: DraftExpress spent the weekend traveling up the beautiful West Coast of Florida to visit two of the most prestigious NBA draft training facilities in America, IMG academy in Bradenton and Five Star Pro Training in Clearwater.
We had the chance to take an in-depth look at many prospects for this draft, weeks before the NBA will, including Patrick O’Bryant, Kyle Lowry, Alexander Johnson, Guillermo Diaz, Yemi Nicholson, Rashad Anderson, and others. This report will focus on the first gym we visited, Five Star Pro Training, where we watched two days of workouts.
DraftExpress has a bit of a sweet history with Five Star. Two years ago, minus two weeks, We got the first chance to watch a certain no-name prospect who was on absolutely no one’s radar at the time, a skinny kid from Western Carolina named Kevin Martin. At that point, Martin was unanimously projected to go undrafted by both the NBA’s advisory committee and most scouting services. Martin looked a lot better than that to me, which prompted us to call him one of the biggest sleepers in the draft after that exclusive private workout. Fast forward two years, and Martin is now in the NBA, coming off a phenomenal playoff series against the Spurs where he had one magnificent 26 point performance and another game winning basket, playing solidly throughout.
Last year, DraftExpress made the trek up to watch some even more anonymous prospects. One of them, Orien Greene, was not considered good enough to get an invite to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament or the NBA pre-draft camp after only logging 11 points and 4 assists per game in the Sun-Belt conference. Not only was he unanimously projected to go undrafted, he didn’t even have the name recognition to be mentioned as a draft prospect by anyone else. One year later, Greene was not only drafted in the 2nd round and the recipient of a guaranteed contract; he was a regular part of Boston’s rotation and played over 15 minutes per game as a rookie. The second anonymous prospect, Tiras Wade, had severe back problems that flared up just after we watched him for the first time, resulting in him going undrafted.
This year, the main players we got to watch at Five Star were from the ACC rather than the Sun-Belt or Southern Conference, meaning their names are quite a bit more well-known than in years past. They are Guillermo Diaz of Miami and Alexander Johnson of Florida State. A third player has joined them recently and from what I saw, will be giving them a serious run for their money. His name is Jeremy Kelly, a 6-4 guard from Tennessee Martin in the Ohio Valley conference. Diaz was only present for the second workout, as he had to fly back to Miami to attend the UM’s senior graduation.
All workouts, as always, were run by the Executive Director of Five Star Pro Training, Coach David Thorpe. The players started off both workouts with warmups. The athleticism of Johnson in particular was evident right off the bat when the players were asked to conduct a drill where they throw the ball off the glass with one hand and “dribble” it off the glass while bouncing off the floor each time. That was followed by the “Mugsy Bogues drill,” named after the best ball-hawk in the NBA in the 80’s, emphasizing changing gears in the full-court while handling and protecting the ball at game condition (changing speed) simultaneously. This drill was given to Thorpe from San Antonio Spurs GM RC Buford, a mentor of David Thorpe’s who coached at the University of Florida when his former player Dametri “Da Meat Hook” Hill was there.
The next drill is one that almost every college and NBA utilizes in their own practices—the “pitch and fill.” The ball is thrown off the glass and one of the two players participating goes up to grab the rebound. The player throws an outlet pass to the other, and then takes off at full speed with a wide angle as if on a fast break to “fill” the lane, catch the ball and finish with a dunk. The emphasis here is on the player’s “first two steps.” In a 94 foot court in today’s NBA, all a player needs is to beat his man on his first two steps to beat him down the floor. The value of this drill was never more evident at the end of game 4 of the Spurs-Kings playoff matchup, as Kevin Martin ran the court like a deer to beat all 9 players down the floor (coming from behind the free throw line) and finish with a layup over Tim Duncan to give the Kings the win.
One of my personal favorites followed, which is unnamed but I call the pogo stick drill. The players are asked to dunk the ball with two hands right underneath the basket, catch it right as it comes out of the net, and then go up and dunk it again without gathering themselves—30 times over the first time, then 15, 8, 4, twice, and the last one an alleyoop. This is a grueling drill that works on lower-body strength, explosiveness and balance. Two years ago, this is where Kevin Martin’s quickness and outstanding leaping ability really shined, as he sprung up off the floor as if bouncing on a pogo stick. Thorpe pointed out that Martin could not dunk the ball twice in a row the first time he did it. When we saw him in this gym two years ago and later at a public workout at the Chicago pre-draft camp, Martin shocked everyone by bouncing like he had a personal trampoline at his disposal.
