Joe Abunassar Q&A: 'We can really tell when a player will break out'

Joe Abunassar Q&A: 'We can really tell when a player will break out'

Interview

Joe Abunassar Q&A: 'We can really tell when a player will break out'

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NBA trainer Joe Abunassar was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. Abunassar, who founded Impact Basketball, has trained hundreds of NBA players in his 23 years as a player-development expert. He’s worked with Kevin Garnett, Kawhi Leonard, Chauncey Billups, Kyle Lowry, Kristaps PorzingisDeMarcus Cousins and many others. Here’s a condensed version of the chat. For the full interview, listen here.

For people who don’t know your background, how did you get your start coaching basketball players?

Joe Abunassar: I was a manager for Coach [Bob] Knight at Indiana starting back in ’89. My goal was definitely to be a college basketball coach. I started in ’89 as a freshman there, finished up in ’93. We had some great teams back in those days. Then, Coach Knight helped me out and I got a college coaching job at the University of Wyoming. So I actually started my career as a coach.

How did you make that shift from being an NCAA head coach to training NBA players?

JA: Well, when we were at Wyoming, we had a nice little run there. Then, after four years, I was getting ready to take another job at Bowling Green University with another Indiana assistant at the time. I wasn’t really going to start the next job until July, and around March, I got an opportunity to train a couple guys. A friend of mine that I had known from college through Lawrence Frank, who was a manager with me at Indiana, was working for an agent at the time and asked if I wanted to work out a couple players. I said, “Sure, why not?” So I went and did a little work with these guys, and I was very lucky because their names were Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Joe Smith, who was the No. 1 pick out of Maryland in ’95. I got an opportunity to be introduced to these guys, and my unique capability was that I also had a strength and conditioning and nutrition background because of my past in fitness and what I studied. So I was able to really come in and do their basketball work, and then also do their strength condition and nutrition.

People think of trainers today, and there are trainers everywhere, right? Every corner, every video, every Instagram post – everyone’s training somebody. This was back in the day when personal training, in terms of basketball development, wasn’t really a thing. There was no basketball development. Most NBA staffs at that time had, I would say, two, three, four assistant coaches, but none of them really focused on development. They were all focused on game prep and coaching the team, and then they had a trainer and a strength coach. Well, nowadays, many of these franchises have at least one coach for every player, if not more, with a huge medical staff, sports science, and the whole development [staff]. So this was back in the day when I was really, really at demand. I actually had contracts with several teams. Once I started working with those guys that I mentioned, I just kept picking up more and more players. And I said, “You know what? I don’t really need to go back to coaching, and nor do I want to, because I really enjoy doing this. I enjoy developing guys and really seeing how far I can push them, and what I could do with their bodies and their game.” From there, it just took off. I did three or four years where I was traveling everywhere, and then, I ended up going down to IMG Academy in 2001 and starting the basketball segment there where it really became kind of a development business. [Then, Joe launched Impact Basketball with locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles].

There’s no question you’re a pioneer. There are so many trainers now. NBA training and basketball training in general has blown up. Twenty years ago, did you ever think it would be like this today? 

JA: I’m definitely shocked. I definitely didn’t expect it. But when you think about it, if you ask any basketball coach, “When you’re running your plays, do you want all the players to be more athletic, stronger, fitter? Do you want all the players to shoot better, dribble better, pass better?” They’d probably all say, “Yes,” and they would have a better team, so it really does make sense. I had always argued that teams don’t put enough time [into player development]. And I actually went through it myself because coming from Coach Knight’s program at Indiana, film review was so big and game preparation was so big, which it should be and still is, but I think we spent too much time doing that kind of stuff and not enough time working with our guys. Because, at the end of the day, it’s about making shots and making plays. There’s all different kind of offenses you can run and scouting reports you can write, but if you have guys that can’t shoot the ball, or guys that can’t handle the ball or are out of shape, you’re not going to be very successful.

