Buy in to sell out: A skills trainer explains the world of NBA player development
- Chris Johnson, an NBA development coach for Jimmy Butler and a host of others, explains how professionals work during their off-season.
Look around the NBA today, and the concept of the offseason has changed for everyone. This is obviously true for fans, who can pursue rumors and use the internet to argue about the sport all year long. But it’s true for players, too. Where stars could once check out for months at a time, most of today’s best players spend the summers working. They add pieces to their game. They rehab injuries. They add muscle or lose fat. They rise. They grind. And in the middle of all this, there's an industry full of development experts maintaining the progress for the biggest stars in the game. Whether it's LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, almost every superstar in the league has his own personal guru helping to fine-tune his game all year long.
So how does that world work, exactly?
Chris Johnson is a private NBA player development coach, and he knows better than almost anyone. He's the full-time skills and development coach for Jimmy Butler, and when he's not with Butler in Chicago during the season, Johnson is in Los Angeles during the summer, where he's worked with dozens of players over the years.
Johnson is 38 years old, a native of Houston, and he's married with a son. He technically trains players, but first and foremost he considers himself a coach. In college at Texas A&M—Kingsville, he wrote a graduate thesis on "emotional intelligence in minority athletes." He's a licensed counselor in Texas. And all of this has helped him excel in basketball. He's coached in high school, AAU, and he spent a year working for Daryl Morey and the Rockets, coaching with their D-League affiliate. Now that he's independent, he can work with everyone.
Beyond Butler, he's spent the summer working with Harrison Barnes, Doug McDermott, Corey Brewer, Taj Gibson, Victor Oladipo, Jaylen Brown, Jerami Grant, Tony Snell, and others from around the league. He tracks all 30 NBA teams to keep track of clients past, present, and future. We caught up on the phone last week. We talked about why players have become so invested in the offseason, the life of a player development coach, and more.
We'll start with the basics.
SI: So right now it's the middle of the off-season. What's a typical day like for you?
Johnson: I'll get up at 5 in the morning. Typically my first workout is with Jimmy Butler. Jimmy gets up at 5:30. He's gonna have his shake, he's gonna have his breakfast, and then we're on the floor by 7 a.m. We already have his entire day planned out. Two basketball workouts on the floor, and [in between] he's going to get strength and conditioning, treatment, and we have his schedule for the week.
SI: What about when Jimmy leaves? Then you'll see other guys?
Johnson: Right. I'm on the floor about 14 to 16 hours every day. It requires a certain discipline. I'm going from client to client. I'll go from a point guard workout, to a five workout, to a wing workout. I'll go from 7 a.m. – 8:45 a.m. with Jimmy, and then I'll 60 or 70 minute sessions all day.
SI: Give me your sales pitch to players. Why do they need what you have?
Johnson: I don't particularly sell what I do. I don't have a business card. It's word of mouth. I also work with all the biggest basketball agencies. I had several guys in the first round of the draft this year. Jaylen Brown, Henry Ellenson, Patrick McCaw, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince... But I look at the player as an individual. What's his strength? What's his weakness? What can be areas we can focus in on and become great at? The NBA, it's not about being great at everything. It's about finding one or two things and becoming a master of it. Each player presents a different challenge.
SI: And there’s a mental component, too, right?
Johnson: Yeah, training on the floor is the easiest place to develop a player. The hard part is getting their mind. If you become a great communicator... I’m a teacher. Some would call it rabbi. I'm trying to open the mind of the players to be as great as they possibly can.
SI: What about the actual NBA teams? How much are they invested in this?
Johnson: There are great development guys in the NBA, too. One of my best friends is the player development coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His name is Phil Handy, one of the best coaches you will find anywhere. I'm similar to Phil, but I'm able to look at all 30 teams.
SI: How much do you interact with the teams? How does that happen?
Johnson: The player will go to them and say, "Hey, this is who I work with in my time." So a team may ask a player, "Hey, we want to come out and spend a week with you and Chris." Then we collaborate. I'll reach out and tell coaches, and say, "Coach, tell me what you expect of this player. Then I get notes e-mailed to me about the role they want this guy in."
SI: And that’s how you build the skill sessions.
Johnson: Right, I want to know what a team wants. What role they see for a player. My focus is to make sure that when they get back to their teams, the coach is not having to coach things that they should be spending their off-season on. But at the same time, the player has to feel encouraged, because the basketball is a grind. If you feel inspired to be in the gym two and three times a day during the off-season, then that development guy must be good at his job.
