Peak Performance Project helping Atlanta Hawks raise the bar in training facilities

Atlanta becomes part of wave of franchises investing in new practice centers

ATLANTA — The pregnant check written by Hawks owner Tony Ressler for the team’s glossy new 90,000 square foot training center didn’t concern him as much as the more numerous, smaller ones.

As in: Double practice courts? Check.

Outdoor swimming pool? Check.

Grilling area and on-site gourmet chefs? Check.

Video game consoles and a fleet of flat-screen TVs? Check and double check.

Still, Ressler and the folks at Emory Healthcare, which teamed with the Hawks to blueprint the place, wanted more for the $50 million. And so they checked off another amenity: An East Coast hub of a California sports science lab that developed a cult following among a number of players and over half the league’s teams.

Peak Performance Project carted computers, high-tech gadgets and cutting edge fitness equipment from its Santa Barbara headquarters to set up shop in Atlanta. The company, or P3, helped the Hawks raise the bar in what’s become a practice facility building boom in the NBA, where the Bulls, Sixers, Nets, Kings and Raptors all recently moved into or building swanky centers that could double as country clubs.

Yes, the gourmet meals, hydrotherapy pools and theater seating is quite a refreshing change from the prehistoric places in which teams trained before. The Hawks’ old setup was inside Philips Arena, where ironically players had to climb stairs to reach the Stairmaster machines and had the disadvantage of only one practice court. Perhaps the Ground Zero of practice centers, however, was used by the Nets some 20 years ago in New Jersey. They shared a gym, weight room and a locker room with pot-bellied drivers from the owner’s trucking company. Yes, Derrick Coleman sometimes showered next to Fred from Bayonne.

Not only have facilities come a long way — the Nets now train on the Brooklyn waterfront with a panoramic view of Lower Manhattan — so has sports science and how it’s being embraced as a necessary part of the game. Ten years ago nobody in the NBA had their bodies poked by scientists or ‘scoped by modern technology to learn more about the way those bodies function.

Then P3 came along and quickly became the gold standard of technology and sports and a go-to place in the offseason for players looking for an edge. If the NBA All-Star Game draws the biggest collection of talent around the league during the year, then an athletic science lab in Santa Barbara might be next. Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Zach LaVine, Andre Drummond and Kyle Korver are just some of those seduced by science.

P3 collects data through assessments of a player’s body and his high velocity movements to identify his physical strengths and weaknesses, raise red flags for areas that could be prone to potential injury, and give him and his team information to help improve performance. There’s also training sessions designed to prevent injuries and enhance the muscles and movements needed to reach potential, an elite athlete optimization that’s suddenly vital to careers.

“We want to uncover the hidden code of sport,” said P3’s founder, Dr. Marcus Elliott. “We’re a long ways from having all the answers but we’re moving in the right direction.”

It was just several years ago when the NBA suffered a rash of injuries, especially to star players, and that plague became a threat to business. In no particular sequence, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams and other All-Stars missed chunks of seasons dealing with tears and breaks.

The company has developed strong ties with the league and now has set up shop at the draft combine to assess every rookie who attends. On the suggestion of their teams or their agents, veterans make summer trips to Santa Barbara, and now there’s another location.

Their assessments and the data they collect are so valuable to helping you understand what needs to be done. No question it was so important for my career.

Cavaliers’ Kyle Korver on how science is helping extend his career

The relationship is win-win for the Hawks and P3, because the Hawks can use the advantages of their facility with P3 to showcase to potential free agents, and P3 has a second site to broaden its scope not only within the NBA, but with athletes in other pro sports and colleges in the East and also those from Europe.

It wasn’t an easy sell for the Hawks, though. Elliott initially resisted the invitation, a few times in fact, in favor of staying housed a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. But it was important for the Hawks to merge basketball with orthopedic and science experts to maximize the potential of their players. So they persisted, Elliott caved after weighing the benefits of a second location and is happy he did.

