What does a typical day look like in the life of an NBA Draft prospect in the month of May? We made the drive up to Bradenton to try and find out, kicking off a week-long tour of three of the top training facilities in the world.
8:00 AM- The players, Courtney Lee (Western Kentucky), Lester Hudson (Tennessee Martin), Pat Calathes (St. Joseph’s), Brian Roberts (Dayton), Reggie Williams (VMI), Stanley Burrell (Xavier), John Riek (Winchendon Academy) and Martin Iti (New Mexico State) wake up at 8 o’clock in the morning in their cozy dorms located inside the athlete’s village of IMG Academy in Bradenton—about 45 minutes south of Tampa. Most of them have been here for close to two weeks now—some still haven’t left the facility. They have everything they need inside this gated community, and are too focused on the task on hand and often too tired by the end of their long workout days to want to do anything else. Everywhere you look as you walk around campus, you see young, tall, tanned, incredibly fit athletes of every shape, size, nationality and age walking around—looking much healthier than you do. “It’s great here,” tells me projected first-round draft pick Courtney Lee with a big smile—“everyone is working on their body all the time, and working on their games. There are absolutely no distractions.”
8:30 AM- Breakfast time. The players eat together in a small cafeteria with a buffet packed with all kinds of extremely healthy food. “I’ve put on seven pounds already since I got here,” Pat Calathes notes.
9:00 AM- The players spend the next hour stretching and rehabbing any minor nicks they may have incurred in their intense workout sessions.
10:00 AM- IMG has a state of the art weight room, and this is where the players spend the next hour, lifting and trying to get stronger in the parts of their body that have been pinpointed by the staff.
11:00 AM- The day really kicks off when the basketball coaches arrive. The players still haven’t done much of anything competitive—they are still in the learning phase. Today’s lesson? The art of creating your own shot in one on one situations. It’s what the NBA is all about, and the coaches are constantly helping the players visualize the intended results by bringing up examples from last night’s playoff games (the players’ “homework”) to hammer their points across.
First up: Jab-steps. A fundamental stance, compact technique, selling the move with vocal effects and exaggerated motions, emphasizing the importance of timing and aggressively keeping an opponent off-balance—the coaches here have this down to a science. Mike Moreau quite literally shows why it’s called a jab by quickly switching into a imaginary boxer, showing the effect a quick jab can have in the ring to daze an opponent. Every little advantage the players can gain here by utilizing perfect technique helps in the quest of dislodging a defender momentarily from his stance and beating him opponent off the dribble. If you aren’t a Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony type talent as David Thorpe reminds them, it’s your only chance of surviving in the NBA, where everyone is incredibly athletic. “Put your man on a puppet string,” he stresses. “And don’t settle!”
The coaches here work as a team. Thorpe and Mike Moreau are both NBA analysts with ESPN’s Scouts, Inc., and they know the game as well as anyone you’ll find. 29-year old Dan Barto is quickly developing into an incredible asset here because of his supreme knowledge of the human body and how every part of it has to come together in unison to create the perfect athlete. He explains to me how Lester Hudson’s scoring instincts and incredible wingspan are extremely important in the process of beating his defender off the dribble, but he still has a great deal of potential physically because of the strength he lacks in his ankles. He could be even more explosive off his initial jab if they worked on that, instead of building up his “football muscles.”
Rocker-steps (a jab, followed by quickly going half-way into the motion of a shot, only to then explode off the back foot), and freeze fakes are followed by finishing moves—first learning how to effectively create separation to get a shot off with a fade-away move (“hand in the rim” we here again and again—meaning hold your follow through), and then mixing in step-throughs and jump-stops to get even craftier around the basket. The players then combine a string of all the moves they learned over the course of the day, every time adding an additional thing into their game—hard jab, one-dribble, freeze- fake, fade-away, all in one fluid motion.
Everything is mixed in with a constant stream of teaching and encouragement, creating a very positive atmosphere in which the players are not afraid to experiment with the new tricks they’re learning.
12:30 PM- It’s time for lunch. Again, the players eat together, this time alongside the coaching staff. Chicken, Shrimp stir-fry, rice, broccoli, and a big salad bar are on the menu. Dan Barto takes off with John Riek to escort him to the doctor. They’ll be the first ones to tell you how invested they are personally in their players’ success.
1:30 PM- The players are in for a treat today. This is their first session with acclaimed communication skills trainer Steve Shenbaum, who is based here out of IMG. Shenbaum’s client list is a who’s who of star professional athletes—Carmelo Anthony, Pete Sampras, Greg Oden, Darren McFadden, and recently O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love and many many others—giving him instant credibility amongst this group. A former Hollywood actor, Shenbaum first wins them over with his incredible sense of humor, and then quickly gets to work.