SI: It seems like that's half the battle, especially in the summer. Getting guys to commit to putting in all that work.
Johnson: Yes. Definitely. This is something I tell players all the time: You have to buy in before you can sell out.
Johnson: It's not that players don't possess the ability, but what they sometimes don't possess is the discipline, the fundamentals, the details. I need you buy in before we can sell out.
SI: That comes in the summers.
Johnson: Right. And if you're working out for me, I don't give a f--- who you are. Excuse my language, but it doesn't matter how much money you make. It doesn't matter if you're a celebrity. I don't care what commercial you're in. What I care about is attention to details. How can you keep somebody that has everything before them, focused on what got them there? That happens through conversations, reading books, the whole process of building trust.
SI: And most of this happens in Los Angeles. At this point, it seems like half the NBA ends up in L.A. over the summers. What's the draw there?
Johnson: Well, some guys don't want to be in L.A. It's not all L.A. But a lot of the business is done out here. Most of the agents live out here. A lot of these guys have ESPN, they have shoe deals, they have commercials. And what they find is... Let's say Jimmy wanted to stay in Chicago. Well, we would spend more time traveling back and forth on an airplane to California taking care of off-the-court business. It's better just to live there. You don't miss a beat on your workouts, you got good weather, you're able to take care of all business off the floor. Most guys matriculate to the area.
My original plan with Johnson was to talk one morning after a workout with Jaylen Brown. Instead, we talked from an airport. It was the Thursday before Labor Day Weekend, and the night before, he'd had a last second change of plans. Jimmy Butler called and summoned them to Cabo St. Lucas in Mexico, where they'd work out and celebrate this summer's gold medal. Brown would join them, too. For Johnson, it meant he had a two-hour layover in San Diego.
We had time to go deeper into the process.
SI: Jimmy is one thing. But you work with other players, too. How do you plan programs for guys who aren't superstars?
Johnson: I have to know all 30 teams. Offenses, defensive philosophies. What the coaches want. Jimmy, he's at the top of the food chain, but I may have a guy that's on the bottom of the food chain that's on the brink of not making the league. Or, take a guy like Eric Moreland, going to Cleveland, or Ray Murray going to Minnesota, or D.J. Kennedy who just signed with Denver, but it's only partially guaranteed. With those guys, you talk about how to be the 15th, or 14th, or 13th and 12th guy on the roster.
SI: You're teaching them to be role players.
Johnson: Yeah, and a lot of coaches struggle with telling players their role. But as a developer, they're paying me. I don't lie to them. I don't go to them and say, "You're a 5, but you could play outside like 3." You have to find your niche that fits with the system.
SI: What about some of the older guys? What have you been doing with Jerami Grant?
Johnson: He's been with me the whole summer. He's such a great athlete, he's so long, he's got the body potential to be a top player in this league. Our focus is not getting him in shape; he doesn't have to be in shape until September. We're coming to the gym and we may spend two hours every day on shooting.
SI: What's the motivation there?
Johnson: We want him to play the 3, because they just drafted Ben Simmons to play at the four. And so, the 3/4 number system, it's really just telling you where they're going to be on the floor for spacing. Numbers really don't matter. But J-Grant, he's gotta be able to make corner threes consistently. Especially if he's going to be on the floor with Ben Simmons.
SI: Right, if he can get a jumper that changes everything.
Johnson: So that's what we work on. And playing off the dribble versus playing as a dunker. We want him playing facing the basket. That enhances his stock as a player, and it helps him as a teammate. If J-Grant is knocking down the three at 35, 36% they'll be really good. And if he can beat you on one dribble, he's going to jump over everybody. But you can't get to that point if you don't have technique on your shot, because nobody's gonna close out on you.
SI: And you also have a guy like Jaylen Brown, who’s never played a game. What do you end up working on with him?
Johnson: For a kid like Jaylen, it's footwork. Balance. His ability to play off the catch. His ability to get into an attack position and score efficiently off of one and two dribbles. You don't get a bunch of dribbles in the NBA. I also feel like Jaylen has an opportunity to be able to have a deadly mid-post game. Like other big guards—right now Jimmy is really deadly on his mid-post game.
SI: But the footwork is step one.
Johnson: Exactly. We're not trying to get good at everything. We're focused on a couple things, and footwork is the basic that I'm really focused on. That applies in the post, the mid-post, pick-and-roll, the shooting. Once you've got footwork and balance, and ball-handling, you can get anywhere on the floor.
SI: But what about his role on the Celtics? How do you guys plan for something that hasn't happened yet?
