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Training Grounds, Part Four: An Interview with David Thorpe
by: Eric Weiss - Sports Aptitude
June 27, 2006
Training Grounds Introduction, and Part One (Keith Moss)

Training Grounds, Part Two (Joe Abunassar)

Training Grounds, Part Three (Idan Ravin)




Eric Weiss: Where did you get your start in the business of training athletes? Give us some background in how you got to where you are today.

David Thorpe: I started as a JV coach in St. Petersburg Florida in 1987, right out of college. Additionally, I coached ten weeks of basketball camps during the summer at places like Five-Star and the BC All Star camps. My goal was to coach 100 games each summer, so about 10 games per week if I could. The idea was to learn as many coaching tips between all the different stops along the way because I wanted to be a college coach by the time I was thirty-two. I wasnít in a rush to get there, I really wanted to take my time and learn as much as I could and I figured Iíd have well over a thousand games under my belt by going through this process.

But, by the time I was in my late twenties and started getting offers to coach on the college level, I decided that it wasnít the direction I wanted to go. I didnít like the idea of having to play the coaching career-building game, where you essentially had to recruit young players and then leave in a couple of years to take a better job and move up the ladder. I also didnít see a lot of room for career growth at the high school level, so in 1992 I started what was known as the Basketball Academy in Clearwater Florida and I began to train players individually.

During that first year, I sent a number of kids off to Division 1 programs and I was training about seventy-five kids in all during that summer. The thing that was difficult as a high school coach was that I was so limited in the amount of time I could spend on skill development, and when my college kids came back that next year it was really the same thing. Thatís when I started realizing the true need for this. With all the time restrictions that college coaches have, there really isnít enough time for skill development.

One of the benefits from all the camps I had worked when I was just out of college were all the people I worked with. Then, they were just starting out like me. Now, they were prominent coaches or assistants in college or the pros. So by accident I built a pretty extensive network of friends working in the higher echelons of basketball. And because I trained a lot of high-level players, I got to know top college coaches who recruited my kids. One of them was RC Buford, who at the time was a coach at the University of Florida. RC had been one of my mentors, someone who I learned a lot from, he and Lon Kruger. So, when agents started hearing that I was good at training players they gave those two a call to find out more and I guess those two had good things to say about me and that made the agents comfortable.

But at the time, agents only wanted to send their players to me for five days. While this was certainly a lucrative opportunity financially, it reminded me too much of the problems I had seen with high school and college. My belief was that training had to be a year-round thing, not just from a skill development standpoint, but also to help a player deal with the enormous mental challenges and pressures of the NBA.


Eric Weiss: Letís get into philosophy and methodology. You obviously have alluded to a belief structure and that carries over into how you implement your training techniques. Tell us more about this approach.

David Thorpe: Let me address philosophy a little bit. My belief is that confidence is a large percentage of the game at that level; and if youíre not getting the job done then your minutes will start to suffer and the NBA coaches will just find another guy. Thereís no personal involvement from your coaches. A player who lacks confidence will not perform well, and consequently will fall from the rotation. So I try to fill in the gaps between my players and their coaches--whom I never second guess with my players. They are the coaches--they determine playing time-- so I work on helping my guys do what they are asked to do, at a high level of competence.

Jason Levien (Udonis Haslemís agent) was someone I knew from coaching in the summer while he was still in college. When he graduated Law School and became an agent we had kept in contact and he and I agreed that the process should be year-round-- he played ball in college and knew the challenges most players face. Even though the process was a greater financial commitment, the return was greater than any other investment the player would ever make. So, it really started with Udonis [Haslem]. The Heat was pretty demanding of his time, but throughout the year I was able to help him to develop. The end result at the end of three years of working together full time has paid off. He asked me to shoot with him before Game 6 of the Pistons series, and again in Game 5 of the Finals. Watching him shoot it so well, with so much confidence in the clinching game vs. the Mavs, well, it was pretty emotional for me. We spoke a few hours after the game, and I know how much he appreciates our relationship. He went from going undrafted to starting and recording 17 and 10 in the championship clinching game--who besides he, his agent, and I ever believed that would happen?

I can only speak for myself, but I believe other coaches would agree with me. Weíre all in the inspiration business. If your delivery isnít good and youíre not motivating your students, then youíre just droning on and no oneís going to listen. So, one of the first things that I try and do is ask the players what they would like to accomplish. Itís irrelevant what I want. Maybe I can help shape what they want, but ultimately itís up to them to determine where they want to go.

