MINNEAPOLIS In the USC practice gym, there's a giant photograph of Trojan forward Davon Jefferson dunking on a college-age Kevin Love.
It wasn't Love's finest moment, and no doubt it stings a little more that it's been blown up and highlighted on the gym's wall. But when Love and his teammates practiced at USC on Feb. 27, the power forward was more amused than upset by his larger-than-life image.
"It's crazy to see," Love said. "Bad beard, ugly chinstrap, the buzzed head. It's a totally different person. And player."
But Love forgot to mention what might be the most glaring difference. It's not the hair or the whiskers that really stick out, but the arms and the waistline. The shot was taken in 2008, before Love lost 25 pounds last offseason and redefined his physique. Now, halfway through his first slimmed-down season, he's feeling the effects of the weight loss, and he couldn't be more pleased.
During the summer, the 6'10" Love turned to meal delivery, weight training and even yoga to get his weight down under 240 pounds. That weight loss preceded his most productive season yet, in which he's averaging 25.5 points and 13.8 rebounds, and it's been the driving force behind one additional facet of his game: endurance.
Love leads the NBA in minutes played per game this season, averaging 39:38 each night. That's up from last season, when he was 32nd in the league, averaging 35:27. But Love in 2012 is both slimmer and in better shape, to the point where playing almost 46 minutes like he did on Wednesday night barely fazes him.
The weight loss hasn't really altered the fundamentals of Love's game. That's all been a separate project, the hours spent working on perimeter shooting and passing. Teammate Anthony Tolliver, who played with Love before he dropped the pounds, said that the only tangible difference he thinks the weight loss made was in Love's jumping ability, which he first noticed in exhibition games in Mexico this summer. But more than anything, the weight loss has just highlighted those improvements instead of 30 minutes of Love pounding them, opponents are now lucky if they see fewer than 40.
Portland guard LaMarcus Aldridge said that Love's new physique has done little to affect how he and other players guard the power forward. It's those other additions that have left opponents wondering how exactly to tackle the challenge that is Love.
"I think that the biggest part of his game that makes him tough to guard this year is that 3-ball," Aldridge said. "He's shooting that with confidence. He's shooting it two steps behind the line and I think that's where he's hurting us."
Weight loss like Love's won't necessarily make a player better, but it will certainly allow him to stand out more when he does improve. And despite those increased minutes, Love said that he feels better than he has 40 games into this season than he did at that point in previous years. That's due to his body's ability to recover more quickly now that he's in better shape, despite the draining effects of the post-lockout schedule.
"The toughest part is just getting the sleep because I'm so worked up after games sometimes I won't be able to fall asleep late at night," Love said. "But you just have to find ways to rest your body."
Timberwolves' strength and conditioning coach KeKe Lyles said he knows Love is being more consistent with his weight training this season. That's crucial in maintaining the physique he developed over the summer, Lyles said, especially when the minutes Love is playing necessitate little to no cardio training.
It all goes back to that concept of recovery. Lyles said that it's crucial for Love to go to the weight room even when he's tired, to do what he calls "the little things," like body-weight exercises and core stability training.
"For his weight, just with his minutes played, he doesn't have to do any real conditioning and things like that," Lyles said. "It's just typical strength stuff that we've been doing with him, a lot of lower-body lifts, keeping his legs strong."
In fact, neither Love nor the staff is too concerned about the power forward regaining the weight. Because Love was never overweight and only lost a reasonable amount, this year's schedule alone is enough to ensure that he stays slim for the duration of the season. It's the toning and the lean muscle that are more of a concern.
And as far as the food is concerned, what once seemed overly healthy has become normal. Love has stayed away from sugar since beginning the process, and now avoiding things like sodas and sugary juices has become normal. He hasn't eaten those temptations for so long that he no longer wants the junk food.
There's no doubt Love's perspective on health has changed, and it's a result of the 23-year-old's maturity, which goes beyond his years when it comes to basketball. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get an edge, and he looks at the weight loss and fitness kick as simply another aspect of professionalism. It's what he expects of himself, and for all the attention that Love's physique was given during and after the weight loss, what was once a choice has now become routine.
"He's definitely a lot more disciplined than he was last year with his diet," Tolliver said. "For the most part, it's mainly been his diet and his discipline."
So yes, the bad beard and the buzz cut are gone. So are the braces. Teammate Martell Webster joked, his eyebrow raised and his voice dripping with sarcasm, that with all that and the weight loss, Love is the "perfect package." Teammates might rib him for being basketball's newest golden boy, but really, all Love has done since losing those 25 pounds is log the minutes to show the rest of the league how good he can really be. The weight loss didn't change his game, but Webster might just be right. Kevin Love is looking good.
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