So, it really does make sense; that’s why it’s become so big and why the development side of things has really blown up. In the summertime, Alex, you know this from being around so much NBA stuff, coaches are all over the country tracking down their guys. It’s such a big part of the game. When I was back at Indiana, we ran at the track and just kind of got in shape the old-fashioned way (laughs). Now, there’s all the technology and tracking and devices that we have that are useful. So I am surprised, but it really does make sense. It’s become a very big industry from not only the trainer side of things, but also the device/technology side. There are things like the Noah Shooting System, the thing that measures the arc of your shot and tracks your shot. There areso many devices now that you can get to enhance your development that that’s become an industry in and of itself. So It does make sense. Why wouldn’t everyone want to get better, right?

That makes a lot of sense. With so many trainers today, it’s harder for trainers to build their roster of players. You’ve worked with hundreds of players over the years, including many superstars. How were you able to land so many clients?

JA: I mean, it’s been a long grind. I mean, look, I was very fortunate to start those whole journey with guys like Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups and Al Harrington and Tayshaun Prince. These guys had storied Hall-of-Fame quality careers and won Olympic gold medals. So being associated with those guys and helping those guys really started a lot for me. [Because of] Chauncey, at one point I had four or five other Pistons players. When Al was with the Pacers at one point, I had Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere, Jamaal Tinsley, Antonio Davis, Primož Brezec… I had seven or eight of the Pacers. So it’s a word of mouth thing.

I think it also really has a lot to do with our relationships with the NBA teams and the respect that they have for the work that we do and our ability to communicate with them. The way it is today, you’re not signing a guy to a two-year deal and then just shipping him off somewhere to train in the summer. It has to be a collaborative process, and I’ve built those relationships over a long time, not through anything more than just being around. I’ve been to more pregame sessions than just about anybody (laughs). We’ve really stayed focused on putting together a real program, whether it’s for a high school kid or for a pro. It’s not just training, not just workouts in a gym. It’s really just about creating a program for these guys that’s consistent, and that consists of not only the basketball piece, but the strength of conditioning and the nutrition piece. At the end of the day, the guy’s got to play. He’s got to be able to produce when he’s on the court. You can change their body, and change this and that, but if they’re not improving their basketball game, it doesn’t really matter. And that goes for a high school kid, college kid or pro.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a trainer or player-development coach?

JA: Stay with the basics and really make sure that you are teaching the kids, or whoever you’re training, the real moves they’ll use in a game. Don’t get caught up in being a fancy trainer. Just train basketball. A lot of people watch our workouts and they’re kind of confused/surprised by the simplicity of them. I mean, there’s really nothing fancy about it. We really, really stay focused on training the kids, or the pro players, on what they really need to do to be successful. Break them down, understand what each player needs that’s different. Insist that they do nutrition stuff and that they pay attention to their weight lifting. You can’t just have a kid come in and work out on the court and not pay attention to the rest.

I would say the biggest thing I would tell trainers as to why you’d be successful is if players buy into your system. That’s a really important piece. People can say whatever they want about concepts or techniques. If somebody doesn’t want to train with you, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching. So, developing relationships and really caring about the athlete’s plan is important. But it’s a tough grind. There are so many trainers today, in terms of locally, but the ones that have a really good following and a really good base are the ones that have great relationships with the kids and keep it simple and just really focus on getting them better.

Kyle Lowry has trained with Impact Basketball his whole career.

You work with Kyle Lowry. I remember before the 2014-15 season when he became an All-Star for the first time, you predicted that he’d break out. You were pointing out that he had cut his honeymoon short to come back to Impact Basketball to train, he changed his diet and he was locked in. You called it. When you look back at that, what was the key for Kyle’s transformation? And can you sometimes tell which players will break out based on how they look over the summer?