The focal point of this session is on helping these players make a strong impression with their communication skills—be it in the interviews they’ll soon be conducting in private NBA workouts, in press conferences, in everyday life with people they meet, and beyond. Shenbaum wants them to be known for a lot more than just their skills on the court—he wants them to be confident, relaxed and charming—smart enough to recognize who their audience is, and how to switch moods swiftly depending on who they are talking to.
Shenbaum talks to them about the importance of “coins”—things in your pocket you can pull out at a moment’s notice and use as a means of telling a story. Don’t just answer an NBA executives probes with a yes, you are a good leader/worker/teammate—pull out your coins and go into some depth telling the interviewer why you are, without sounding scripted. Your family, your hobbies, things you are proud of- there are endless possibilities.
A steady stream of highly entertaining Improv games help emphasize Shambaum’s points. In a game called “Expert Speaker,” Martin Iti is interviewed by an imaginary character about his expertise in the field of ‘Temperology’ and asked to explain how he’s been able to make money off a two page book he wrote about Global Warming. An interview can be fun we see, it’s not that hard to talk and improvise about anything actually, if you know how to turn it into a conversation and win people over with your personality. For the second straight year, this might have been the most fun part of the visit.
3 PM- After getting to relax and laugh a bit, it’s quickly back to work, as the players conduct a very intense hour-long shooting session, practicing every type of jumper imaginable, from every distance and in stand-still and off the dribble situations. Rather than making this a monotonous affair, Mike Moreau gets the players’ competitive juices flowing by pairing them up and pitting them against each other, letting them run up and down the floor, yelping, celebrating each make and cursing each miss, basking in the glory of victory and crushed by the anguish of defeat. One of the more entertaining shooting sessions I’ve seen, I must say. Consider the shooting percentages of the players involved…Courtney Lee (40% 3P), Pat Calathes (40% 3P), Brian Roberts (46% 3P), Stanley Burrell (39% 3P), Lester Hudson (39% 3P), Reggie Williams (53% FG). There were not all that many misses in case you were wondering. There is no question that this is the group’s strong-point, in addition to their extremely high character, which was always evident throughout the day.
4 PM- The last session of the day was unlike any other I’ve seen over the past few years on the cross-country workout trail—NFL combine guru Tom Shaw, widely considered the #1 expert in America on speed training. Shaw worked for the New England Patriots for seven years, spent time on the Florida State University track team staff, is the founder of the Nike SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness) program, and has helped thermonuclear athletes such as Deion Sanders, Michael Vick, Darren McFadden, Tyrus Thomas, Chris Johnson (at 4.24, the fastest player ever at running the 40 yard dash) and a slew of others. Needless to say, his resume speaks for itself in his field.
With this being the first session the players are going through with him, much of it was dedicated to explaining the theory behind speed training, and helping them understand exactly what it will take to get faster and more explosive. He explained the two methods of increasing speed—increasing stride length, and increasing stride frequency, and then put them on the track for various different drills to help emphasize those points, as well as teaching them the most effective ways to run properly.
The players were free after that, clearly exhausted after what looked like a grueling day. I was quickly informed that this was actually an easy day by their standards.
8 PM- The players are in their dorms by now, with their task for the night involving watching the NBA playoffs and processing the incredible amount of information they’ve been taught over the past few weeks by seeing how it manifests itself at the highest level of basketball in the world. Mike Moreau and David Thorpe will send out a slew of text messages to each of the players to get them to notice and think about the various things they are watching and how it relates to their own game. Thorpe says his goal at this point is mostly to help increase their knowledge of the game, so they can better understand what they’re learning and more easily incorporate new things into their own skill-set.
Due to the nature of the workouts we took in (there was one more session the morning after we saw, mostly involving plyometrics and various other strength and explosiveness drills)—there was only really so much you could take away from the players’ strengths and weaknesses in a setting like this. Things like technique, fundamentals, athleticism, shooting touch, work ethic, and other intangibles were on display—but not to the degree that you would want to make any sweeping long-term projections off of. Having watched all of these players repeatedly in college, and for some, the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament—this was definitely worthwhile—the icing on the cake in the evaluation process you might say.
Courtney Lee- From what we could see here, Courtney Lee is very likely going to impress a lot of people with the way he’ll look in private workouts. Physically, he’s in excellent shape, with a superb frame, excellent fluidity, and looking very impressive getting off his feet with his extremely quick initial bounce. We’ve raised some question marks about his overall athleticism in the past—but that did not seem to look like much of an issue here—especially with the way he was jumping. He was the most natural player of the bunch in everything related to the jab-steps and shot-creating tools, able to sell his moves almost effortlessly and looking extremely polished in all the various skill-work he did.