The players followed that drill with the staple of Coach David Thorpe’s workouts; creating space on the perimeter. They are taught to create separation in two ways, both vertically and horizontally. Horizontal separation means creating space through their initial explosion off the dribble. If that does not work, they learn to counter by attacking the point of separation vertically through the air with precise timing or with ball-fakes, hesitation moves and changes of direction.
These drills utilize plenty of ball-handling skills, techniques to improve explosiveness and timing, footwork, movement off the ball in a half-court set, coming off screens, shooting off the dribble and the art of triple threat scoring. They included jab steps, driving+stepping back, shot fakes, freeze fakes, and combinations of the two.
In terms of ball-handling, much of the work is done on utilizing seamless dribble moves in order to not let the basketball slow the player down while on the move. This is partially done with an interesting drill that tells the player to sprint at full speed towards a chair, and then use a sharp and fluid inside-out dribble or crossover to get by the defender without slowing down. Quickness and explosiveness has always been the name of the game in the three years I’ve visited Five Star, and it’s easy to see how this translates to the uber-athletic NBA.
These perimeter drills were what the guards (now joined by Guillermo Diaz) worked on more in the 2nd day of workouts I took in. While the guards worked on their shot-creating skills, the big man Alexander Johnson worked on his moves inside the post; including jump-hooks with either hand from both sides, adding a freeze fake, counters to those moves including turnarounds jumpers with and without the fadeaway, the up and under, the double pivot (ala Dwayne Wade/Kobe) and short pull-up jumpers like we’ve seen Thorpe’s pupil Udonis Haslem use repeatedly in the Nets/Heat series. The players watch the NBA playoffs extensively to see how the skills they are working on translate to actual game settings with players they might resemble.
After that the players went up against each other one on one in a highly competitive full-court setting. This is to prepare them for what they will see extensively in the next few weeks in private NBA workouts. Thorpe will analyze their moves in-between possessions, telling them things they are doing that will or won’t work in a workout setting, with small reminders on things he wants them to keep in mind. He calls his gym “the laboratory,” emphasizing having no fear of failure of what doesn’t work at this point, so they know exactly what does work and how to improve to the point where those moves will when it counts.
The psychological aspect of the draft process is one of the more important things the players are worked with as they prepare for workouts. Instilling confidence in the players and their ability on the court, and motivating and challenging them to continue to improve are key facets. Sometimes it’s with a pat on the back, and sometimes it’s with tough love. The players are encouraged and taught how to take ownership over their career both on and off the court and continue to work on their skills even when their trainer is not around. From what we saw over the weekend, it appears to be working out quite well so far. Player EvaluationsAlexander Johnson, 6-9, Junior, Power Forward, Florida
Alexander Johnson has the type of body that would put most body-builders to shame with how trim and chiseled his physique is. Someone who was watching him for the first time would never in their wildest dreams imagine that this is the same chubby player who battled weight problems for most of his two years at Florida State before losing 30 pounds in this very gym last summer.
Johnson is even a little too skinny right now, but has a perfect frame to continue to add weight. His shoulders are massively broad and his waist is slim, while his lower body looks outstanding. In the unlikely scenario that he does not make it in basketball, Johnson most certainly has a future in the NFL as a tight end.
He is down to 225 pounds, and in my estimation will be considered the most athletic power forward in this draft after Tyrus Thomas. After seeing both players practice with my own eyes, it’s obvious that Thomas has a better vertical leap, but Johnson is almost just as explosive in terms of the sheer quickness in which he gets off the floor. This was never more evident than in the aforementioned “pogo stick” drill. Johnson not only dunked the ball in each of the times he took the ball out of the net without gathering himself, he downright killed the rim every single time.
In the post drills, Johnson’s jump-hook and post moves looked very smooth, as did his mid-range jump shot. Johnson can get his shot off at any time not only because of his size, but also due to the lift he gets on his jumper, his very high release point, and super high arch. It’s not easy to evaluate a player who is shooting the ball by himself, but Johnson clearly looked good in the drills.
In the “pitch and fill” drill, Johnson’s quickness in the open floor was extremely impressive. He ran the floor like a deer, and never seemed to tire.
Johnson is a tough, physical big man, and this part of his game really came out in the one on one full-court setting. The much shorter Jeremy Kelly took an inadvertent elbow right to the face shortly after the one on one matchup started, and his competitive juices started flowing immediately after that. Kelly foolishly decided to take the ball right at Johnson to try and dunk on him, and was rewarded with an emphatic clean block and then plenty of body as he came down and was sprawled out all over the floor. Both Thorpe and Johnson feel that this is a part of his game that scouts did not see enough of due to the fact that Florida State liked to front the post. On the glass, Johnson looked very hungry in going up above the rim to snatch down rebounds.
