O'Quinn: "We Have to Take a Step Forward"

O'Quinn Working Hard at Impact Sports Academy in Las Vegas

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By John Denton
Aug. 4, 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Being that it’s the dead of summer and still a couple of months away from the opening of NBA training camps, Kyle O’Quinn very well could be on a beach somewhere sipping a fruity drink with an umbrella in it.

Or being that O’Quinn, a power forward/center for the Orlando Magic, is in Las Vegas, no one would blame him if he was lying by a swanky hotel pool, shopping along ``The Strip’’ or even mowing down a row of seafood from one of the many buffets in town.

However, on this day – just like several others before it this summer – O’Quinn is bunkered down in a dimly lighted gym, lathered in sweat and going through drill after drill against other NBA 7-footers. O’Quinn says that when you are a young player trying to make your mark in the NBA, there is no offseason, no time to rest and no opportunity to skip out on workouts.

``This (work in the summer) is a part of my job and it’s a full-time job,’’ said O’Quinn as he brushed away beads of sweat from his forehead. ``This work shows it right here – it’s the summertime, you are in Vegas but you are coming into the gym every day. There’s a workout time and you are held accountable. This is my job and I have to respect it.’’

In addition to working out in Orlando throughout the summer with his Magic teammates, O’Quinn supplements his offseason program with weekly sessions at Impact Sports Academy, a modest facility in the heart of Las Vegas less than a mile away from the glitzy hotels along The Strip.

Across the way in Las Vegas, superstar NBA players such as Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Paul George are working out on the campus of UNLV with USA Basketball’s National Team. Impact Sports’ gym is roughly three miles away, but it might as well be a million miles apart considering the disparity in star power in the two gymnasiums on this day.

O’Quinn has been coming to Impact Sports since he was a junior at Norfolk State University and the trainers there – primarily founder/president Joe Abunassar – have helped him evolve from a small-school project player into a solid NBA big man over the past four years.

``Kyle has shown tremendous growth, coming up from being kind of an unknown in college to where he is now. He really has a lot of confidence now and his skills have improved in every way,’’ said Abunassar, who put O’Quinn and others through the on-court drills late last week. ``He’s improved his shooting, improved his body and his speed and his knowledge of the game. It’s made a big difference for him.

``It’s amazing his commitment, but this is what it takes,’’ Abunassar continued. ``I think Kyle realizes the commitment that it takes. It’s great for him being willing to put in this hard work every day. Some people love the work and some people don’t; Kyle really loves it.’’

Impact’s NBA impact

Impact Sports trains about 100 NBA players a summer, and on this day Kyle Lowry, C.J. Watson, Melvin Ely and Rasual Butler are working out alongside of Orlando’s O’Quinn. Abunassar founded the academy in 2006 and has seen it grow each year with the training of NBA players, clinics for foreign teams and camps for younger players.

The gymnasium that Impact Sports operates out of is both Spartan (dim lights, brownish basketballs, kids playing along the sides of the court and ladies riding Elliptical machines upstairs) and also uniquely Vegas (there’s a pizza parlor in one end and the sign out front is advertising an upcoming gun show).

It’s not nearly as gritty as the famed Kronk Gym in Detroit where several title-holding boxers such as Thomas Hearns trained, but it also doesn’t evoke thoughts of glitz and glamour usually associated with Vegas either. On this day, the bass from blaring music thump, thump, thumps throughout the gymnasium, blending in beautifully with the dribbling of balls and squeaking of shoes.

To fully understand Impact’s, well, impact on the NBA, all you have to do is scan the dozens of banners hanging in the guts of the gymnasium. Abunassar dedicates a banner for any player who works out at his facility and they are selected in the NBA Draft. A whopping 14 of the 60 players selected in the June NBA Draft worked out at Impact Sports prior to the draft.