There is a great analogy for this that is in a book called ďThe Tipping PointĒ by Malcolm Gladwell. Letís say you have a piece of paper. Imagine that you can fold that piece of paper 50 times, over and over again. Now, after youíve folded that paper, how thick do you imagine that paper to be? Some people say it is as thick as a phone book, others say as tall as a refrigerator. Actually, itís the distance from the earth to the sun. Fold it 51 times, and it is the difference from the earth to the sun AND BACK. Youíre only limited by what youíre mind sets as its limitations, and humans tend to severely limit themselves.

When I met Kevin Martin at Western Carolina, he had just arrived here to train following his freshman year of college. I asked him what heíd like to accomplish in his career, and he said that he would like a shot to play in the NBA. My response back to him after training him for two weeks was ďI think youíll be a first round pick.Ē After I said it, Kevin was like ďyou know what, yaÖĒ It was almost like he was afraid to say it as a player coming from Western Carolina. That goes back to the inspiration business, my job is to help him to think bigger than what he may allow himself to do on his own. Today, if you asked Kevin what his goal is heíd say ďI want to be the best shooting guard on the planet.Ē Iím not saying he will be the best shooting guard on the planet, but it is a good goal to shoot for. That goal will drive his workout regiment all year. He recently took a well needed vacation, where do you think he went? Aruba, Jamaica, Hawaii? No, he stayed on the beautiful beaches here in Clearwater, Florida, but spent 3 hours a day in our gym. If you want to be the best shooting guard in the planet, you have to put in the time.

The other half of inspiring them is of course to hold them accountable to themselves. First, I help them to come up in their own minds with what they want to accomplish and then they are accountable for what theyíre doing each day to reach their dreams. Then my job is just to remind them from time to time about it. Iíll write up a blueprint for success, but itís up to them to follow through on it. At the end of the day itís their life, their time, and their money, but if theyíre not following through on what weíve agreed on, then Iíll make subtle reminders. Or not so subtle reminders if I think theyíre being dogs.

Eric Weiss: Philosophically that really makes a lot of sense. But, switching to methodology, is it really an in depth collaboration going over in detail exactly how you want them to implement the goals theyíve set out for themselves?

David Thorpe: Certainly. Letís use some examples. When Udonis first came into the league he wasnít even guaranteed a spot on the Heatís Summer League team. Now, with his new body and added quickness we really wanted to focus on rebounding. We knew Udonis wasnít going to be playing above the rim at his height. He can get above the rim, but his game isnít going to be predicated on that. So, we studied guys like Ben Wallace, undersized guys who rebound out of their area. We did drills to make him focus on chasing down rebounds out of area. Half the rebounds in the league are almost like loose balls, in that they have to be chased down after a deflection. We set a goal of being a top 5 rebounder in both summer leagues he played in (he also played for the Spurs). I went to his summer league games that year and charted all the rebounds he could have had if he decided to move or just simply by attacking the glass. He ended up finishing 2nd and 3rd in rebounding in both and believe me he wasnít going over the top of everybody to get those boards, he was chasing balls down.

Did you watch game 6 the other night? With less than two minutes to go its 89-88 and Miami has the ball. Jason Williams takes a shot in the corner to put the HEAT up 3 and misses, Haslem gets a huge offensive rebound, throws a fake at Dampier and makes the basket. But, what no one realizes is that Haslem was 17 feet away at the top of the key, to the left side when Williams took the initial shot. He went to the glass. That simple act is what I spend a lot of time coaching. Going back to his Summer League, if you donít go to the glass and someone else does, that person makes the team and you donít.

So to do this Iíll give them an assignment. For Kevin, once he moved into the starting lineup this year, I felt he was standing around too much when a teammate shot the ball. I told him to watch all the shots that his teammates take on video and chart where the misses are going on the court. If it was Bibby, Iíd have Kevin draw a ďB1Ē with a circle around it for where he shot from and then draw a ďB1Ē with a square around it to represent where the rebound was. By doing this for all the players, you get an idea of where to go when the ball goes up, and it gets him to think about going to the glass. Now, Kevin did a very poor job of this during the past year, but watch what happens when we have a whole summer to focus on this, I guarantee youíll see a difference come next season. And I do this with my draftable players. Yes, weíll do lots of skill training. But I work on getting them to do the little things, too. Be warriors. If you watched our open workout in Orlando earlier this month, you saw what many GMís said was the best workout they had ever seen. I can teach anybody to shoot and handle it--but can you learn to do that while fighting as hard as you can? Thatís where I want to go with them.

