No Days Off: NBA Trainer Joe Abunassar on Kevin Garnett’s Unparalleled Intensity

Kevin Garnett‘s intensity might get him in trouble from time to time. Just recently, he head-butted Houston center Dwight Howard and got himself a one-game suspension and the ire of fans everywhere. But that’s also what’s kept him in the league for 20 years.

While the rest of his contemporaries have all but faded away, Garnett is still playing, still treating every game and every practice the same way he did as an energetic, 18-year-old from South Carolina. Steve Nash, Andre Miller, and Tim Duncan are all older than KG but none of them entered the league in 1995, as the Kid did.

Some players have secrets to help them stave off Father Time. Garnett doesn’t. We know exactly what it is.

Leave it to longtime NBA trainer Joe Abunassar to explain. He’s been working with the future Hall of Famer since Garnett was fresh out of high school, and is now starting a new endeavor on top of that. Through his Impact Basketball training centers — found in Florida, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas — Abunassar has created the Impact Player Development Program, an online coaching course that features 20 years of insight on developing players. Through 16 hours of content, the program will offer coaches over 250 on-court drills and over 150 weight lifting exercises to help players develop throughout the year in everything from skills to strength to nutrition. Whether you’re a kid trying to make a freshman team, a varsity player, or even a college or pro, Abunassar says the program will help.

“After 20 years of doing what we do,” he says, “we kind of got it down.”

With so many top players getting injured this year, I caught up with the trainer to talk about how basketball players can stay healthy, as well as Garnett, Kobe Bryant‘s comments on American players’ skill levels, and the rise of DeMarcus Cousins.

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What were your reactions to what Kobe Bryant said about European players having a higher skill level than Americans?
Joe Abunassar: If you look at our website, I put a blog on there in October and it’s basically the same thing that Kobe said. AAU in general, back when Kobe Bryant played it was AAU. Now it’s supposed to be referred to as club ball. Most of the events aren’t really AAU-sanctioned. Really the bottom line is that the development has become secondary to playing games. There’s no question about that. That’s something that, obviously, my company and what I’ve done for 18, 19 years now, is develop players without worrying about the games. I think the point he made is a very good one. He’s referring to NBA guys but it could be said for a kid who is just trying to make his junior varsity or varsity.

There are a lot of games being played and not as much player development going on.

Do you think that’s changing at all? It seems like this has been a topic of conversation since Team USA started losing.
JA: I think the reorganization was getting the guys together earlier and practicing and having a continuity with the guys helped a lot. Do I think it’s changing? No, I don’t think it’s changing. I’m trying to help it change. I have sons that play eighth grade and sixth grade playing games every weekend and I see the parents and the emphasis being put on what team the kids are playing on and how many games they’re winning and not as much emphasis being put on is my son or daughter really getting better? High school coaches have relinquished some control with the way the summer touring is going, and I’m all for the summer basketball. As a trainer, I think kids need to play. I don’t think any kid should be in a gym doing drills around a chair for his whole life. That part is needed. But you need both, a nice combination. So I don’t think it’s changing yet but I’d like to help it change.

Who are some of the most skilled players you’ve ever trained?
JA: We have players of all levels. We have a lot of pros in our building. We had a quarter of the draft last year coming out of college. We have an academy in Florida and Las Vegas where we have 40 kids board with us. It’s basically a prep school, a basketball academy that offers academics. We prepare kids for college over the course of the summer. We have several hundred kids come in from anywhere in the world to train for anywhere from a week to 2-3 weeks, a training camp. We train multiple Chinese professional teams and four or five college teams so I’m getting a chance to see a lot of different levels of basketball, not just the pro guys.

Some of the pro guys are extremely skilled. A guy like Chauncey Billups, what’s he done having a great career, a guy who can really handle and shoot the basketball. I’ve had some amazing shooters over the years. Looking back, a guy like Kevin Garnett, his ability to score inside and out over his career was outstanding. A Kyle Lowry, who can get to where he needs to go.

I wouldn’t say there is one guy who is particularly the most skilled. But guys have shown they’re above-average in a lot of skill areas and that’s pretty self-explanatory by how they’ve played.

With all of these players, at all levels, training all year now to play ball, what kind of skills or techniques do they need to avoid overuse injuries?
JA: That’s a great point. One thing we offer in our course is what to do when. A lot of coaches will take their teams out to the track in the summer and do things that are just going to wear them down. One of the main parts of our program is what to do when and I think that will really help young players say, “Okay, it’s May. I don’t really need to be ready for the season until November. I have some travel team tournaments in July. How hard should I go before then to avoid injury?” I think that’s a big problem. There have been some articles about a lot of the rookies in the NBA this year that have gotten injured. Some of them are freak injuries. Some of them are injuries that can’t be avoided, like stepping on someone’s foot. But at the same time, you gotta look back and see how many games these kids have played over the last seven or eight years with their travel teams and high schools. It’s an astronomical number.