JA: We really can. As a matter of fact, this year, we had a couple [breakout] guys, Troy Brown being one of them. He unfortunately had a little bit of a calf injury early in the season, but I think he’ll be back in mid-season form soon. He had a Kyle-Lowry-like summer. But what Kyle did that summer is what many guys have done. I remember the year before KG won the MVP award, his big deal was he finally bought into the nutrition piece. He was always so good, and he probably still would have been good had he eaten poorly, but I mean, he took it to that next level after years of me beating on him and saying, “You can’t be eating at midnight,” and all this stuff. For Kyle, he just said, “Look, I’m changing my body.” He got lighter, he got faster, he got healthier. He changed his nutrition. Kyle does a lot of Pilates, and we really started focusing on the Pilates and the muscle development, and those type of things because Kyle’s so thick that sometimes lifting weights will get him a little bit too big. So, the Pilates is perfect for him. And he really just made that shift.

So, yes, the answer is that we can tell. I mean, there’s always situations where it’s out of the players control, like there’s no minutes or they get traded but,for the most part, we can always tell when a guy’s going to have a really good season. It really boils down to not just the basketball work, but how focused they are on everything. Are they paying attention to their food? Are they making sure they come back again at night to stretch? Are they getting treatment at night? These are the type of things that separate players. I just left Kyle’s hotel in Los Angeles because they’re here playing the Lakers and Clippers, and he was just getting a massage on the road. And even with his broken finger, he worked out early this morning at 6:30 a.m. He did a VersaClimber class. The guy just has a different mentality. It really involves that total commitment to training.

LeBron James is one of those guys who gets it. There have been reports that he spends $1.5 million per year on his body and he prioritizes his recovery and workouts over everything. What do you make of LeBron’s longevity? Could more players be like that if they were just as serious about their body or is he kind of just a freak?

JA: I think it’s a combination. I think that he could be a freak and then not take advantage of it. He was given the great genes and the ability to be that athletic and big and fast, but then, he’s maximizing it. I don’t work with him on a daily basis, obviously. I know Mike [Mancias], his trainer, and he does such a great job with him. They’re just meticulous to the details. It’s funny, because if you were to talk with someone about investing money and you say, “If you could put in $1 million, or $1.5 million, and get back $35 million, would you do it?” You’d say, “Of course I would!” Well, that’s basically what he’s doing. He’s spending $1.5 million or whatever that number is – I don’t really have the details, but I’ve read that number before too. I’m sure with all the different things he does, that probably is about right. Then, he’s getting the return back of being paid the way he’s paid. And on top of that, you think of the endorsements and all that. But I don’t really think that’s why LeBron’s doing it, don’t get me wrong.

But yeah, from the way he eats to the way he takes care of himself to the way he recovers… Yes, he’s been gifted with some amazing opportunities. I mean, there are guys that we’ve known that have that approach, but unfortunately, they get an injury early in their career, and it’s one of those knee-type things or something where they just never get right again, and it’s not their fault. But yes, LeBron could have certainly not taken advantage of the gifts he’s been given by not doing as good of a job as he’s done with everything.

You’ve worked with a lot of stars over the years. When Al Harrington was on the podcast, we talked about how Kawhi Leonard looked during his pre-draft training since Al and I were at Impact Basketball with you guys that summer. Kawhi was so dominant, I was blown away. Kawhi obviously fell in the draft, but when you saw how gifted he was and how much potential he had, did you think, “This guy could be a superstar?”

JA: The Kawhi thing is interesting because I remember having a talk with Shareef Abdur-Rahim who, at the time, worked for the Kings. He’s now running the G League. He was in watching Kawhi and he was asking me, “What is he? Is he a two? Is he a three? Is he a four?” Because at San Diego State, he played so athletically and just kind of [roamed], and no one really thought he could shoot the ball very well. I remember telling him, “I don’t really know what he is, but this dude is good.” You could just tell. First of all, his approach to everything was different than anybody else’s. It was get there early, stay late. And usually, when we have rookies for pre-draft, they’re very much hard workers because they’re all trying to make it. Very rarely have we had a guy come for the draft and not work hard. If we ever did, they never really made it. But Kawhi was just different. The way he played, the way he interacted with everyone, the seriousness. And people who know Kawhi will tell you he’s a nice guy, talkative, but he doesn’t really have much interest in anything but business. We can tell when guys are a little different.

