Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
Just a little over a decade ago, Joe Abunassar was on his own in his new business venture, rebounding shots for youngsters like Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups in a gym, then leading them in weight workouts afterward.
Now, their names and jersey numbers — along with those of several other notable pro hoopsters — hang in the rafters of the new home for his Impact Basketball training program just off the Las Vegas Strip.
Abunassar, who is the founder and president, has a sizable staff, a stable of interns to handle the rebounding and a list of loyal clients who regard him as one of the top basketball trainers in the country.
"They're as much a part of this business as anything," Abunassar said of his first clients. "When I started training Al (Harrington) and Tyronn (Lue), it was me in a gym. I didn't have a staff, and now you can see people running around all over the place."
Now, guys like Harrington, Lue, Garnett and Billups spread the word throughout locker rooms. In turn, each summer, Abunassar has his old regulars, plus some new faces, showing up to prepare for next season.
This July, he'll have between 25 and 30 pros under his staff's watch from 9 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m., five days a week, from top young talent to guys hoping to land a contract somewhere overseas next year to perennial NBA all-stars.
"They were younger. I was younger. I spent more time with those kids," Abunassar said of his longtime clients. "I was with them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even this year with an Austin Daye, we've got him focused and I could see myself being with him his whole career. We really connected."
Daye is a 6-foot-11 forward who left Gonzaga following his sophomore season and is expected to be taken late in the first round of Thursday's NBA Draft.
Several analysts knocked Daye's decision to stay in the draft, since he only has about 200 pounds on his lanky frame, but his 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in two seasons, plus his 42.1 3-point percentage, make for sky-high potential in NBA scouting circles.
That's where Abunassar comes in.
"It started with his nutrition and his weight training," he said. "The thing with a guy like him is he will gain (weight), but he won't in three weeks. You could, but it would be eating burgers and bad stuff. He's very skilled, so we worked on his skills, but also beginning that process which will help him gain weight, with his nutrition, lifting, the whole thing."
Abunassar's program did the same thing for guys like Garnett and Billups early in their careers. Last year, he helped UCLA standout Kevin Love drop 25 pounds of baby fat prior to the draft. And what he knew he could do all along for young players is what's made his business such a success.
As a student at Indiana from 1989-93, Abunassar — a Farmington Hills, Mich., native — was a student manager under legendary coach Bob Knight. He was then an assistant coach at Wyoming from 1993-97.
When the Cowboys program changed staffs, he realized that his ability to teach both basketball skills along with strength and conditioning techniques — roles typically filled by at least two individuals — could be of use to younger ballplayers.
He was at the heart of the IMG basketball academy in Florida, which was founded in 2001, before branching off on his own and coming to Las Vegas three years ago. He and the Impact staff now train NBA draft prospects along with his loyal veterans in both Vegas and Los Angeles.
Before the legion of stars rolls in in full force for summer training, Abunassar and his staff will have plenty invested in Thursday's draft.
Of the prospects that Abunassar and his staff have worked with over the past several weeks, four or five of them — including Spanish guard Ricky Rubio, UCLA product Jrue Holliday and Louisville big man Earl Clark — could go in the first round.
The more young stars he helps mold into NBA stalwarts, the more success his company will find.
"They're very 'moldable,' if that's a word," he said. "Their ears are open to you. It's a great time and they'll listen to anything you say. It's a great chance to make big changes in their games, their lives. It's really exciting.
"You've got a guy like Billups coming in this summer to train, and there's less that we're going to change with Chauncey than we're going to change with Austin Daye, or a rookie getting into the draft, because he's already there. Getting a guy into the draft is a really molding experience, and we can funnel him into the right direction."