Young skills coach preps college stars for NBA

The NBA Draft is just two rounds, much more compact than similar talent harvests in other major professional sports leagues, but it’s nevertheless an inexact science that keeps general managers awake at night as they ponder the possibilities involved in making wise choices.

Considerable money and manpower hours are spent in pursuit of data that can help guide those choices. Some of that data is provided in-house, and some comes from an array of outside sources—anything or anyone that can give teams reasonable assurance that the players they’re drafting will go on to productive careers.

Would you believe that one of those outside sources for an increasing number of NBA teams is just 23 years old and a year removed from playing point guard for Belmont University?

Drew Hanlen will never forget the day six years ago that his life changed abruptly and forever, the exact moment when a career found him, not the other way around.

He was still a junior at Webster Groves High School in St. Louis, a 5-11 guard who knew that, lacking physical gifts, hard work would be his only ticket to landing a college scholarship. Hanlen was in the middle of one of his typically grueling solo workouts when he was approached by the father of a player whose team was playing on an adjacent court.

“I’m dripping with sweat, breathing heavy at the free-throw line, and he comes over to me and says his kid doesn’t understand how to work out,” Hanlen said. “Can you put him through one of your workouts and just kill him?”

Hanlen’s arm did not have to be twisted, especially after he was offered $20 an hour for his services.

“I’m in high school,” Hanlen said. “Twenty bucks an hour? I thought you couldn’t beat it. So I started working this kid out. And a couple of weeks later word had spread around the St. Louis area about my workouts, and other players started asking me to work them out.”

Here was an opportunity for Hanlen, who knew that, after his college career, he was finished as a player. But he loved basketball and wanted to stay around it. Hanlen’s life after basketball began that day in the gym, when Pure Sweat Basketball was born, and he hadn’t even graduated from high school.

We should all be so lucky as to have a clearly defined career path laid out for us so early in life. That in turn made Hanlen’s college choice fairly easy. He had offers from nearly every Missouri Valley Conference school, and even a few power conference teams showed interest. But he chose Belmont, located in Nashville, because of the success it had enjoyed under long-time coach Rick Byrd and the fact it offered a national recognized major in entrepreneurship.

Long before Hanlen set foot on Belmont’s campus, though, his business was booming. Tapping into the mother lode of high school talent in St. Louis, he began working out players such as Brad Beal (who would sign with Florida and become a lottery pick), Cameron Biedscheid (Notre Dame), Scott Suggs (Washington), Anthony Booker (Iowa State) and B.J. Young (Arkansas).

Byrd knew about Hanlen’s business when he recruited him, and though he feared possible brushes with the NCAA’s voluminous rulebook, he signed him anyway. And sure enough, there were constant NCAA issues.

“All the time,” Byrd said with a laugh. “It was always something. He tried really hard to make sure everything he was doing was right. But there was a time or two when we had to hold him out (of competition) until we got the ruling from the NCAA. He never missed games, but there were so many gray areas.”

“Coach Byrd was very supportive of everything I did,” Hanlen said. “But he was a nervous wreck my entire career because of all the NCAA rules.”

Suffice it to say Heather Copeland, Belmont’s director of compliance, earned her paycheck in the four years Hanlen played for the Bruins.

“It was definitely a learning experience for both of us,” Copeland said. ‘One of the trickier aspects was basketball skills instruction specific to the clinics Pure Sweat was putting on. From an NCAA standpoint, if you have eligibility remaining, you are not allowed to put on your own camp or clinic. [Because of Hanlen], a big part of my education every fall in talking with the student-athletes is owning your own business.”

“It was a totally unusual situation,” Byrd said, “for a guy to be that invested in a business and what he’s going do after college, that early, and that locked in and busy. That was another thing I was worried about. You only have one college career. I thought he needed to slow down and enjoy college, enjoy his playing days.

“But he had a fantastic senior year for us. I guess I didn’t have as much to be concerned about as I thought.”

