*vegan- a person who does not eat or use animal products (n.) or using or containing no animal products (adj.)
The shot clock winds down with the score even at 110. Damian Lillard is being guarded by Brandon Ingram, the Lakers’ long-armed sophomore forward. The Moda Center crowd tensely watches as Lillard dribbles at mid-court. With less than three seconds remaining, Lillard steps back to shoot a three-pointer over Lillard. Bang. With 0.7 seconds left and a three-point lead, Lillard walks back to his bench motioning at his wrist, as if to say, this is my time.
The foundations of Lillard’s success this season does not begin on the court. It happens off the court, where Lillard is changing his diet. That same night, after heading back to the locker room, he will tuck into a vegan meal, hoping that his diet will allow him to sustain his success.
“[I’ve been] wanting to eat cleaner,” Lillard would explain in an interview with The Oregonian. “I was trying to play lighter this year, be easier on my joints and on my feet…. I feel much better. I thought it was all hype. I thought people just said it just because it was a healthier food, but I can feel it. I can definitely feel it.”
In this case, the results speak for themselves, as Lillard took off at the beginning of the 2017–2018 season, averaging 27.1 points per game in the first ten games of the season, and finishing with an average of 26.9 points per game, just 0.1 off his career-high scoring mark.
The question remains, however, if vegan diets are truly effective in increasing the performance and elongating the careers of NBA players. There have been many individual cases of players improving their careers due to a vegan diet, but there is a lack of definitive proof that a vegan diet has a cause-and-effect relationship with increased athletic performance and better recovery.
Since being drafted in 2005, Chris Paul has been among the top point guards in the NBA. His incredible vision, tight handle, and three-point shooting ability has made him arguably the best point guard in the league since John Stockton.
For so long, he has defied the effects of age by improving his skills. When his athleticism began to decline, he began shooting threes more efficiently and at a higher volume than ever. Since his driving ability began to decline, he started playing out of the low post more than ever, which requires less speed and athleticism than isolations. The result? Paul sustained a consistent All-Star level of play over the past decade.
This past season, however, Paul began showing noticeable signs of decline. His scoring average dropped three points from the previous season, and he shot worse from the field, three-point line, and the free-throw line. Defenders were able to keep up with him more than ever. He was often forced to spot-up from the three-point line, and he watched as his co-star, James Harden, at times carried him and the Rockets. Paul’s overall impact on the game was diminishing, and he no longer thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s isolation-based offense.
His decline in performance was the primary reason the Rockets felt compelled to trade him, and it is why he now finds himself on the rebuilding Thunder in Oklahoma City, where his career began. Here, Paul now has to prove he can recover back to top-level form, in hopes of a playoff team trading for him and his massive $160 million contract.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Paul sought a change in his diet, and that the diet he chose was a vegan, plant-based diet. After all, the supposed benefits of vegan diets for athletes — better recovery, less stress on joints and muscles — would all help Paul have the mid-career revival that he needs to become an All-Star level player again. As an undersized 34-year-old point guard who will be tasked with guarding the quickest, most elusive players in the NBA next season, Paul needs all of the competitive advantages he can get.
Looking to prove he is still among the NBA’s best, and still looking for his first NBA Finals appearance, Paul’s diet may be the one advantage to finally take him over the top. He joins an elite group of NBA players who have turned vegan.
JaVale McGee saw his career on the line. As a role player in Dallas, his role was diminishing. He was on the verge of retiring or playing overseas. His career changed with a trip to Whole Foods, where his interest in vegan foods first took off.
From there, he got a non-guaranteed training camp deal with the Warriors, where he would blossom into an occasional starter for the team and, eventually, a 2 time NBA champion.
After signing with the Lakers, McGee made headlines for his spectacular start to the season, in which he averaged 17.2 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game on 62.7% shooting from the field. The difference in his play was consistency. His improved stamina allowed him to get easy points on a Lakers team filled with above-average playmakers. Defensively, he was among the league’s best shot blockers, and it was not uncommon to see him make some ridiculous blocks with his 7' 6" wingspan.
He finished the Lakers season with the best numbers of his career, even at age 31. Now, he has the chance to fight for a starting role on one of the most intimidating front-courts in the NBA with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. If all goes to plan for McGee, he will be the starting center on the Lakers, and he will win the 2020 NBA Championship.