Troy Brown’s another guy. As an 18-year-old doing the draft training, he always came ready to go. He started in March, because he was done early at Oregon. When you’re a higher pick like that, you don’t really do all the early workout stuff, so this guy had basically two straight months of training every day, and that’s not easy. So we can tell their mentality, we can tell their skill. Of course, Kawhi had the physical tools, the length, and the way the game is played today with versatility being so important, he’s the ideal guy. He can guard big because he’s so darn strong, and he can play on the perimeter. And, look, we never thought he was a bad shooter. He shot the ball pretty darn well with us in the pre-draft, he just needed to be more reps and we knew he was going to get better shooting because of his work ethic. the experience or the maturity, but you can tell when they’re going to get it. The players that are kind of beyond their years, like Kawhi was, in terms of their maturity, you can tell they’re going to be good.

Everyone gives credit to the Spurs and Chip Engelland for fixing Kawhi’s shot, and they did do a great job once he got to San Antonio. But Kawhi started changing his shot and drastically improving his shooting at Impact. Walk me through tweaking Kawhi’s shot and, in general, what’s the key to helping a guy improve his jumper? 

JA: Chip’s awesome, so those guys did do a good job in San Antonio. Remember with the draft training, we’re challenged a little bit because we don’t want to mess up his shot. So, if you’re kind of trying to rebuild it, [there’s not enough time]. But with Kawhi, he was just bringing it a little bit too far back behind his head, so it was a small adjustment to kind of keep it out in front of his forehead. And when you see the ball come off a guy’s hands and it’s got great spin, and it really looks pretty decent, but there’s just a few tweaks you need to make to it, that’s a lot different than when a guy comes in and needs to rebuild his shot. I remember I had Joakim Noah for the draft and his shot, we didn’t even change it and no one has ever changed his shot because it just is what it is. We would have had to completely reconstruct it, which we’re not going to do that in a six-to-eight week period for the draft.

But Kawhi’s tweaks were small. The spin was so nice on the ball and, remember, his hands are so big that sometimes, I think, his thumb would get on the ball and he just had to get used to shooting it. But at San Diego State, and at the college level, I don’t know [how much he was shooting]. I went down there a couple times with him at the end of the year, before he came out to Vegas, but I don’t know how many reps he put up. He was such an athletic, fast, aggressive player that he got so much of what he got at San Diego State in transition and defensively. It was just a small tweak, and then they continued it in San Antonio. And the one thing about Kawhi is that, if he was working out at 9:00, he would get there like at 8:00 just to shoot.

When you see a guy like that who’s got nice rotation and really doesn’t have a broken shot at all, just needs a couple tweaks, and who’s willing to work like that, it’s going to get better. No question. I mean, when we started working Kyle out, I remember Jerry West telling me when he was at Memphis saying, “Oh, his feet all over the place. He’s not consistent.” If you watch Kyle shoot the ball in drills now, it’s automatic. I mean, obviously he’s a little older than Kawhi, not a ton, but a little older. But the way that people can improve their jump shot through consistency and repetition is a lot different than making somebody faster. But again, all these guys we’re talking about had good forms to start with, they just needed small tweaks. There’s other guys that really have some mechanical issues that it’s not so easy just to say, “Oh, he’s going to just shoot more.” He’s got to almost break it down.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Kristaps Porzingis is one of the guys who you’ve worked out ever since he was going through the draft process. You helped him return from his big injury. What did you work on with Kristaps this summer and what’s his development plan going forward?

