LOS ANGELES -- St. Monica High School sits near the corner of Lincoln Blvd. and Washington Ave. in Santa Monica, an intersection of potential and stardom. There is nothing inherently impressive about the St. Monica basketball gym -- "It's pretty small," said trainer Rob McClanaghan, "and a little grimy" -- except for the NBA players who walked through the doors last summer and kept coming back.
Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love arrived at St. Monica last May, full of promise, but still in need of polish. They had just finished their second season in the pros. Rose made the All-Star team. Westbrook wowed in the playoffs. Love was not even a full-time starter yet.
They worked out six days a week at St. Monica, McClanaghan putting them through full-court and half-court game simulations, peppering them with hypothetical questions: "How good do you want to be? You want to be an All-Star? You want to be an MVP? You want to be a champion, or lose in the conference finals?" McClanaghan's assistant was a 3-foot black football pad he used to punish the players so they would not forget what it feels like to rush into a power forward.
The group trained twice a day, once at 9 a.m. and again at 6 p.m., in their white T-shirts and practice shorts. Sometimes they came straight from photo shoots still wearing makeup. When McClanaghan tried to give them one Sunday evening off, they showed up anyway. When other NBA players stopped by and went half-speed, the regulars told them to stick with the program or drop it. "The intensity was unbelievable," McClanaghan said. "Russell would do something great and you could see Derrick and Kevin telling themselves they would do even better. It became their gym."
As the summer wore on and word spread, coaches in Southern California went to St. Monica just to watch. Former Lakers general manager Jerry West made an appearance. What they witnessed were three young players preparing each other to take one simultaneous leap into the elite. "We put so much pressure on those workouts," Rose said. "You felt like you couldn't miss a shot in there."
Many NBA stars have experienced significant breakthroughs in their third seasons. LeBron James' scoring average went up 4.2 points, Kevin Durant's 4.8, Chris Paul's 3.8. But the St. Monica Three have dramatically exceeded the typical progression. Through March 2, Love is scoring 6.9 more points per game than last season, grabbing 4.5 more rebounds and has racked up 48 straight double-doubles, three shy of Moses Malone's record. Westbrook is scoring 5.9 more points per game, has improved his three-point shooting by 8.2 percentage points and is no longer just Durant's sidekick. Rose is scoring 3.8 more points per game, dishing out 2.2 more assists and has also improved his three-point shooting by 7.2 percentage points.
All three players made the Team USA roster, won gold at the FIBA World Championship, and were selected to the All-Star team last month. But in their endless attempts to one-up each other, Rose has emerged as the leading candidate for MVP, receiving endorsements even from Heat forwards Chris Bosh and Juwan Howard.
While Love and Westbrook had their own summer to-do lists, Rose built a jumper almost from scratch. A transcendent driver, Rose rarely used to take outside shots because he could easily race to the rim, with his Iversonian crossover. But as opposing teams sagged off him, he found fewer driving lanes, and grew frustrated that he could not make defenses pay. He shot 26.7 percent from three-point range last season, and on the rare occasion that he let fly, his release was low and his arc flat. The ball invariably smacked the front of the rim. McClanaghan told him, "If you can just get to 39 or 40 percent, where guys have to respect you, it will be over."
McClanaghan lifted Rose's release point, gave him the mantra "no short shots" and made him hoist upward of 1,000 threes a day at St. Monica. Rose's practice percentage ticked up, from 60 to 68 to 72. It became clear that defenses were not going to sag off him anymore, but to take advantage of openings he had to throw himself into big men as often as he slithered around them. "I spent a lot of time getting hit by that pad and trying to finish off it," Rose said. By initiating contact instead of avoiding it, Rose has already attempted and made more free throws than he did all of last season.
He has also identified yet another way to expand his game. He plans to spend this summer developing post moves. He already knows the perfect workout partners and the ideal place.