Johnson: We break it down. Boston, I don't want to put it all out there, but you know they they drive in the slots. They're a hard slot-driving team. We need him comfortable in the pick-and-roll, whether it's side pick-and-roll, angle pick-and-roll, or slot pick-and-roll. We need him making corner threes. We take the concepts of what Boston already has in place, and I build that into Jaylen's sessions. So by the time he gets to training camp, he's very familiar with not only the positions that they're going to put him in, but he's got moves and counters that will make him more comfortable as an offensive player.
SI: How much are you talking to the Celtics through this process?
Johnson: They came out and spent a whole week with Jaylen and I. And we worked together on his development. [Teams] all come out. Now, that doesn't happen for a guy who's just trying to make a roster. That happens for the elite guys. They'll give you whatever you need to make sure that player is ready.
SI: Were you in touch with Brad Stevens?
Johnson: I've spoken to everybody around Brad, but I haven't seen Brad yet. But me and Jaylen discuss what Brad's told him. And the other coaches came out, so we saw them.
SI: With Jaylen and some of the other rookies like Taurean Prince and Pat McCaw, it seems like their best-case scenario would be the two-way wing that Jimmy has become. How often will you point to Jimmy as you work with guys like that?
Johnson: Every day! Every day. You'd be a fool to say no. People want to know, "What'd he do to get there?" So, you tell 'em. But you say, you can't jump from here to there. You have to go through the whole development process. And when you're honest like that, you can really find out who's focused. When that grind that starts going, twice a day, five days a week, six days a week, and it's going on weekends, week after week after week, and that kid is showing up 15, 20 minutes early every day? He's bought in.
In the summers, Johnson has at times shared a Los Angeles gym with another elite skills trainer, Drew Hanlen. Players from every corner of the NBA come and go. Some, like Corey Brewer, will come to L.A. beginning in August and stay right until training camp. Others have families, so they'll schedule week-long visits throughout the summer. "There's a lot of coordinating schedules," Johnson said. It's a busy ecosystem, and many players work with more than one skills specialist. But a superstar like Jimmy Butler is a different story.
Butler has an exclusive relationship with Johnson, and they remain tethered to each other past the summer, when they'll relocate to Chicago and tackle the regular season.
SI: So, let's talk about Jimmy. How did you guys meet? How does that relationship get going?
Johnson: I met Jimmy through Mike James, my first-ever NBA client. At the time I was training Mike James, D.J. Augustin, and Cartier Martin. They were all teammates of Jimmy's. And Mike James would go and tell Jimmy every day, "You can be really good, man. You're not just a good defensive player. You can be really good. You need to go see my trainer."
SI: Who took the next step from there?
Johnson: Jimmy called me that summer. And I told him, "I need several things from you. I need your mind, your body, your commitment." And Jimmy... He didn't even have a television. He gave me his 100 percent attention.
SI: How quickly did you realize, "OK, this dude is different?"
Johnson: The first day he walked in the gym. I'm looking at his size, and I said, "Jimmy, I'm going to make you an All-Star." He said, "What?!" He'd only averaged a few points a game, he was known as a defensive guy. But I said, "Jimmy, as a teacher, through one workout, you are the best student I've ever had." I'd had a picture in my head of what I wanted him to be, but after the first workout, I realized that I wanted him in a different category. I wanted to put him in the mid-post. I said, "Jimmy, you're a good three-point shooter, but you don't have an in-between game. And you're 6'8", 240 playing the two-guard." That doesn't make sense.
SI: And then he just went all in?
Johnson: He looked at me like I was crazy, but that dude showed up every day. We lived in the gym. Three times a day, four times a day. Whatever it took. He wouldn't even get sick. A lot of guys will call the trainer, "Hey man, I don't feel good. I feel like I've got the flu, I've got a head cold. Can we work out tomorrow instead?" Jimmy never missed a day.
SI: You look around the NBA, and there's LeBron leaving midseason to see his guy from Miami. D-Wade visited Tim Grover in the middle of a playoff series. You and Jimmy are in Chicago all season. You’re going to Cabo together this weekend. Trainers are in the inner circle unlike almost anyone else around the league. How do you go about building that trust?
Johnson: The trust happens naturally. When you're hired to come in and develop, I'm concerned about everything that's going on in my client's life. To maintain that, you don't live a life. I’m loading film every day. I’m studying offenses. Trust is when you know what you’re talking about. So I'm like, "Jimmy I need you up at 5 in the morning every day because I want you to be an All-Star." And Jimmy's looking at me like, "Huh?!" But I say, "You're going to be the most improved player in the NBA if you trust me. Everywhere you go, I will be there." Whether it's 15 minutes or 40 minutes, we'll put in the time and the details. This is how the trust is built.