The advice I’d give is to really be careful with it and know exactly what you’re doing. Make sure you’re with someone who really understands basketball and not just someone who is going to get you stronger because it’s a specific type of training that you really need to understand. It has to be someone who understands the game.

Joe Abunassar
Impact

Are there any basketball-specific skills that you value over other ones?
JA: We’re doing a little bit of everything but we have what we call the essential components of the game, which boil down to body control, balance, change of speed, footwork. Footwork is critical. When you think footwork, you’re talking about a guard, you’re talking about a post player, you’re talking about defense, you’re talking about offense. We’re really focused on those and that’s actually a section in our course to tell coaches that before you even get into the ball-handling or shooting, these are some of the core pieces you need.

Basketball is a game of changing speed. When you watch Kyle Lowry play, he doesn’t move fast all the time. But when he goes and stops, it’s incredible. You can take that down to guys like Steph Curry. They are just incredible with their body control and the way they move. They’re always on balance. We’ll go and watch a youth league game and kids will be fading away, taking shots off balance, and the coach is harping on what play they ran. My thing is, no matter what play you run, unless you get your footwork right and understand balance, you’re never going to make that shot.

We’re focusing on footwork, body control, and change of speed as the main parts of our drills. But we cover everything: shooting, rebounding, post play, guard play, all of that.

Do you think those qualities are what separate the great players from the good ones, considering everyone in the NBA is so athletic?
JA: I think so. You get to a certain point where the athleticism becomes a limiting factor for sure. We’re talking about the masses of players of kids who are making their jayvee team. The amount of NBA guys is very small. We deal with what we’re teaching. We’re teaching less to the NBA group and more to the kid trying to make his freshman team. Yeah, we believe if a kid has that footwork and change of speeds, that’ll elevate him over another kid who maybe doesn’t have it. I think it’s a big piece.

Basketball has become a game of speed. If you watch the way people play, there’s not a lot of slow post play out there. Clearly, the NBA with a 24-second shot clock is a lot different than in middle school where there’s no shot clock. We cater the program to everybody.

When you talk to high schoolers, what’s one piece of advice you give them that they make overlook?
JA: I think the biggest piece, and it might be a little vague, is that to be a great player you have to do everything. It’s not just about coming on the court and just putting shots up, or playing with your buddies. You have to take care of yourself. You have to learn what to eat. You have to make sure you’re strong enough. You have to get rest. You have to recover properly so you aren’t getting injured.

When an NBA guy makes a leap to go from being a good player to a great player, that’s usually the reason. A guy like DeMarcus Cousins, who’s just putting up ridiculous numbers this year, his summer of training was also ridiculous. It was great. He was unbelievable. We put a chef in place. We did all of those type of things that he’s locked into. It’s the same type of advice I’d give a young kid. Just coming out and shooting for an hour or two…you really have to train and you have to take care of yourself off the court as well.

Who are some of the best players you’ve ever trained?
JA: Look at Kevin Garnett in his 20th season. I used to travel around with Kevin when he was young. I actually told a middle school team I coach for my son the other day that, “You all need to go watch YouTube and watch some highlights of Garnett on how to approach the game.” We could never get through a workout of more than an hour because he goes so hard. That’s why he’s played 20 years and done what he’s done. No matter who I train in the future, he’ll always be the guy who really set the tone for me in learning how hard you need to work. Kevin did that.

A guy like Billups, who’s now done playing as a Hall of Fame guard, the fact that he got better every year, he got traded a lot, he went through some things but he just kept working. That’s a message I give young players all the time. Look at a guy like Kyle Lowry now. If it wasn’t for the fans, most coaches in the NBA would agree he’s close to being a starter in the All-Star Game with the way he’s been playing. Kyle was a backup guy who bounced around a bit. He had some success in Houston, got in a little trouble as far as not playing well, and now he’s taken it all to another level.

These are guys that I’ve been with since they came into the draft. They basically left college, or high school in Garnett’s case, and came right to me. Those three are tremendous. Tayshaun Prince is a guy I’ll always treasure as a client, who is still playing at a high level and figuring out what he’s going to do with his career. He’s a guy who’s won a gold medal, an NBA championship. Tayshaun is a model of model in professionalism. Never missed a weightlifting session, always eating right, always getting treatment on his body. Young guys can learn from them, for sure.

And now DeMarcus Cousins, what a player he’s become. He was always good but this is a guy who’s 23 years old and putting up 30 and 15 consistently. He’s got a huge future ahead of him.

Maybe my closest player is Al Harrington, who looks like he’s going to sign with someone for the rest of the year. He started a long time ago and what a terrific player for 16 seasons, coming straight out of high school. All of those guys, what they shared is a work ethic and a commitment to the game. They have a lot of passion for the game.

I’ve trained a couple hundred NBA guys, like Rudy Gay, who are great, great players, so I’ve had a great blessing to be around these types of guys. The more I’m around, the more I learn from them and different strategies. It’s been an awesome ride. I always tell our young guys, “If you can master this stuff now, just imagine the advantage you’ll have over everyone else.”

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney