An Interview with NBA Skills Trainer Jordan Lawley

An inside look at the offseason grind featuring some insights from NBA skills guru Jordan Lawley.

It’s the middle of May and basketball fans are paying heed to the NBA playoffs in record numbers. Per Sports Media Watch, ratings for the second game of the Eastern Conference Finals were up 70 percent from last year, while ESPN’s viewership soared to over eight million people. This hyper-competitive, highly-publicized atmosphere epitomizes the need for perfection in that a single mistake could cost a player and his team everything, while a single shot could reserve one’s place in the annals of basketball history.

The irony behind this annual spectacle is amusing. The timeliness and significance of it all blind people to the work that goes on behind the scenes. Athletes are regularly immortalized for a single play that lasts no longer than a few seconds, when the reality is that the play - whether it be a shot, block, steal, whatever - was calculated, practised, and repeated for who knows how long.

Right now even, as fans eagerly await more playoff action, players not fortunate enough to be in the postseason are preparing for their next moment. Victor Oladipo, for instance, literally texted his trainer 16 minutes after being eliminated from the playoffs asking to get some work in.

It’s these rare and infrequent glimpses which signal the level of dedication and intensity that underpins professional basketball, though fans seldom get to see more of the process. People might hear about DeMar DeRozan working on his three-point shot or his ball handling, but it’s difficult to actually envision what this might look like. It’s one thing to casually get some shots up or dribble a ball around, but it’s obviously an entirely different thing to undergo the rigors of an NBA offseason.

And as for what an NBA offseason typically entails, well, fans are usually left in the dark. Fortunately, Jordan Lawley has some answers.

Lawley, a celebrated hooper out of UC San Diego and one of the program’s all-time leading scorers, has usurped his playing legacy in his quest to become one of the NBA’s premier skills trainers. While he was certainly talented on the court, having actually led the Tritons to their first-ever NCAA tournament berth, it was his eye for detail, hard-work, and ability to motivate NBA talent that expedited his ascent as a trainer to the Instagram star he’s now become.

Based out of sunny Irvine, California, Lawley has worked with the best and brightest from across the league since turning professional near the end of 2013. His first pro client was Jamaal Franklin, a six foot five shooting guard out of San Diego State. Franklin split time between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets before ending up in the Chinese Basketball Association with the Sichuan Blue Whales.

Lawley has since worked with big-name players like Wilson Chandler, Will Bynum, Aron Baynes, Michael Carter Williams, Evan Turner, Jamal Murray, Kenneth Faried, and Nick Young’s alter ego Swaggy P. He’ll also be working with Julius Randle in the coming weeks.

In terms of his pro clients, “Julius is probably the most antsy to get into the gym.”

Last offseason, Matthew Jussim documented how Randle cut nearly 20 pounds, reduced his body fat to six percent, and improved his overall athleticism thanks to a stringent strength and agility workout. This physical transformation helped him boost his scoring average from 13.2 to 16.1 points per game. Now, with a good physical base already taken care of, Randle is focused on really improving his skills.

Lawley explained how this is a “transformational year” for Randle and mentioned that “he really wants to work on his shot and a couple of things out of the triple-threat from the mid-post.” He supposedly talks about where he needs to improve with a real sense of urgency, as if what happens this offseason could set the course for his career. This may be a stretch, though if enough progress is made it could certainly solidly Randle’s role on an upstart Lakers team alongside Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma.

To improve his jump shot and overall game out of the mid-post area, it would be plausible for Lawley to have Randle focus on repetitive drills at game speed so he can attain a “level of feel.” Lawley explained that “feel is the final stage of learning” and affords players the opportunity to react more efficiently. “Instead of thinking or processing or having to figure out what to do” feel allows players to simply react to changing defenses in an effective manner.

An impactful drill for Randle, then, might be to have him catch the ball in the short corner, drive middle for a short fade, and then backpedal out for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Done at game speed, this drill would solidify Randle’s already strong tendency to attack the rim but would force him to incorporate a finesse option while also ensuring that he gets his legs under his shot when tired.

Lawley could also have Randle catch the ball in the high-post area and work through various triple-threat options. In the video below, Lawley’s clients make the catch and must overcome contact and make a shot off the spin. For a player as physically gifted as Randle, the contact simulation would be absolutely essential to effectively mirror an in-game scenario and facilitate the attainment of feel in the high-post.

Drills that also incorporate dribbling and passing out of the mid to high-post would be key to fully maximizing the utility of the triple-threat. Lawley may choose to modify the drill seen in the next video to have Randle actually complete the handoff to his teammate, something NBA teams like the Boston Celtics are notorious for running.

Workouts run the gamut in terms of frequency and length, though Lawley is in the gym basically every day with clients. They can also be individual-oriented or team-oriented, the latter an excellent option for promoting a sense of feel in game-like situations.

While Lawley’s various routines are undoubtedly thorough, physically taxing, and effective - as evidenced by the success that several of his clients are currently finding in the league - he claimed that training in the NBA has been elevated to a whole other level.

Instead of investing $15,000 or $20,000 into a skills trainer, many players now dump money into their own facilities to “have guys come to them to work on stuff to really focus on getting better and developing,” revealed Lawley.

Zach LaVine apparently built an American Ninja Warrior-type obstacle course in his backyard to facilitate his knee rehab, though it has since evolved into something completely over-the-top. Rumour has it that LaVine has an “inflatable hill” in his backyard that allows him to do hill runs with minimal joint impact, among several other quirky fixtures. Lawley likened LaVine’s backyard to a “weight-room playground,” then added that while he and his NBA clients work really hard, the stuff LaVine has “been doing sounds insane.”

Typical drills and standard weight-room exercises, while effective, are no longer par for the course with respect to player development as a huge portion of the league now seek novel competitive advantages. Lawley credits this shift in the NBA’s training paradigm to LeBron James, namely when he announced that he spends several million per year on his body and supports unorthodox workout classes as well as innovative tech like liquid nitrogen freezing chambers.

When people heard about James and how he’s managed to, not just stay relevant but continue to dominate, “it had a huge effect… on the league” as guys started to realize the kind of things “they should be doing” if they want to have long and impactful careers, suggested Lawley.

Steph Curry has taken this mantra to heart having utilized special goggles during ball handling drills to alter his peripheral vision and enhance his hand-eye coordination during the 2015 offseason. Erik Malinowski also noted in Betaball that Curry has experimented with headphones that deliver minor electrical impulses to his brain, as well as saltwater-infused sensory deprivation pods that purportedly facilitate muscle recovery.

These are some of the more unique examples of what guys are doing to elevate their games during the offseason, though the general trend to seek out competitive advantages is a real testament to the weight that NBA players attribute to the summer months.

For his clients, Lawley is that competitive advantage. NBA players, now more than ever, realize that offseason training can truly make or break a career.

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