SI: How much work will you guys do during the season? How much access do you have?
Johnson: Let's say it's Sunday. Let's start the week off. On Monday night, you got X team, on Wednesday, we play such-and-such, on Thursday we got a back-to-back. On that Sunday I'll say, "Jimmy, I need 15 minutes of your time off the floor. I want to watch film with you." I want to show you how Miami's playing the pick-and-roll, and this is what should be happening. That builds confidence. Now the player's thinking, "I don't have to be worried about what fans are saying, I do this every day." It's a mindset.
SI: Will you travel on the Bulls team plane with them? How close does the relationship get with the teams?
Johnson: No. If one person does it, then everybody gotta do it. But the teams have been very good. There's no rifts. I go to lunch and dinner with the coaches, we talk about the players. It's an ongoing relationship.
SI: You mention studying film. How often are you helping him prepare for specific match-ups?
Johnson: I only do what's happening in a game situation. I don't do drills. Whether it's a late-clock, or it's 10 seconds on the clock, and how do you get this shot off? We may only hit the gym for a total of 30 minutes. It's like shadow boxing. It's teaching the counters.
SI: You're the sparring partner.
Johnson: I'm the sparring partner. And I start studying the individual defenders. Like, "Jimmy, this defender isn't fast enough laterally, so what he does is he gets into your body. This is what you should be looking at when he gets into your body." Like Jae Crowder, he's very aggressive. Or Jimmy may come to me and say, "I need to get back on the floor. 15 minutes. I want to work on finishes because I feel like I'm gonna get fouled a lot." It's not a one-way street. We have different routines that apply.
SI: With Jimmy, everyone is constantly talking about how he didn't get recruited in high school. Is that a real thing? Is that something he still cares about?
Johnson: Nah, it not like that still motivates him. What motivates him, in my opinion, is the desire to go places he's never been. He got the money, he got the fame, he got the contracts... But he's still focused like we were broke.
SI: So this trip to Cabo: Are you guys going to work out, or is this to get away from basketball?
Johnson: It's a little bit of both. Jimmy hasn’t had an opportunity to celebrate his gold medal with the guys around him. He just wants to get his guys together. He's training, he's working, and this is just a brief step away and then it's back to the grind. We're so focused that you need a mental break, even just to change the location of the workouts.
SI: Has he gotten you into country music?
Johnson: I'm from Texas! Jimmy has nothing to do with it. I'm 38 years old, nobody is going to convince me to get into something. But I'm from Texas, and I do listen to country music.
SI: OK last Jimmy question. In Rio he made some headlines talking about this… Do you think he can play in the NFL?
Johnson: [laughs] Don't start that, man. Jimmy is already all over Demaryius Thomas. Like, these are guys that we know. He's having a great time with that.
SI: Everybody's been having fun with it.
Johnson: But his size, to be honest with you, and with a lot of the NBA guys, it does translate. A skill position in football, it's about footwork, speed, acceleration, agility to change direction, and the ability to jump. So, you're telling me when you throw the ball up to LeBron and he's at the top of the backboard, adjusting his entire body at 50 miles per hour, and he's still putting the ball in hole... You're telling me you can't throw it up to LeBron on a go-route? Or a fade? Or a quick slant, just let him post up?
Football hypotheticals aside, basketball never really stops for Johnson. During the year, that means meeting with Jimmy, texting clients and fielding calls at 2 and 3 a.m., and watching games during the day. Even on the flight to Cabo, he said he'd watch a few hours of film. “I never get a break,” he told me midway through our conversation. “The only difference between being in the NBA and being an independent coach is that I never get a break.” It's borne out on Johnson’s Instagram; more than half the photos are from a gym somewhere.
What’s interesting is that player accounts aren’t that much different. Look at a veteran like LeBron. Or a rookie like Ben Simmons. Or look at Jimmy Butler and Jaylen Brown relaxing in Cabo. NBA workout photos came at least as frequently as vacation photos this summer. And if you want to understand why the league is producing more talent than ever, this seems like a good place to start. Or in our case, finish.
SI: You were in Vegas with Jimmy. How many other USA guys had trainers out there?
