How Drew Hanlen became the NBA trainer everyone wants a piece of

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images /

To scroll through Drew Hanlen’s Instagram is to revel in current basketball greatness. Each post features a different transcendent talent — from pros Jayson Tatum to Joel Embid to Zach LaVine , to 2018-19 freshmen (and soon-to-be lottery picks) like RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish — being tutored by a 5-foot-11, 28-year-old who averaged 10 points per game at Belmont several years ago.

And yet, Hanlen has become the go-to training for the burgeoning elite of college basketball and the NBA: since April 1, Hanlen has worked out with and trained De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Battle, Justin Jackson, and Mo Bamba, and while Battle ultimately decided to return to Syracuse for his junior season, the other four are projected to be selected throughout the first round of Thursday’s NBA draft.

One can easily envision a future in which Hanlen’s clients are found throughout sixteen playoff rosters, each player having thoroughly enhanced their skillsets under Hanlen’s tutelage.

Since Hanlen founded his training company, Pure Sweat Basketball, following his senior season as a Bruin in 2012, his pre-draft resume has included at least one lottery pick — as well as dozens of draft picks — and should the Barrett, who is already projected as the top pick in the 2019 draft, leave Duke in 2019, Hanlen will have mentored three of the top picks in the past seven drafts.

As such, his life is a year-long blur of workouts. From the pre-draft process, which begins in early spring, to training sessions with both those who didn’t make the NBA playoffs (starting June 1) to those who did (starting July 1), to training camps in the fall, to compiling nightly game analysis and video voiceovers outlining necessary tweaks, Hanlen is rarely at home. Before moving to Los Angeles from St. Louis three years ago, Hanlen estimates he slept in his own bed just 22 times a year: “Now it is 75 nights,” he says.

What is remarkable about the demand for Hanlen’s services is two-fold: that current and future NBA All-Stars actively seek out a player whose career peaked in the low-major Atlantic Sun conference, and that his business model has expanded solely based on word of mouth. To the former, Hanlen is dismissive of the so-called importance of playing experience, saying, “All that matters is what value can you bring to someone’s improvement. Some of the best coaches have mediocre playing careers — my biggest mentor was my high school coach, who happened to never play basketball in his life.”

As for the latter, it’s a mix of social media, scant marketing (a 2015 Sporting News profile reported that the trainer had at that point spent just $265 on marketing), and player referrals. “Most saw how I helped Jayson or Joel, and they want a similar change,” he says. “They’ll text or direct message me, but because I just don’t have time, I’m very selective with who I train.”

To fully realize how Hanlen became a hoops whisperer for basketball savants, it helps to understand his past as an undervalued high school prospect who trained higher ranked players on the side. During a mid-aughts workout at a local St. Louis gym, a parent offered Hanlen $20 to train his son, imploring the then high school junior to “toughen up” his inaugural client.

It’s a compelling origin story — a happenstance encounter that just so lays the foundation of future success — and whether the anecdote is apocryphal doesn’t really matter. What is crucial is that Hanlen was quickly able to earn the trust of Bradley Beal, a St. Louis-native who was then a high school blue chip prospect, who later connected the trainer with big David Lee, a referral that reportedly caught the attention of the NCAA. Belmont coach Rick Byrd told the Sporting News, “There are just so many ways you can go wrong even when you’re trying to read the rules and do them all the right way. It’s a fine line between doing what you want to do and doing it right.”

Perhaps the greatest boost to Hanlen’s pedigree, though, was the nearly 50 percent he shot from beyond the arc as a senior at Belmont — the guard finished the 2012 season ranked second in Division I. “That has always been my MO,” Hanlen says. “I’ve spent much of my life tweaking my shot — I know the things that are consistent with all great shooters — and Brad was the first guinea pig. It’s why he and I have such similar shooting forms.”

He continues, “Brad jokes that Jayson didn’t have to really put in the work and has it easy — he has the cheat codes. Some of what I worked on with Brad didn’t work, but what did work became my training foundation.”

Tatum was still in middle school when his mother reached out to Hanlen, who demurred, professing to not training players that young, but a call from Beal convinced Hanlen to begin mentoring the wing on the court. Following Tatum’s selection by the Boston Celtics with the third pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Hanlen had conversations with both Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens about how he could help Tatum. The verdict?

“The Celtics highly value the 3-point shot, so Brad and Danny wanted Jayson to work on knocking down more 3s off the dribble and side stepping.” And as someone who used to devour game tape of the NBA’s greatest shooters, he also refined the lottery pick’s shooting mechanics, widening Tatum’s shooting base while lowering his shooting pocket and tweaking the rhythm to more fully connect his legs to his motion. To be fair, Tatum’s work ethic largely shaped his transformation into arguably the NBA’s most exciting rookie, but Hanlen’s guidance helped fuel that rise.

When speaking with Hanlen, it’s hard to not wonder whether he believes he should be in the NBA. That is, as a member of a coaching staff, bettering players with a more team-focused goal of an NBA title, rather than grinding for more than three-quarters of the year. But, as he has been training for half of his life, there is also the feeling that Hanlen doesn’t feel he needs to be — or should be — beholden to any player, no matter his status. “There are tons of NBA guys that reach out to me to train, asking if I can turn them into a starter or an All-Star, and I tell them that isn’t true,” he says. “I can turn Bradley Beal into an All-Star because he is a fringe guy like that, but not you.”

Hanlen doesn’t have many mainstays among his client base: he sends video and commentary to about a dozen players each year, and then takes on five prospects in each draft class, but the others — outside of the Embiids and the Tatums and the Beals — will visit Hanlen for just several days to fine-tune their offensive repertoire. One of those, though, that Hanlen considers a sure-fire “full-time client” is Bamba, the 7-foot-1 freshman forward from Texas.

Hanlen started working with Bamba several months ago at St. Bernard High School’s gym in Playa del rey, refining the big’s shooting mechanics, which failed to materialize during his lone season as a Longhorn (he made just fourteen 3-point field goals). “Mo wanted to change his shot like Jayson,” says Hanlen, who tinkered with the alignment of Bamba’s stroke to ensure his arm consistently reached a 90-degree angle before utilizing his 7-foot-10 wingspan to uncork uncorking a lanky jumper.

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Barrett, the consensus top prospect in the 2018 class, is another potential life-time client, but at the moment, Hanlen is less focused on his star-studded client roster and more interested in what he perceives as his true calling: franchising the Pure Sweat experience, a group of 70 trainers and one that he compares to Uber Black. “We have close to 1,000 applications a year to join the team, and it’s a rigorous process to evaluate each potential trainer.”

He adds, “The hope is to use the curriculum I’ve built and then go from there. We want to teach the game the right way, and help these guys help as many players we can.”