He shot the ball extremely well in the drills, displaying picture perfect form and no longer bringing the ball down before going into his shot the way he had a tendency to do during the season. Off the court, he’s almost just as impressive—well-spoken, humble, confident, and obviously very intelligent. We couldn’t really evaluate some of the things we have question marks about—for example how he will fare in a pure one on one setting against a long, athletic defender having to create his own shot excessively using advanced ball-handling moves, as well as some of the issues regarding the passivity he displays from time to time—but he showed enough in other areas here to have left an extremely strong impression.
Lester Hudson- The first thing you notice about Hudson is that he’s probably significantly shorter than the 6-3 he was listed at in college—6-1 looks more like it. Regardless, he makes up for that in a big way with his incredible 6-9 ½ wingspan, and a massive frame—causing Tom Shaw to inform him that “you could play football” in case things didn’t work out with basketball, which isn’t likely.
Hudson is about as instinctive a scorer as you’ll find—“he just has that ‘it’ factor” as Dan Barto likes to say. He isn’t an incredible ball-handler, nor is he freakishly explosive, but he has a fantastic feel for putting the ball in the basket, particularly with his excellent jumper. He seems to be pretty laid back off the court, but on it he’s mostly definitely an animal, strong and tenacious, and not willing to take no for an answer. He works extremely hard and still has a lot of upside to continue to improve despite already being 23 years old—as it’s not hard to tell that he hasn’t been around a highly organized setting like this for too long (as his background would indicate), and is still very much living off his instincts at this point. The physical experts like Barto think he can still get much stronger and more sophisticated with his shot-creating tools as well.
Players like Hudson are hard to project, as not only is he a 6-1 combo guard, but he only played one season of college basketball, mostly against a very low-level of competition in the OVC. It’s hard to say how many people really have a great feel for the type of player he is right now, and from what it sounds like, he isn’t planning on making things any easier on people, as he will likely be skipping the NBA pre-draft camp.
Pat Calathes- This isn’t really the setting to evaluate “feel” guys like Pat Calathes, as he’s not going to blow you away with his body, or the way his shot looks, or his athleticism in a workout. He definitely seems to be working hard on his game, whether it’s making sure his release point is consistent, tightening up his handle and adding some more “wiggle” to his off the dribble game, or adding strength to his fairly frail frame—which has already put on 7 pounds of weight since he arrived here. He was at his most impressive in the shooting drills, draining NBA 3-pointer after NBA 3-pointer, making it look incredibly easy at his size.
Brian Roberts- Roberts is about as tailor made as you’ll find for a workout setting, thanks to his picture-perfect shooting mechanics and incredibly smooth overall game, which reminds this writer of Louis Bullock. He’s incredibly fluid with his pull-up jumpers, looking like he’s worked on this part of his game extensively, and seeing excellent results in the process. Behind the arc he’s as expected lights out, which comes as no shock considering that he shot 46% for 3 in college. The coaches here are working with him a lot on the art of playing at different speeds, and they seem to be thrilled with the progress he’s making. He’s a lot faster with the ball in person than he looks on tape, and was pretty impressive getting up around the basket and throwing down emphatic dunks. His ball-handling skills could still improve somewhat, and he’s probably always going to be on the frail side—making him somewhat of a liability on the defensive end (especially fighting through screens), but it’s hard to not like the way he plays, even if he’s not a pure point guard. If he can find a way to become a bit more aggressive on the court, he has a chance to become a very high level overseas player, and maybe down the road compete for a spot in the NBA.
Burrell left a strong impression with the way he played at Portsmouth, and he continued to impress here at the Pro Training Center at IMG Academy as well, as he is very good at a couple of things he does well. The first thing you notice about him is his chiseled frame—clearly indicating the amount of time he’s spent in the weight room. Beyond his strength, he looks very fundamentally sound, mature, and is also a very good shooter. Defensively, he is off the charts as you would expect considering his status as Atlantic-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He might have been the hardest working player here in the various drills, and seemed very genuine in the way he cheered his teammates on. He’s a confident guy, and also very well spoken. As a very undersized shooting guard, without incredible ball-skills or athleticism to compensate, it’s probably going to be tough for him to make the NBA. But it’s not tough to envision him finding a lot of success overseas, and continuing to improve over the next few years thanks to his work ethic.
The NCAA’s #1 scorer is probably also the NCAA’s most unorthodox player, and seeing him again in person did nothing to change that notion. Showing decent size and a phenomenal wingspan, Williams is about as crafty as they get with his moves, and is also a pretty solid shooter to boot. He’s not an incredible athlete and obviously has work to do with his ball-handling skills and pull-up jumper, but he’s an intriguing player who should get invited to Orlando and lots of individual workouts. If the NBA does not happen for him this season, he's going to make himself a lot of money in Europe thanks to his strong all-around game.
Riek made a very brief appearance at the beginning of the day, looking about the way you’d expect a 7-3 and incredibly raw player to in the ball-handling, shot-creating and skills drills. He’s been dealing with knee problems over the past few months, and is not expected to keep his name in the draft.