How sports nutrition and biometrics are evolving NBA training

How sports nutrition and biometrics are evolving NBA training

This article was originally published on BasketballNews on July 20, 2022.

Impact Basketball's facility sits inside an unassuming section of an unassuming plaza on Dean Martin Drive in Las Vegas.

The gym contains two light-colored hardwood basketball courts with a small scoreboard, a weightlifting area, a makeshift stretching room, a kitchenette for meals and snacks and a small office. It's no place for vanities. The only flexes are the dozens of white banners hanging on the right wall, listing names upon names of distinguished players who have come through during the gym's 25 years of existence.

Among those players: Kevin Garnett, Kawhi Leonard, Chauncey Billups, Kyle Lowry, Kelsey Plum, Tayshaun Prince, Jaylen Brown, Tyrese Haliburton, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Al Harrington, Kristaps Porzingis, Nassir Little, Saddiq Bey and Ziaire Williams. 

Impact Basketball, founded by trainer Joe Abunassar in 1997, has a reputation for its star-studded, closed-door pickup games that take place during the NBA offseason. In the spring, it's also where some of the top NBA Draft hopefuls join Abunassar's pre-draft "boot camp" and commit themselves to an intricate world of sports training and nutrition.

The timeline is simple: arrive by April, revamp your training lifestyle and find your professional pathway — either via the NBA Draft, an undrafted free-agent deal or another contract — afterwards. The work is not flashy, isn't always fun and, if you want to stick as a pro, never ends.

But the results can change lives.

"It's not about W's or L's, it's about M's — M's being millions of dollars," said Isaac Mourier, Impact's Director of Performance Nutrition and Sport Science. "Once you say that to a guy like that, that's all they need in terms of motivation."

Mourier is a key cog in Impact's program. He's from the United Kingdom and played professional basketball in England and Germany before starting his own sports nutrition consulting business. Mourier has worked for the University of Georgia and Sacramento Kings as a nutritionist and consultant, and joined Impact in 2020 during the spring.

During his two-and-a-half years and three draft cycles with the company, Mourier has filled his laptop with infographics and progress charts for Impact athletes. They include individualized goals for each player; an example involves raising one prospect's weight by 20 pounds, lowering his body fat by 2%, increasing his bench press weight by 50 pounds and adding two inches to his vertical.

Mourier feels privileged to work with athletes at this stage of their careers. To him, the noise of team ecosystems and outside expectations all fade away. He can clearly define goals, and players know exactly what success will look like.

"This is the first time, maybe ever in their life, where they have a team of people that are only worried about them," he said. "Now, I'm just trying to get you to the NBA and keep you there. I don't care whether you win or lose games right now. This is you. All the focus is on you."

Boot camp begins as soon as players are done with their respective prior seasons. They arrive at Impact and take part in comprehensive body testing to establish a full physical profile. The technology includes a bioelectrical impedence analysis that uses electrical currents to scan body composition. Sweat patches can read how much sodium athletes need in their system.

Variables such as blood work, stress hormone levels, nutrient deficienies, pre-workout hydration levels and post-workout hydration levels, body composition and body fat percentages all help establish a baseline of strengths and needs.

From there, each prospect receives an individualized growth roadmap. Skill development makes up one component. Players often train together in small groups, but they receive specific plans that prepare them for team pre-draft workouts and the NBA level.

"We're looking and analyzing and making assessments on the court; if guys are getting bumped off their cuts, if guys don't have enough lower-body power in their jump shot and guys seem like they need to get stronger, if guys aren't fast enough, [we'll consider], 'Okay, what do we need to do in the weight room or from a nutrition standpoint to correct that?'" Abunassar told Basketball News. "So, that's why every guy has his own program, because every guy has different goals."

Hydration and dieting are also central pieces. Mourier oversees the implementation of dietary plans through Impact's local chef connections, and says he outlines each meal, snack and supplement. Along the way are regular check-ins on body metrics, sleep schedules, mood and motivation among other factors. Mourier estimated that about 20-to-25 Impact staffers are involved with a player's development. 

But Mourier repeatedly emphasized that the technology, food and workouts aren't what takes players to the Association. One of his most important jobs is reframing their habits and instilling discipline toward health.

"When an athlete gets to the elite level with bad habits, it's, 'Well, I'm already one of the best in the world at what I do, so why would I change?' So it's changing that mindset, and then when we've done that, it's about understanding that doing small things consistently is what gets us the results, as opposed to trying to do extreme things," Mourier said.

"The way that the structure of basketball [is] from AAU to college to the pros, a lot of the power is in the athlete's hands, where it's almost like, 'Who are you to tell me what to do?' So I think one of the main things that we have to do is cut through that barrier. And again, when our goals are the same as theirs, it becomes a little bit easier. But again, it's, 'Well, you've gotten to this level despite your bad habits. How good could you be if we instill some good habits?'"

Good habits, however, can be inconvenient and awkward. For NBA players to maintain their places in the league, they have to stick with those routines well past a pre-draft boot camp.

Dallas Mavericks wing Josh Green joined Impact's program ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft cycle. He's still entrenched with Impact today, and has been working out in Las Vegas this offseason. Part of his nutrition plan includes avoiding butter, which can be a particular hurdle when eating out at restaurants.

"I have to be the guy who requests light virgin oil, whatever it is," Green told Basketball News. "I think that's the hardest part about it. I'm about to go to Australia for three weeks, and all I'm gonna want to do is eat all the food, but I'm gonna have to stay disciplined. I want to have a big year, so my goal is focusing right now, but just taking it one day at a time."