Those compliance issues didn’t slow down Hanlen, or his business. Nashville was another boon to Pure Sweat Basketball, because Hanlen began working with three Vanderbilt players who were eventually chosen in the 2012 NBA Draft—Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor. Eventually, another former St. Louis prep star, David Lee, heard about the great work Hanlen was doing. The two got in touch, and even though Lee was already in the NBA, he was impressed enough to submit to Hanlen’s program.

“After my first year at Golden State, Drew put together 20 minutes of film on things I needed to do to get better,” said Lee, who was just selected to play in the NBA All-Star game. “The biggest thing with Drew is he’s a complete film junkie. He personalizes everything that we do. I’m a hard worker, but I want to be efficient; I don’t want to be in the gym five hours for no reason.

“Drew customizes my workout, and we get in there for an hour and a half at a pace where I’m about to die when we get done. To me, that’s efficient.”

Credit for Hanlen’s efficiency goes to that entrepreneurship degree of his. How many skills coaches and talent evaluators use SWOT analysis (that’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for those of you who don’t have an MBA) to guide them?

“In business, anytime you’re assessing a business, you want to know everything about its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities to grow,” Hanlen said. “What are threats that other companies have that we don’t have?

“I figured if Fortune 500 companies were using SWOT, it would be a great concept to define how players can maximize their talent.”

Combine his business mind with his film-room proclivity, toss in supreme confidence, and you have the secret to Hanlen’s success. As a senior at Belmont, just weeks removed from finishing second in Division I in 3-point shooting and leading his team to the NCAA Tournament, Hanlen was working out seven players who would eventually be chosen in the 2012 NBA Draft. Two of them are still working with Hanlen and have spoken highly of him to the media.

“The amount of work he puts into it is just incredible,” Beal told Dime Magazine. “There are not a lot of people like him.”

“In 10 years, the whole world will know about him,” former Vanderbilt star John Jenkins, now playing for the Atlanta Hawks, told the Nashville City Paper.

It’s natural that, given Hanlen’s relationship with draft worthy players, and his proven record of improving their games, NBA teams would find out about him. The calls started coming while Hanlen was still playing college basketball.

“I started having general managers and player personnel directors calling me at midseason last year,” Hanlen said. “They began asking me the work ethic of these guys, and what I thought of them of players. What I thought of them as future pros.”

Given that Hanlen watches more film than Roger Ebert, it was a natural progression for him to start sending video to the NBA teams that asked for his opinion. Hanlen is also a proponent of tempo-free statistics, and of course, he includes those with his evaluations, too.

“It was important to me to provide proof, with statistics and video, not just opinions,” Hanlen said. “Everyone has an opinion these days, and you can’t listen to every one of them. But the facts speak for themselves.”

Freed after his college career was over from those pesky and prohibitive NCAA rules, Hanlen has been able to grow his business. He estimates he’s speaking to someone—a GM, a player personnel director, a scout director—from half the teams in the NBA. And he’s working out an ever growing stable of current and future pros.

If Hanlen had some of his fingerprints on the 2012 draft, his influence should grow exponentially in the years to come. And the real beauty of Hanlen’s business is that it has grown by word of mouth. His marketing budget to date consists of the $200 he spent of 5 x 7 cards to promote his online training, but in hindsight, he probably didn’t need to spend the money.

In the next year or so, Hanlen is putting out a smart phone app that details the workouts he conducts with NBA players. He’s also thinking about publishing his 1,025-page (and counting) skills instruction manual that’s appropriate for players from the sixth grade to the NBA.

Hanlen already has about as much work as he can handle. But his old college coach thinks that in the years to come, Hanlen’s influence on basketball at its highest level will far surpass anything he could have ever done as a player.

“He’s a total go-getter,” Rick Byrd said. “He’s got tons of energy. He’s got a lot of self-confidence. That goes a long way. I’m not saying he doesn’t know what he’s doing, because he does, but if you act like you know what you’re doing—‘this stuff is good, this works, and this will make you better’—and you do it with certainty and enthusiasm and energy, I think that’s what makes it work for him.”