Iím also very big into mechanics. But, Iím not going to alter a shot too much if itís working. People always comment about Kevinís release point, but I say that if itís working than he must have figured out something to overcome it, so instead we focus on little things like balance, consistency, holding his follow thru. In his 40 starts this year he shot 43% from 3. He can really shoot it. Shooting should be natural. Going back to philosophy again, I pattern my approach somewhat after the famous Golf Instructor Harvey Penick. I thought to myself that basketball is a game of mechanical movements like golf is. So, I break things down mechanically and we drill incessantly. The philosophy is called ďSkill OverloadĒ. Once I think youíve got the mechanics down Iíll introduce some fatigue movements to see if you can maintain when youíre tired. Iíll also implement some other thing to try and distract you from what you are doing and see if you can maintain those mechanics repeatedly. Guillermo Diaz came here as a truly amazing shooter- I promise you I did not teach him that. What we did do is get him to shoot the ball great MORE OFTEN. His talent is extraordinary, but his mechanics were inconsistent. I think he will tell you now that he rarely, rarely, has bad shooting days now because he understands the mechanics behind the skill, and can repeat them consistently. I teach through encouragement. I call my gym the laboratory. We experiment. We may do something wrong three-thousand times, but weíll do it until we get it right. If someone does something wrong 99% of the time, but 1% right, weíll focus on that 1% until we get the end result that we want.

Eric Weiss: Going back to the draft. What frustrates you about the process, if anything?

David Thorpe: If there was one thing that does, it would be some of the people that are in a position to influence the draft that perhaps hadnít earned their spots, so to speak. They may be friendly with a team or another decision maker and they may have risen to the level of a scout or an assistant GM and I wonder if theyíve even coached or played a game before, at any level. For example, I was watching Kevin Martin when he was in college with a guy who has a prominent position in the NBA, and he was evaluating Kevin. Kevin had 20 points at half, or something like that. The guy looks at me and says ďhe really knows where he wants to go with the ball.Ē I just felt like I was watching a different game.

In that game, the other team was doing everything possible to try and stop Kevin. Double-teaming him from different angles, coming early, coming late, denying, sometimes not denyingÖand what made Kevin so good is that he could counter everything they were doing and get to an open spot on the floor. But it was always a different spot. To me, if you ďknow where you want to goĒ that means the other team can figure out where you want to go, and when they do youíre done. We all know where we want to go, we all want to go get a dunk. Do you think Dwayne Wade knew where he wanted to go when they were throwing everything at him in the finals?

Eric Weiss: No, itís contingencies. You have to have secondary and third options to succeed.

David Thorpe: Thatís the game. That to me is where the talent is. You take away what theyíre best at and now what do you do? Thatís just one example. Itís like when people ask me about Alexander Johnson and say ďcan he get any better?Ē because heís twenty-three. It drives me up the wall. Ask Kobe Bryant if he got any better after he was twenty-three. Did Shaq get any better after he turned twenty-three? Magic Johnson? Of course they did. So, why canít J.J. Redick get better? Why canít Sheldon Williams or AJ get better just because theyíre twenty-two or twenty-three right now? Itís ridiculous. Name me another sport where no one gets better after they turn twenty-three, other than gymnastics. So when you say that to me, what youíre really saying is that you donít understand the game that youíre involved in and I hear this all the time from NBA people.

Eric Weiss: I see this all the time, and these comments come from the highest levels at times. Itís like thereís some idea that once a player is at his peak physical development that heís somehow incapable of improvement. But, itís still a thinking manís game. You must have the physical ability to execute, but itís the application of that ability to the situations and strategy of the game that makes a player great and that comes through learning and repetition. Thereís this perception that when youíre a senior or something that your done, but your moving to a new level with new situations.

David Thorpe: Itís crazy. Another thing I hear all the time is ďhe canít get his shot in our league.Ē I donít argue with people, I let them say what they want to say. But my comment is, ďhow many guys can?Ē How many teams have multiple guys that can make their own shot on their own and create baskets on their own? Isnít that why we set screens? Isnít that why we run actions to get you a good shot?

While I agree that everyone needs someone that we call a ďplaymakerĒ, someone thatís able to create a 5 on 4 or 4 on 3 situations by beating their guy-and can score it. But, donít you need a guy next to him? Someone who he can pass the ball to after beating his man? Not everybody needs to be a playmaker.

Great example is everyone ripping J.J. Redick. He might not be able to create as much space off the dribble as other guys, but heís able to make tough shots better than the guys that create more space for themselves in the NBA. You ever think J.J. Redick has had to hit a fade-away jumper from 17 feet before? Heís been doing it for four years. Imagine how effective heís going to be when he doesnít have to do that as much. Imagine him on a team where someone else makes the plays. You think youíre going to help off of J.J. Redick the way he shoots the ball? The better you are at shooting off of screens from distance the more open the offense is going to get, because itís extremely hard to shoot off of screens from distance. J.J. Redick is knocking in 3ís from distance all the time.