Two of the most famous Impact alumni, NBA champions Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups, have centerpiece banners in the gym. Other NBA players, such as Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay, Jeremy Linn, Derek Fisher, Jermaine O’Neal, David Lee and Tayshaun Prince have been honored with banners. Players with past Magic ties such as Al Harrington, Jason Maxiell, Ty Lue and even O’Quinn’s No. 2 have banners hanging for everyone inside to see.

``We have a huge program of guys training here and we have foreign teams coming in. We love working with the younger NBA guys, but we also have veterans like Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups, who are at the end of the road, but they started with us at the beginning,’’ Abunassar said. ``Guys like Kyle O’Quinn and Kyle Lowry are the new guys. It’s just a place for guys to come and train and they like being out here in Vegas. They get their work in every day, they can relax afterward and they enjoy each other’s company.’’

A BASKETBALL LATE-BLOOMER

O’Quinn, 25, averaged career highs in points (6.2), rebounds (5.3) and blocked shots (1.3) last season. His game showed so much progress that most of his 19 starts came over the final two months of the season, and he was dominant at times with his ability to will the Magic with his hustle and muscle.

O’Quinn’s rise as a player is especially impressive when considering that he didn’t start playing basketball until his junior year of high school near Jamaica, Queens in New York City. O’Quinn’s first love was baseball, but the combination of getting cut from the team and a growth spurt set him on his way of falling in love with basketball.

Because O’Quinn got a late start in the sport and played very little AAU basketball during his formative years – he often jokes that his trophy case at home was mostly empty – and played collegiately at tiny Norfolk State, he’s had to play catch up in the NBA. Magic coach Jacque Vaughn noticed early on two seasons ago that O’Quinn didn’t fully understand some of the most basic basketball concepts or drills because of him limited experience in the sport.

That desire to try and learn what he doesn’t know and better his conditioning and skills are some of the reasons that O’Quinn sought out assistance from Impact Sports. He’s spent time in Las Vegas each of the past four summers, working out several hours a day on weight-lifting, conditioning and basketball drills.

``I always have to stay on top of my game,’’ O’Quinn said. ``Coach Vaughn talks to me about the aspect of my career (of starting late), that I have to just outwork guys.

``I’m just continuing to learn the game,’’ he added. ``Basketball is basketball, but with my knowledge of the game, I was a step behind. Just being out here playing every day, playing with different guys and guys from different systems, I’m just working on the general knowledge of basketball. As far as my jump shot and taking care of my body, that’s something that I have to do also. But for me it’s just about continuing to learn the game.’’

O’Quinn also heads to Las Vegas during the offseason because of the variety that Impact Sports offers. While there, he works on different drills, hears different coaching voices and he battles against 7-footers from other NBA teams.

``This kind of gives you a different look,’’ he said. ``You are in the same gym every day during the season (in Orlando) and around the same coaches. And they do a great job. But to come to Vegas and go against different pros and guys from all types of places, it’s nice. You have guys from overseas, guys who are vets in the league and younger guys. It just gives you a different look and I think it helps.’’

O’Quinn was in Las Vegas at the same time that fellow Magic players Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris were playing for USA Basketball’s Select Team. Several of Orlando’s players – Andrew Nicholson playing for Canada; Evan Fournier playing for France and Maurice Harkless briefly training with Puerto Rico – have dedicated their summers to basketball in hopes of their skills for the upcoming season.

O’Quinn, for one, thinks all of the hard work will pay off in the season ahead and Orlando can become one of the surprise teams in the league.
``Next year is a big year, not only for myself, but for the (Magic) team,’’ he said. ``We have to take a step forward. The things that we do now will pay off midway through the season and toward the end when we come down to those big games that we really need.

``I think this year will be our jump. None of us really came from losing programs, so to lose as many games as we did, especially on the road, it really drains you. We want to get a lot better this year,’’ O’Quinn continued. ``We want to be those young guys that you really don’t want to come into Amway (Center) and play us. We have to get an identity and stick together. We have to get better individually and put it all together as a team.’’