Former college standouts working toward common goal in Indy
ZIONSVILLE — Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and all of their contemporaries who joined them on Monday morning hope that the road to NBA opportunities might not be paved at all.
It's the desolate, dusty, rocky county road well north of Indianapolis that leads to the run-of-the-mill pole barn where trainer Joey Burton hosted a slew of former college stars for back-to-back workout sessions, all of them players prepping for either their first or second crack at the professional ranks, the NBA for some, overseas for others.
In this modest building surrounded by farmland off U.S. 421, former Purdue players Mathias and Thompson were joined Monday morning by a group that included Bryant McIntosh, Jae'Sean Tate, Quentin Snider, Zak Irvin and Eron Harris, all players the two ex-Boilermakers competed against at one time or another the past four seasons.
On this day, though, they were together with a common goal: To enhance their prospects as prospects.
That's where Burton comes in.
He works extensively with college players — Purdue All-American Carsen Edwards now one of them — who pay a modest fee per workout session. Rapheal Davis worked with Burton during his Purdue career and recommended him to Mathias following his freshman season, after which he was looking for answers after a shooting season that didn't jibe with his standards, whether he was healthy or not.
"I trusted Rapheal and he trusted Joey," Mathias said, "and we've been together ever since."
Now, Thompson's been working out with Burton for the past month or so, as a complement to his lifelong trainer, his father, LaSalle.
"We're working on doing things off the bounce and creating," Thompson said. "At the pro level, overseas, they need their Americans to score the ball. This is about having the ball in my hands and making plays."
Burton, a former Mississippi State women's program staffer and long-time skill-development trainer, works with pros, too. Glenn Robinson III of the Pacers is a frequent client. Caleb Swanigan worked out with him recently, as has fellow Pacer Alex Poythress. Yogi Ferrell and Georges Niang in recent years, too.
The goal for those who packed into the barn — with the wrinkly old Steve Nash-Phoenix Suns Fathead stuck on the wall just inside the entrance — was to work toward that level.
This is the moment these players have worked toward their whole lives, and they won't transform themselves in a couple months, but the focus of these sessions is largely to improve players' bodies, target perceived weaknesses or scouts' questions and start working toward the distinctly different NBA game.
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During one drill Monday morning, inspired by Stephen Curry, players darted into the lane, hesitated for a moment, then sprinted to the opposite corner to shoot a three.
Prior, Mathias paired up with Tate and Thompson with McIntosh for one-on-one ball-handling/dribble containment work, around the midcourt circle.
Layup-line-type drillwork was tailored toward running hooks off the glass, lateral steps at the rim and reverse layups to condition guards in particular to get shots off against NBA-type size, length and athleticism.
"It's always new stuff with him, always implementing new ways to score, new ways to pass, new ways to read the game," Mathias said. "There's a lot of things a lot of trainers may do that may look cool, but they're not effective on the court. We do a lot of basic stuff that leads to positive things on the court."
There was lots of ball-screen work, and lots of spot-up shooting — during which Mathias was beyond sharp — all geared toward NBA offensive action.
The NBA game is faster and played out in space more. Thus, the free-flowing, full-court two-on-two games Monday morning between the Mathias-Thompson and Tate-McIntosh pairings.
"You can make some minor adjustments and work on things that they'll be asked to do during their workouts (with NBA teams) and their drills and the competitive things they do," Burton said. "The other thing is introducing them to NBA concepts that maybe haven't been widely used in college, getting them used to it, like different pick-and-roll coverages, which are much more prevalent in the NBA, how they defend it.
"Are you going to turn a player into someone he wasn't in college? Not necessarily, but you can strengthen your strengths and if there's one or two weaknesses they've been labeled with, you can work on that."
For Mathias, lateral movement is one of those things.
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Monday morning, Mike Robertson, the owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training, ran Mathias through enough of a gauntlet — targeting lateral movement and speed — that he sweat through his shirt long before his workout with Burton, Thompson, Tate and McIntosh had even begun.
"It's mostly about taking care of your body at this point," Mathias said. "The basketball stuff is important — the shooting, the ball-handling — and you have to keep maintaining that, but taking care of your body, getting enough sleep, eating right, especially when you're traveling like this for these hard workouts with these teams, you have to be able to take care of your body to make sure you can really recover and be ready."
Mathias knows that the NBA's questions won't lie in his shooting or passing or intangibles, but rather in his ability to stack up physically against players who'll stand taller, move quicker and jump higher.
But he also knows he's in the same position he's always been in, trying to prove that he's more than just a jump-shooter, one of the hot-button goals that's always driven him.
"Trying to dispel labels is huge," Burton said. "Sometimes with guys who are seniors the NBA will label guys and not really give them a chance to break those labels."
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