“We have as many athletes on the East Coast as the West Coast,” he said, “and Atlanta’s a lot easier to reach.”

Elliott is a graduate of the Harvard Medical School and always curious about athletes and how their bodies function. He formed P3 in 2005, worked with the New England Patriots, then gravitated to the NBA when Paul Millsap sought his help and then served as an ambassador.

“He did really well and told two people and we got five guys in and they told two people and then you’ve got 20 guys in,” said Elliott. “Pro sports is a small world. If you do well, then everybody knows about it. Of course, if you screw up, everybody knows about it, too.”

Millsap told Korver, who first met Elliott in 2008 and credited P3 with helping him shake nagging injuries and remain in the league well into his 30s. P3 collected more than 5,000 data points on his body and discovered he wasn’t properly using his right knee and elbow, both of which previously underwent surgery, to his advantage.

“Their assessments and the data they collect are so valuable to helping you understand what needs to be done,” said Korver. “No question it was so important for my career.”

In a section of the Hawks facility used exclusively for P3, there’s a straight running track, some free weights, and hi-tech treadmills. It looks simple, and in a sense, it is, although the science and technology sets it apart and makes it unique. The center can test and train 12 to 15 athletes at a time over a two-hour period. Thousands of athletes from various Olympic, amateur and pro sports have been through the doors in Santa Barbara.

No athlete can train without an assessment first. Once the data is received, then a workout conducted by bio-mechanists and performance specialists and tailored specifically for that athlete, based on the results. There’s no one-size-fits-all philosophy at P3.

“It’s all individualized,” said Adam Hewitt, the director of operations at P3. “All bodies are different. You can have two guys the same size and have completely different systems. One might have flexibility in his lower, but the other doesn’t. Our thought is, how do we make the athlete better using this technology?”

Hewitt said this process is light years ahead of what athletes and teams did just a few years ago, mainly because science and technology is evolving and P3 is trying to stay ahead of the curve.

“Others aren’t using bio-technology to assess their athletes,” he said. “We’re showing the value that we can offer. We’ve invested so much and for so long.”

P3 looks at the bodies in motion with the help of motion-capture technology similar to those used in video games. The images and information allow P3 to craft workouts to strengthen limbs and also to avoid injury.

Just as NBA teams have spent millions building new practice facilities and hiring nutritionists and massage therapists, Elliott thinks it’s wise they make an investment in science.

“There’s a revolution going on in sports science and athlete care,” he said. “I think it was overdue in professional sports. Your average sprinter or speed skater has more science data in his physical development and he’s working a part time job at a restaurant to make ends meet. He has more resources going for him than someone you’re paying $20 million a year. That made no sense to me. Contracts are too big and players are too important to take anything to chance. There’s a lot to lose. Even if you don’t understand it all, why wouldn’t you at least want the information on the table? If you don’t have all the information then is hard to play the probability game. You’re making bets on big contracts and on players being able to perform and stay healthy.”

The use of force plates to measure explosiveness while jumping is of great use for NBA players and why P3 has growing influence on most of the league.

“The NBA is leading our pro sports leagues,” Elliott said. “As a league, they should be proud. The other leagues are trying to copy them. The NFL is trying to catch up, baseball, hockey, teams are starting to hire smarter people and investing more in their performance sports science staffs. A lot has changed. I feel the biggest thing is we’ve been so invested in getting insight into the data.

“There’s people in academics asking questions, and people in sport are trying to do the best they can. Rarely do they come together. Our motto is bringing these together. It’s super exciting to see. At the risk of sounding pompous I’d say I’m proud of it. I know the NBA is happy because they can see the bar’s being raised.”

The P3 in Atlanta will operate same as usual, with no advertising, just word of mouth and a growing number of clients. The lab anticipates helping NBA players improve their ankle and hip mobility and put them in better position to succeed through science.

“It’s about turning it back to advantages to the athlete,” Elliott said. “These guys are super unique.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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