Green said he started prioritizing nutrition after his second shoulder surgery in April 2019. Since joining Impact, Green has been floored by how much nourishment the human body loses during workouts. He has an app that lays out meal calories and hydration plans, and his goal this offseason is to skip carbohydrates, even from snacks like a simple bag of chips.

"When you're young, whatever you see in front of you is what you want," Green said. "I [was] able to start here early and realize, if I want to play ball for a while, it's important to put the right things in my body and stay healthy. It's the same thing as seeing your physical therapist and getting treatment, if not more important for your body."

Abunassar has a plethora of stories about players who embraced the importance of nutrition at the pro level. Garnett has talked about taping his meal-plan menus on the cabinets of his Minnesota home.  Lowry, Haliburton and Serge Ibaka are examples of guys who transformed their bodies under Impact's guidance too.

Gym time and workouts are obviously valuable, but to Abunassar, nutrition is what sparks physical development.

"The nutrition is really the basis of body change — for anybody, not even just for a basketball player," Abunassar said. "You can go to the gym every day, but if you're eating cheeseburgers and fries, you're just not going to lose weight."

Mourier has his own trail of success stories. He's worked with dozens of players, including Haliburton and Green. Zeke Nnaji, another 2020 draftee, was an especially interesting case as the only plant-based-dieting prospect Mourier has guided at Impact.

Mourier does not advise athletes to follow a plant-based diet solely for performance. However, Nnaji had chosen to be a vegan for ethical reasons, which Mourier respected, and the two worked together to create a nutrition plan despite the constraints. One of Nnaji's pre-draft goals was to add muscle, and he succeeded with rigorous attention to detail.

"He gained 20 pounds and everyone was like, 'Who the hell is this?'" Mourier said. "So that was really good, just being tactful with the timing and quantities of that stuff. And [Nnaji] was really diligent with it. He nailed every single aspect of it down to the gram... He was a really easy one. I really can't take credit for all that stuff. I just put the blueprint down and he just rolled with it."

This year, Impact has worked with several 2022 draft prospects, including MarJon Beauchamp, Blake Wesley and Michael Foster Jr. among others. 

Wesley has been an Impact athlete since he was 17, meeting Abunassar for the first time as a junior in high school. Wesley would come in occasionally for workouts, staying on the far court and watching as NBA players like Leonard and Paul George would get their reps in. He returned in offseasons and locked in for his own pre-draft boot camp.

Mourier praised the Spurs rookie for his attention to detail regarding nutrition. Wesley frequently FaceTimed Mourier while at restaurants and stores, and asked questions about what he should eat. He's also a staunch advocate of Herbalife's CR7 Drive sports drink mix, and even has an endorsement deal with Herbalife.

As part of his pre-draft plan to put on weight, Welsey would cook three eggs, plus have oatmeal, milk and orange juice for breakfast.

"[Changing my nutrition] helped my body a lot," Wesley told Basketball News over the phone. "I kept doing this, so I kept getting better on the court and did everything good on the court. So yeah, my nutrition helped me a lot."

The result: Wesley turned himself from a relatively unheralded four-star recruit into Notre Dame's first one-and-done player — then bulked up to 190 pounds in the spring and became a first-round NBA draft pick.

"I met [Wesley] a year ago, before he went to Notre Dame, and his transformation from then to the start of the pre-draft [process] to now — it's phenomenal," Mourier said.

The next challenge is to maintain discipline once that contract gets signed. 

"You gotta stay focused; the NBA is totally different from college," Wesley said. "I mean, you're getting paid, you got a high profile [and] a lot of people are watching you —  watching how you move, who you hang out with, stuff like that. So it's a whole different lifestyle."

Abunassar, Mourier and the Impact staff are hands-on with their players during the offseason and pre-draft process. But what happens when those players head back to their respective NBA franchises?

"For the most part, from a strength-and-conditioning standpoint [and] from a player development standpoint, the NBA teams have stuff really dialed in," Mourier said. "From a nutrition standpoint, for the most part, they do not."

Mourier estimated that there are only six full-time nutritionists and dietitians in the entire NBA. The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) lists nine full-time registered dietitians. Mourier said that teams often have physicians and trainers covering several responsibilites, including nutrition, due to budget restrictions and front-office priorities. This means some athletes, specifically reserve players, receive less health guidance.

"We're kind of the ones who are the last for the front office to see the value in it, so a lot of times we're really just a check-box," Mourier said. "So especially for those lower-order guys that are maybe No. 7, 8, 9, 10, all the way through to 15 on the roster, they're not really receiving any support at all. They're receiving provision. They're receiving meals and supplements. But in terms of education and behavior change, they're really not receiving it."

Over the last 25 years, Abunassar has seen sports nutrition dramatically change, with data and technology more interwoven into practice than ever. He thinks there are positives and pitfalls to the advancements.

"From a nutrition standpoint and strength-and-conditioning standpoint, it's clearly useful information to help prevent injury, to increase lean body mass, etc.," he said. "All of the technology that has come out has been very helpful for us, but you do have to watch that you don't get too reliant on it. Sometimes, you gotta watch the games and see how guys move and that kind of thing. But a combination of the two is very effective."

Impact Basketball is one progressive frontrunner in the field of sports science, but Mourier emphasized that, at this point, all basketball pros should be setting themselves up for success with some sort of offseason developmental map. Pre-draft prospects especially cannot afford to lose that critical period before team workouts to maximize their appeal.

"It's like doing the SAT without looking at the study guide," Mourier said "...I think it's definitely a standard. There's people doing this all over the country, really. Nobody does it like us, and nobody's been doing it for as long as us, but people are seeing the value."

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