angeles training staff pushed and prodded Montrezl Harrell as he attempted to maintain balance in an athletic stance (Harrell also had an elastic band around his knees).

Among the organized chaos that is the pre-game warm-up is a firm understanding of the dynamics that affect athlete performance and health. The warm-up isn’t simply there to allow athletes to get in the right frame of mind while getting a few practice reps or rehabilitation in; it is there to simultaneously and acutely decrease injury risk and improve overall performance.

Not many components of sport, let alone basketball, can make those same claims. Although injury prevention programs, when performed for months to years, may help reduce the number of athlete injuries — particularly of the ACL, one of the most common major NBA injuries – their impact in the short-term is still a topic of debate.

So, at the end of the day, while it may seem as though the NBA athletes are simply going through the motions at half-speed during their allotted time to warm-up, in all reality they are utilizing the bleeding edge concepts of athlete health and performance to not only prepare themselves for the upcoming game but to also keep them on the court for contests to come.

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