JA: Well, I think this summer was really about getting him back on the court and healthy. He spends a lot of time in Latvia, too. He has Valdi (Manolo Valdivieso) as a trainer that’s been with him a long time and does his strength conditioning and those type of things. He does an amazing job with Kris and got him stronger. So, his main focus in the early part of the summer, ever since the injury, was to get his strength up. It’s funny; I joke that he over-flexes in the pictures, but people saw pictures of him and he’s definitely gained some strength. But really [we worked on] his lower body, his core, making sure the knee’s healthy. Then, once we got him back on the court, he’s a machine out there. He actually gives me flashbacks of working Garnett out, because of his intensity and his consistency with the way he shoots the ball.

It was really just getting him back in the flow, getting him back in shape, getting him comfortable moving again, getting comfortable with contact. And then, as far as the development plan, he’s still so young and we just need to continually keep him strong and healthy. If you talk about working on Kris’ jumper, he doesn’t miss much. Not that anybody can’t get better at everything, but [we’ll focus on] just making him a little more efficient and maybe teaching maybe a little more of the tricks of the game, the little moves and the bumps, and the things that a guy of his size can do. No one should ever be able to block his shot with how tall he is and the way he shoots the ball and releases the ball so high. I think his plan is really continuing to keep him strong and healthy, let him play this year to kind of get back in the swing of things and then, from there, it’s all progress. I believe that the sky’s the limit for that guy’s career. His mentality, his approach and his personality are perfect to be a star. He’s got that in him, for sure.

Another young guy who I like a lot is Myles Turner. What did you work on with him this past summer and what’s your long-term plan for him?

JA: His body’s been great. He got himself in shape two summers ago, and he’s stayed in great shape. Really, we’re just getting him more comfortable shooting the three, which he really can shoot it. Getting him more open to shoot the three. Keeping him mobile on defense. I think with Myles, there’s always this battle of, do we put a little more weight on him to get him stronger for the big guys? Or do we keep him quicker? Because we don’t want Myles to get slow on his feet, which he’s not, but we don’t want to add too much weight. It’s trying to find that median where Myles should play and which makes him most effective so he can keep being a monster on the Pacers. They believe he could be one of the most dominant defensive players in the game. And offensively, he’s so skilled. He can pass the ball, he’s got great quick second jump on the glass, he can shoot the three. Myles is not only the nicest guy in the world, but he really works his butt off. He’s a real worker for sure. I think the Team USA thing this summer really will help him. That experience was great for him.

You’ve trained DeMarcus Cousins for many years. It was so devastating when he went down with a torn ACL. What was it like being in the gym when that happened?

JA: Look, this is year 23 or 24. That was as low as it gets. To see how he worked to get back… He had brought his weight down and was doing a great job, and then that play was one of the last plays of the day. We were almost done. I was just really disappointed for him. We were all in a funk for a few days, just feeling bad for DeMarcus. And to his credit, he’s picked himself back up, he’s rehabbing. He’s actually in Vegas today. While the Lakers are on the road, he’s rehabbing with us today. He’s down here with our physical therapist.

I mean, it was tough. I told him, “There’s nothing to say, man. We’re here for you, and we’re going to help get you back again. And you’ve got to work.” What do you say? There’s nothing. “I’m sorry?” It just doesn’t… “I’m sorry to see that?” or, “I feel bad for you?” I just think for a guy who was playing at an All-Star level to first get the Achilles and then come back with this, we’re going to see the real heart of DeMarcus coming back. And he’s responded to amazingly to rehab. It’s not easy. People say, “Oh, you’re making money.” Rehab every day for two years is tough. I mean, the Achilles thing was a brutal rehab with a leg-long cast to start with; he had to go around in a wheelchair because it was too heavy to even move on crutches.

It’ tough. But look, he’s not that old. He’s got many years to play ahead of him, and I think he’s got an amazing attitude right now. He’s just trying to get as healthy as he can and then get back on that court. But yeah, that was a tough time. I don’t want to say tough for us, because we just felt very badly for DeMarcus. It was tough for him. Now, we’re all here to support him and get back him back to the highest level of play.