Now, thereís no question that J.J. Redick canít guard Dwayne Wade, I agree. But, how many players can? But Iíll tell you this, Dwayne Wade would rather not guard someone who can hit a 24 foot shot off a screen. You think Dwayne wants to go chasing J.J. around screens all night? But instead, weíre only going to focus on the fact that J.J. supposedly canít get his own shot.

Eric Weiss: So these are the things you try and focus on and eliminate from your thinking when judging talent and a playerís ability to succeed? Itís refreshing to hear that there are basketball people out there that put more emphasis on finding what makes a player successful and less on what he may be lacking. Positive thinking and a plan for improvement through empowerment sounds like a good plan to me. Thanks for the time.

David Thorpe: Any time.
 


Feedback for this article may be sent to eric.weiss@gmail.com .

 

Udonis Haslem
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 8"
Weight: 250 lbs.
Birthday: 06/09/1980
34 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Miami Senior
Previous Team: Florida , PRO
Drafted: Undrafted in Draft
Positions:
Current: F,
NBA: PF,
Possible: F
Quick Stats:
3.8 Pts, 3.8 Rebs, 0.3 Asts


Kevin Martin
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 7"
Weight: 185 lbs.
Birthday: 02/01/1983
31 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Zanesville
Previous Team: Western Carolina , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 1, Pick #26 in 2004 Draft
by the Kings
Positions:
Current: SG,
NBA: SG,
Possible: SG
Quick Stats:
19.1 Pts, 3.0 Rebs, 1.8 Asts


Ben Wallace
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 9"
Weight: 240 lbs.
Birthday: 09/10/1974
39 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Haynesville Central
Previous Team: Virginia Union , PRO
Drafted: Undrafted in Draft
Positions:
Current: F,
NBA: C,
Possible: F
Quick Stats:
1.4 Pts, 4.3 Rebs, 0.7 Asts


Jason Williams
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 1"
Weight: 190 lbs.
Birthday: 11/18/1975
38 Years Old
Teams:
High School: DuPont
Previous Team: Marshall , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 1, Pick #7 in 1998 Draft
by the Kings
Positions:
Current: PG,
NBA: PG,
Possible: PG
Quick Stats:
2.1 Pts, 1.4 Rebs, 1.5 Asts


Guillermo Diaz
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 2"
Weight: 186 lbs.
Birthday: 11/30/1985
28 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Miami Christian Academy
Previous Team: Miami FL , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 2, Pick #22 in 2006 Draft
by the Clippers
Positions:
Current: PG/SG,
NBA: PG,
Possible: PG/SG
Quick Stats:
10.9 Pts, 3.9 Rebs, 2.9 Asts


Alexander Johnson
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 9"
Weight: 225 lbs.
Birthday: 02/09/1983
31 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Dougherty
Previous Team: Florida State , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 2, Pick #15 in 2006 Draft
by the Trailblazers
Positions:
Current: PF,
NBA: PF,
Possible: PF/C
Quick Stats:
14.4 Pts, 8.2 Rebs, 1.2 Asts


Kobe Bryant
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 6"
Weight: 200 lbs.
Birthday: 08/23/1978
35 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Lower Merion
Previous Team: , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 1, Pick #13 in 1996 Draft
by the Hornets
Positions:
Current: SG,
NBA: SG,
Possible: SG
Quick Stats:
13.8 Pts, 4.3 Rebs, 6.3 Asts


Magic Johnson
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 8"
Weight: 215 lbs.
Birthday: 08/14/1959
54 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Everett
Previous Team: , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 1, Pick #1 in 1979 Draft
by the Lakers
Positions:
Current: PG,
NBA: G,
Possible: G
Quick Stats:
14.6 Pts, 5.7 Rebs, 6.9 Asts


J.J. Redick
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 5"
Weight: 190 lbs.
Birthday: 06/25/1984
30 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Cave Spring
Previous Team: Duke , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 1, Pick #11 in 2006 Draft
by the Magic
Positions:
Current: SG,
NBA: SG,
Possible: SG
Quick Stats:
15.2 Pts, 2.1 Rebs, 2.3 Asts


Don Williams
Full Profile | Player Stats
Physicals
Height: 6' 2"
Weight: 180 lbs.
Birthday: 08/02/1956
57 Years Old
Teams:
High School: Mackin
Previous Team: , PRO
Drafted: Rnd 5, Pick #8 in 1978 Draft
by the Jazz
Positions:
Current: G,
NBA: G,
Possible: G
Quick Stats:
6.6 Pts, 1.4 Rebs, 2.4 Asts


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