On the offensive end, Johnson surprised us on one occasion with an incredibly quick move off the dribble to blow right by his man and go in for a dunk. Facing up and creating space to operate, Johnson likes to pull up for the mid-range jumper, and didn’t look bad doing so. He wasn’t allowed to take the guards down to the post since that would not be fair and it’s his face-up game they are working on the most right now.
Taking all this into consideration, it would not surprise even one bit to see Johnson look very good in the private workouts he has scheduled. His strength, physicality, freakish athleticism, and budding face-up skills are all tailor made to these type of settings. Watching him fight through pain and from talking to him, it’s incredibly obvious that Johnson wants it as much as any other player in this draft. His attitude will impress in workouts as well, as he’s a Southern Gentleman who is extremely polite and good-natured.
Johnson has already announced he’s staying in the draft for good. Word around the league is that he’s signing with the same agent Guillermo Diaz has, Jason Levien. Guillermo Diaz, 6-1 1/2, Junior, PG/SG, Miami
Diaz was only here for one workout as opposed to the two the other players were, meaning it was a little tougher to get a full read on him in this setting. He got off a plane from Miami just an hour before the workout and had not touched a ball in the full two days he was gone for. Regardless, there were some pretty obvious strengths he got to show off.
His athleticism was the main one, something Florida natives such as myself had already seen extensively from him, particularly in his junior year. Diaz was always considered a world-class athlete, and according to Coach Thorpe, is back to his old self with his 44+ inch vertical leap. He was told to go easy with the way he jumped in this particular workout since he was right off the plane and was just about to leave for a grueling week of private workouts, but his explosive first step and overall athleticism was something that could not be missed in this type of setting.
In the drills geared towards creating space on the perimeter, Diaz was outstanding in terms of cutting, changing speeds and directions, using his footwork and just blowing by his man. The raw tools he brought into the gym work wonderfully with the skills Thorpe is working with him on, and these new triple-threat attack moves, shot-fakes, jab-steps, freeze-fakes and hesitation moves add a dimension to his game that makes him even more difficult to guard when you consider how gifted he is already on the perimeter.
His improved ball-handling skills were also quite noticeable. Diaz’s left hand looks just as good as his right does now, both in the way he dribbles as well as finishing around the basket. He absolutely could not be stayed in front of in the one on one portion of the workout, and while the other two players often settled for jump-shots, Diaz was extremely patient in getting his defender on his heels and then just accelerating through the hole the way an NFL tailback would.
His shooting stroke is just as pretty as ever, still featuring that same beautiful high arc, but now with a consistent release point and a better follow through. It wasn’t falling for him particularly well in this workout, though.
Diaz’s competitiveness was evident when the players were matching up with each other in the full court. He absolutely hates to lose and was frustrated by the fact that his 3-point shot was not there. Defensively, he works hard but still has room for improvement in terms of his footwork staying in front of his man on the perimeter. After Kelly hit a prayer of a shot while falling down to give himself the win in one matchup to seven, Diaz hit the padding under the basket so hard he almost broke it.
If his perimeter shot looks as good as we’ve been hearing it has in the month he’s been training here for, Diaz will look fantastic when he begins working out privately for teams, particularly in drills. He’ll measure out a half an inch shorter (6-1 ½) than what he was listed at in college, but will likely impress teams with his combination of explosiveness and perimeter savvy. Diaz is on his way to the West Coast at the moment for a number of workouts, starting with the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. Jeremy Kelly, 6-4, Senior, Point Guard, Tennessee Martin
Kelly is the least well-known of the three players we saw here, but certainly showed that he belonged. He played in the Ohio Valley conference for Tennessee Martin, and is already drawing enough interest from NBA teams to have a number of private workouts scheduled. It’s fairly obvious why teams are intrigued, as he has great size for a point guard at 6-4, is fairly athletic, and is absolutely built like a tank. His perimeter shot was always considered his biggest weakness, and despite the short amount of time he had been here for (just 4 days), it’s already beginning to show major signs of improvement, particularly in his mechanics.
Kelly is an energy type with an excellent attitude and some intriguing raw ability. In terms of athleticism, he has nice quickness and gets off the floor fairly well. His ball-handling is solid, and he’s coming along pretty well in his mid-range game. Kelly might be a little too raw on the offensive end to make the NBA this year, but is someone teams will need to keep track of wherever he lands next season. His defense was supposedly his calling card as a college player, along with his leadership skills, but he had a very tough time staying in front of both Johnson and Diaz with their incredible quickness.
Watching him on film, he makes crisp passes that only true point guards usually make, so it’s clear that he is not stuck in between positions like many 6-4 players are. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him land on someone’s summer league team. He still has a lot of upside to continue to improve and the right attitude and work ethic to achieve that potential.