Daye Glow

Joe Abunassar gives Pistons rookie a thumbs up

Austin Daye is creating a buzz around the league.
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
In the tight fraternity of NBA players, nothing stays a secret for long. Within weeks of the 2007 draft, Rodney Stuckey’s work at the NBA Summer League and subsequently with Nuggets assistant Tim Grgurich at his annual Las Vegas camp had the grapevine buzzing that the Pistons had gotten a steal at No. 15.

Long before the Pistons had begun trickling back to Auburn Hills for the Sept. 29 opening of their 2009 training camp, a similar low hum surrounding another Joe Dumars No. 15 pick, Austin Daye, is being generated.

Joe Abunassar, who like Pistons personnel director George David grew up in Farmington Hills and similarly got his start in basketball as a Bobby Knight student manager at Indiana, has for years been a guru to dozens of NBA players for his summer counseling and workouts, first as part of the IMG Academy and later with his own operation, Impact Basketball.

Daye has been a regular at Abunassar’s Las Vegas headquarters since May 1, first in preparation for the June draft and subsequent to Summer League as part of Abunassar’s usual cadre of established NBA stars, including Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince.

Abunassar doesn’t toss around accolades lightly, but says Daye “has the potential to be a special player in the NBA.”

“You wouldn’t believe the comments here, from (Kevin) Garnett to Billups,” Abunassar told me this morning from Las Vegas, where he was about to put Garnett through another workout. “Everybody was asking what was wrong with him in the draft. ‘Was he hurt? What pick was he? How in the world did he slip to 15? Who picked ahead of Detroit?’ ”

I asked Abunassar, based on his work for more than a decade with players of every caliber, but many stars, if he thought Daye was ready to play as an NBA rookie given a shot.

“I think so – for sure,” he said. “He’s played five on five out here every day with Garnett, (Paul) Pierce, Billups, (Al) Harrington, Tayshaun, Rudy Gay, and Austin, many days, was one of the top scorers on the floor. It’s going to be an issue of mentally, can he handle the long season? It’s different for a rookie. I do think he has to prove he can guard. He did a nice job of that out here.”

Abunassar said Daye has put on some weight, six or seven pounds, and admits that strength is going to be an issue for him. But Daye’s sense of how to play and his complete willingness to follow training and nutritional advice has Abunassar sold that he’s going to pay dividends for the Pistons.

“The big thing with Austin is his strength, but he’s so skilled and smart,” Abunassar said. “Some guys just have a knack for playing basketball. In the years I’ve done what I’m doing, working with Chauncey and Tayshaun and Kevin Garnett and Baron (Davis) and Jermaine O’Neal – some of the better players in the league – all of those guys share something: When the lights come on, they all have a knack for playing. I’ve had many others who were skilled but just can’t put it together. In Austin’s case, he has that knack for playing basketball.”

Much like Prince, Abunassar believes Daye will never grow noticeably bigger and more muscular, but will gain enough strength incrementally to get where he needs to be to allow his skills to emerge.

“Think about Reggie Miller, Tayshaun, Rip Hamilton – they’re never going to get big,” he said. “(Prince) doesn’t look a lot different, but Tayshaun right now, after eight straight weeks with me, is as strong as he’s ever been, but you won’t notice it visually. Austin will gain the strength that will allow him to do a few more things on the court, like guard bigger players.

“I don’t think there’s any question he needs to get stronger. When KG and I got together the year he won the MVP, basically Kevin said, ‘I don’t love the diet stuff and lifting weights, but I want to do what I need to do so I don’t get pushed off my dribble.’ That’s where I’m at with Austin. We need to get him strong enough to do what he needs to do. When Austin goes to drive and somebody bumps him, he’s going to move. A year from now, the goal is he doesn’t move.”

Abunassar’s initial impression of Daye when he came to him after declaring for the draft following a sophomore season at Gonzaga in which his stats didn’t leap off the page: “An amazing talent with a unique ability for a guy his size. Austin is 6-11. The things he can do on the court, you just don’t see many who can do that. From the minute I saw him, I thought he had a chance to be a very good NBA player. I don’t want to use terms like ‘great player’ or ‘All-Star,’ but he’s got the potential to be a special player in the NBA.”

Abunassar worked with Daye to exploit his unique set of gifts, to take advantage of the mismatches his size and ball skills will present – taking smaller guys down in the post and bigger players to the perimeter.

“When you have college guys coming in, you have to teach them to become a little more efficient,” Abunassar said. “We don’t want him to overdribble. He can really handle the ball, but we worked on being stronger off the dribble, getting lower. He sometimes plays upright. Just little things. We worked on his shot, which you’ll see doesn’t need a lot of work.”

I asked if he thought Daye, even though his stroke is pure, is ready to be an NBA 3-point shooter as a rookie, which is rare because of the adjustment to the greater distance and the speed of the game.

“Oh, my God,” Abunassar said. “Austin can stretch the floor. He ran a lot of screen and roll out here with guys like Billups, Tyronn Lue and O.J. Mayo, and he really stretches the floor. He’s a very good shooter. We went to the predraft camp and he shot the ball so well there, he may have been the best shooter there regardless of position, Stephen Curry or anyone else.

“What he showed here, he’s so elusive. He’s very difficult to guard because of his size and his agility. He’s got some special footwork-type things. I don’t take any credit for that. That’s all him. He’s got some really unique abilities to cut and flash. He’s made shots out here, people would look at him and say, ‘Wow.’ ”

That’s a reaction Joe Dumars wouldn’t mind hearing for his two No. 15 steals in all 30 NBA arenas for the next decade and more.