Amazingly, McGee’s newfound success and late-career renaissance can ultimately be attributed to that trip to Whole Foods and his interest in going vegan.
Kyrie Irving needed a change. He requested a trade from Cleveland and landed in Boston, where would now become the focal point of the offense and the face of the franchise for the Celtics.
With his new role, he also felt he would need to make another change, off the court. He changed his diet and became vegan, hoping to slim down before the season.
The results were simply staggering. Irving lead the Celtics to 13 wins in their first 15 games, and for the first time in his career, he looked to be a serious MVP candidate. He was scoring well, setting up teammates at an above-average rate, and for the first time in his career, he could be seen as a positive on defense.
He was also doing this without his co-star in Gordon Hayward, who tragically injured his lower body in the Celtics’ first game of the season. Whereas other NBA players showed signs of rust or fatigue in the early parts of the season, Irving was at the peak of his powers.
While Irving’s season ended early due to injury, his approach remained the same. After a slow start last season, in which he and Gordon Hayward were both shaking off the rust of not playing in an NBA game for months, he posted the best overall stat-line of his career with 23.8 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, and 6.9 assists per game.
Overall, the Celtics season was disappointing, and Irving did share responsibility in the Celtics’ failed attempt of winning a championship, but as an individual, Irving’s level of play was remarkable at times.
Irving now teams up with multiple other vegan players in Brooklyn, where he looks to prolong his success. The Nets look to be at the forefront of the new wave of vegan players in the NBA. With Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler of the Nets all going vegan at some point over the last three seasons, the Nets symbolize the change in players’ diets more than any other team.
For some, like Irving and Jordan, going vegan has given them more energy to play at a high level later in their careers. For Temple and Chandler, it has allowed them to enjoy surges late in their careers and allowed them to overcome past troubles with injuries.
Most of the vegan athletes in the NBA, including Irving and Jordan of the Nets, share one common interest in common, and it is a new company.
In El Segundo, California, a company is creating products that are allowing for players and people to switch to a vegan diet. Earlier this year, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul all became investors in Beyond Meat, a company focused on offering plant-based alternatives to traditional, non-vegan foods. It has been extremely successful thus far.
Beyond Meat is a leader in the growing industry of plant-based protein, with its competitors being Tyson Foods and Impossible Foods, the latter of which went viral for its ‘Impossible Burger’ earlier this year.
Beyond Meat has become the face of the new movement of vegans in the NBA, with Paul, Irving, Victor Oladipo, Harrison Barnes, J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan, and JaVale McGee all being ambassadors for the company and promoting it. Additionally, they have partnerships with players who consume their products after games. Their products include plant-based burgers, ground “beef,” and plant-based sausage — all substitutes for traditional, popular proteins.
Science backs up the benefits of plant-based diets, including reducing inflammation and reducing body fats, especially compared to its real-meat counterpart. More importantly, plant-based proteins are better for the environment, requiring less water, energy, and land to be produced.
So why aren’t more NBA players going vegan?
For one, it is difficult for players traveling on the road to find quality plant-based protein that can meet their demands. For other players, going vegan is too drastic of a change. There is a common myth that plant-based diets do not have enough protein to fuel full-time athletes. Until this myth is dispelled completely, athletes will continue to eat what they believe is the best source of protein — meat.
The new movement of plant-based protein, with companies like Beyond Meat leading the way, perfectly aligns with the new physical demands of being an NBA player.
One of the primary reasons players are seeking a change in diet is the evolution of the game. No longer do teams start lineups with more than two non-shooters. With almost all teams running a system based on spacing the floor, almost all players have to be able to defend on the perimeter. This requires more stamina and speed on the court. Off the court, it demands that players recover from games properly. Recovery may be considered as vital as training for some players.
On offense, NBA offenses are playing faster than ever, making stamina a prerequisite for today’s NBA players. Even the slowest teams today would be considered incredibly fast just twenty years ago in the NBA. The speed of play has left a clear message for today’s players: keep up, or someone else will take your spot.
With “small-ball” and “pace and space” at the forefront of today’s NBA, players need to slim down and be in better shape than ever. Perhaps, the best way for players to do this is going vegan. As a Harvard sports study suggests, maybe today’s NBA should be described as “skinny-ball.”
All stats via Basketball Reference