Johnson: Every player had somebody out there working with him. Or they stuck around after their practices and got extra work in with the other players, or the coaches. Like, say it's KD and Melo. They're like, "Well, your trainer's not here, but my trainer's here, come work with us." Guys will call you and be like, "Hey, you mind getting on the floor with me? My skill guy's not here, but I want to get on the floor for like 45 minutes to keep my regimen going."
SI: They’re all in the same mode out there.
Johnson: Yeah, those guys are putting in work. They stayed after practice, they get there before practice. Me and Jimmy would get up every morning and get our regimen in. And I brought players over from L.A. Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, Jerami Grant was there for the select team. Victor Oladipo was there. They'd come at night. It just depends on the guys' schedules, and how bad they want to be in the gym. It's so competitive that if you let off the gas for one step, somebody else is right on your heels.
SI: Who else has impressed you around the league, beyond guys that you work with?
Johnson: One guy I had a great conversation with in Vegas was James Harden. He was working out with his skill guy. And I loved the fact that James was always in the gym. You didn't have to force him. It was 11 p.m. at night, and he was in the gym putting in work.
SI: That’s actually pretty surprising. I had no idea Harden was even in Vegas. Anyone else?
Johnson: Another guy, he's already on the bubble of being extremely special, but he still has some room to develop. Damian Lillard. He works his butt off. I watch him from a distance like, "Whaaaaaaat?" He's unbelievable. And a big guy that I really really like—well, I don't know if he's a big guy… He plays power forward but they run him a little at point power forward. Antedipo?
Johnson: Giannis. I don't know him at all, I've never shaken his hand, I don't even need to meet him, but there's greatness in him. If he can pay attention to the details, he'll be an All-Star in the East. He'll make his team a playoff team every year. He's that good. When you look at making a cake, you gotta have the ingredients. You can’t make chicken salad without chicken. He's got length, speed, he can finish. If he gets the right attention, and I know the Bucks are doing it, but... Oh my god. You better watch out.
SI: I’m so glad we’re on the same page with Giannis. But bigger picture now, to go back a little bit… I grew up watching Rod Strickland in Washington. Shawn Kemp in Seattle. Even Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. These guys could dominate with pure talent. But now you look around the league, and it's hard to find a true superstar who's not working all year-round. Why do you think that changed?
Johnson: In my opinion, what's changed the game in player development is social media and technology. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Synergy... Not only in the United States, but globally. When you look at YouTube and you can see your peers working, you see if you're not spending time on your craft, you'll get left behind.
SI: Yeah, it seems like it’s part of the whole basketball culture now.
Johnson: Even my son, he's 9 years old, and he's watching Stephen Curry workouts. I'm like, "What are you doing? You're 9 years old." But he's in the gym with all the folks, he's meeting all these NBA guys. And then he's in there watching Steph workout. He says, "Well, when I work out, I want to know what's going on." That taught me a lot.
SI: The other trend that's dominant right now is rest. Even as guys work all year, teams and coaches have started realize how important it is to manage minutes and take care of their bodies. How does that translate to what you do?
Johnson: Let's say when the season's over. Most guys are done in April, some guys are lucky and they get to play a little bit longer in the month of May. I encourage all my guys to take the month of May off, and we'll begin training July 1st. So Jimmy, he's playing heavy minutes. I'll say, "Jimmy, you trust me, don't worry for the next 10 weeks. When I see you in July, I will be ready. But go and relax." He doesn't ever touch the basketball court.
SI: Do you ever have to tell guys to dial it back during the summer?
Johnson: Yeah, like Jimmy, we literally would get in a fight if I found out he was on the basketball court. And he knows it. He'll sneak and shoot jumpers. I caught him and Jaylen Brown playing one-on-one this summer, and I was like, "Jimmy! You supposed to be resting." And he's like, "Aw, I'm gonna just go sit down over here."
SI: Then when guys can finally play, when July 1st comes, what does the schedule look like? How do you guys ramp up for the reason?
Johnson: In July, the workouts aren't as intense. The level may be 75-80% intensity. It's more technique, it's more mechanics. It's less running, it's playing in certain spots. But once guys get to the middle of August, you start to work really work on that on-court conditioning level, so as you prepare for training camp, now they're starting to get their legs under them with conditioning. And as you push into September and training camp, everything should be clicking. You're getting ready, your timing is down, you're already in top f---in' shape. Your coach’s job is not to get you in shape.
SI: The work is already done at that point.
Johnson: Right. You're already in rhythm. So when other guys have been relaxing, on vacation, you're going to come back and kick their ass 99 percent of the time. And once you see it, It's hard to turn it off. If guys can put in the work and go kick your ass once, they're going to do it all the time.