Renowned NBA trainer Joe Abunassar sees star qualities in highly-touted prospect Tyrese Haliburton – and not just because of the youngster’s play on the court.
After conducting a recent pre-draft workout with an NBA team at Abunassar’s Impact Basketball facility in Las Vegas, Haliburton – a projected top-10 selection come Nov. 18 — received some apparel from that club, as is customary throughout the league. But rather than keeping the gear for himself, the 20-year-old point guard out of Iowa St. gave it to his favorite intern on Abunassar’s staff.
“That’s star s—t, that’s star quality,” Abunassar said of the gesture during a phone interview this weekend. “Just the way he carries himself, he’s confident and he’s polite to everyone. You don’t do stuff like that if you’re thinking about the wrong things.”
Abunassar, a 23-year veteran in the business, is currently working with 10 prospects – including Haliburton and potential first-round picks Josh Green (Arizona SG) and Tyler Bey (Colorado PF) – prior to the 2021 NBA draft. With Haliburton, who averaged 15.2 points, 6.5 assists and 5.9 rebounds as a sophomore, the focus has been on quickening the release of his jump shot, along with adding muscle to his frame.
“Some people say (Tyrese) shoots it weird, and it’s a little bit of a different release, but it’s one of the most accurate shots I’ve seen in 30 years of working in basketball,” Abunassar said. “He can really shoot the ball, we just sped up the release. It’s just about him continuing to get better. Tyrese is more of a basketball player than a ‘workout guy.’ He sees the floor. He understands the ‘hockey assist.’ He communicates well. His body has really come a long way. We’ve really locked in his nutrition plan and raised the level of every part of his game – including making sure his handle is tighter.”
Preparing a top prospect for success at the next level is nothing new.
Abunassar’s business has grown significantly since his first draft in 1998, when he was essentially a one-man band in his mid-20s, traveling around the country to conduct workouts. His first clients included the likes of Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Al Harrington and Joe Smith. He didn’t exactly know what he was doing at first. Yet slowly but surely, his methods worked. He forged strong relationships, and gained their trust.
While he’s no longer working guys out on half a court, with a volleyball practice going on at the other end – and his staff has grown significantly as well – Abunassar’s focus remains on strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental growth and basketball fundamentals. Teams provide necessary feedback, allowing Abunassar — who once was a student manager under Bobby Knight at Indiana, and also served as an assistant coach at Wyoming — to provide his prospects with the right tools to transition from college to the NBA, then get better and stick around.
“I think KG once said, ‘The reason we all kept coming back is we were getting results,’” Abunassar recalled. “It’s a huge challenge, but I’ve kind of found the recipe for success. There’s a reason why the guys I’ve trained have become All-Stars, and I’m just trying to instill that in these guys today.”
More recently, Abunassar has helped Kyle Lowry transform his body and become a six-time All-Star, NBA champion and potential Hall of Famer with the Raptors. Lowry is set to arrive at Impact to begin training for the 2020-21 campaign next week.
Abunassar is also particularly proud of Garnett earning MVP honors in Minnesota, Lue winning a title as a coach in Cleveland, and Billups going from perennial trade chip to perennial All-Star in Detroit. Their successes on the court have translated — in some cases — into nine-figure contracts and generational wealth.
“The defining moments for them become defining moments for me,” Abunassar said. “And I’m proud of being a part of it.”
Abunassar has plenty of great stories, too. Like the times he used to ride around Lincoln, Neb. in Lue’s red navigator. And take this oft-told one on the notoriously intense KG, who is known for his midnight workouts.
“We were in LA working out, and after we finished, we went to another gym to play pickup. We got there, and it was Chauncey, Ty, KG, Joe Smith, Al, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis. They were ready to start playing, and Kevin didn’t have any socks. He must’ve left them at the other gym, and no one had any,” Abunassar said. “So he played with no socks and just his shoes for like two hours, and at the end of the workout there was blood coming through his shoes. It was nuts, but they won every game and he was talking the whole time. That’s just him.
“My son (now 19) used to rebound for Kevin, and Kevin would holler at him during the workout when he was nine. His intensity is never-ending. And half of my staff was scared to come on the court when he was working out. But he was great to everyone. It’s not like he mistreated them.
“He always treated me with so much respect. One time I flew to Toronto to see him one weekend, get to the hotel and my room was a two-story penthouse. I told him, ‘I don’t need a room like this.’ He was like, ‘You deserve it.’ He balanced his intensity with constant gratitude in taking care of me. Lowry acts the same way. And I certainly don’t get anything from players other than their fee, but it just goes to show you how great these guys are, and why they’re successful.”
Typically, Abunassar, a triathlete who does the Iron Man, would be biking along the pacific coast by now. But the pandemic has caused him to audible, running workouts through November. Prospects who would usually spend 6-8 weeks in his gym have had extended stays between 5-6 months.
“We have to make sure we don’t go overboard,” Abunassar said of his upcoming workouts with the likes of Lowry and veteran Kyle O’Quinn. “We need to be careful that we’re not trying to get everything back in 4-5 weeks here. It’s going to involve some serious recovery techniques, more stretching and Pilates and not so much pounding. This is new for me. It’s been an interesting year. But the thing is you get increased focus from guys with such a condensed training period.”
Abunassar will spend the draft alone by his phone, just in case he needs to field a last-minute call. A few guys will get selected as projected. Others will fall. And some won’t be taken at all. But there is a precedent for success in all cases. Former client Kawhi Leonard turned out fine after sliding in the first round. So did the undrafted Kendrick Nunn.
Opportunities will come. The question is whether they can seize it.
Whether they can become the next Lowry or KG.
“Chauncey told me 20 years ago, ‘You’re never going to get someone to care more than you care,’” Abunassar said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to keep trying.’ And I still do today. So when you have someone that cares more than you care, it’s a dream job. You can’t work out hard enough.”