I wrote an article about the Impact Basketball pick-up team that no one could beat one summer. It was Alan Anderson, Jared Dudley, Tayshaun Prince, Patrick O’Bryant and Ty Lue. They dominated everyone in pick-up and Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis, Jermaine O’Neal and Kyle Lowry were assembling teams and flying guys in to try to beat them. Do you remember that team coming together and dominating?

JA: Do I remember?! Of course! I watch every day. They almost cost me my business because people were like, “Look, I’m not playing anymore if you don’t break this team up.” (laughs) So yeah, they were killing. We were getting complaints about Ty Lue. What happened is, that’s when we ended up getting shot clocks because they were saying Ty Lue was running off too many pick-and-rolls. We had to put shot clocks in place to even the playing field. But yeah, I remember. And if you think about that team, it’s interesting, because none of those guys in there, as an individual, was a huge superstar, you know?

I mean, Tayshaun obviously achieved some great things, but he was a role player, Jared’s a role player, Alan was a role-player scorer. The GM that put that team together did a nice job. Everyone kind of filled their role. But yeah, we kept trying to break them up and then they wouldn’t [budge]. They were like, “We’re not playing unless we play together.” Yeah. Guys were flying in from all over the place, putting teams together trying to beat them. Jermaine O’Neal was one of the biggest guys on one of the opposing teams that used to complain about them all the time. He said, “Yeah, there’s no shot clock!” That was a lot of fun. Lot of fun. If you talk to Chauncey Billups, he’ll tell you that that was the year he was playing USA basketball, so he will still claim to this point that, had he not been playing with Team USA, they would not have had that dominance because he would have ended the dominance with his play.

Chauncey Billups and Jared Dudley playing pick-up at Impact.

You also have a CBD company called re+PLAY that you started with Al Harrington. When Al was on the podcast, he talked about the study you guys did in conjunction with the Retired National Basketball Players Association that tests whether CBD cream helps retired NBA players with knee pain. How did re+PLAY and this study come together?

JA: Yeah, that’s correct. Al lived at my house when he was 18 years old and he’s basically my oldest son. He’s my son’s godfather and we call him my oldest son. Al and I are very close. Al has a very successful cannabis business, the THC side, called Viola. About two years ago, he wanted to start a branch off of that and start the CBD side, which his Harrington Wellness, and the first brand is re+PLAY. CBD is THC-free and, yeah, I’m part of that with Al. We’re out on the market. It’s replaycbd.com. We have a topical cream that we feel is very good. We’ve done a lot of research with it, obviously not with current players because it’s still not able to be used, but from regular people to retired players. Me and Al together know a huge group of retired players that are hurting in some way. So we met with Michele Roberts with the Players’ Association. Al’s met with Michele several times. It’s something that is obviously on their radar and we’ve been in discussions with them.

In the meantime, we’re doing a study with the retired players on knee pain and whether the topical cream is helping or not helping. The study just got started finally, about two weeks ago. We have 100 retired players that are participating in it and, basically, we’re having them do weekly journals and reports through the Internet on the level of their pain, whether they’re sleeping better, how things are working just to get some more validity [and ensure] this is something that does really help. There’s certain ailments in the knees that are probably way past a cream. If you need a knee replacement or something like that obviously. A lot of the guys are still experiencing pain just from the brutal [wear and tear]. And honestly, Al is the biggest example. Al doesn’t even ice his knees anymore, he just uses the cream on them and he still stays active and works out.

It’s a very cool study. Doctor Sandy Kunkel, who was the Pacers’ team orthopedic surgeon and is now retired, did a lot of Al’s surgeries and he’s a partner with us in the business. And Doctor Kunkel is a very big proponent that this could be something that does help eliminate some of the prescription opioids and some of the painkillers that are being and have been prescribed for such a long time. Everyone talks about CBD this, CBD that. It’s an exciting industry. I mean, there’s so much still to be determined, and there’s not a ton of studies out there. A lot of it is so anecdotal, there’s really not a whole lot of science yet behind dosages and things like that. So that’s why this study is big for us to really get the idea of whether it can be something that helps these players, these former players, in any sport.

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