Secret Guard-en: The story of Luka Doncic's undercover Steph Curry workout

Secret Guard-en: The story of Luka Doncic's undercover Steph Curry workout

The curtains were drawn so no one could peek into the Hub 925 gym 20 miles east of Oracle Arena. Outside of a handful of select staffers in the room, no one knew about this secret workout in late August.

This was the day that Stephen Curry would train with Luka Doncic, perhaps the most hyped European prospect ever. There was no live stream on Instagram, no curated House of Highlights sizzle reel. 

Doncic’s agent, Bill Duffy, wanted to keep it quiet. Only a small circle -- maybe a dozen people -- attended, but hardly anyone outside that Pleasanton, Calif., gym had a clue that the two-time MVP was going to work out with the Slovenian prodigy. It was so hush-hush that not even Mavericks owner Mark Cuban knew about it.

“For me, I just wanted him to be exposed to the excellence of Steph,” Duffy told NBCSports.com. “Not just Steph’s skill, but appreciating the work that goes into it.”

Curry had already scheduled a workout, led by his longtime trainer Brandon Payne of Accelerate Basketball, with high school phenom Jalen Green, who could be the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2020. After a call from Duffy, Payne made a slight change of plans.

Luka is going to be in town for a day or two. Can he join Steph for a workout? 

Of course, Payne told him, but there was something Duffy thought Payne should know. 

“Hey, you know, he’s never really worked out like this before,” Duffy told Payne over the phone. “All of this is going to be new to him. Be patient with him.”

As a teenager, Doncic had already dominated the pro leagues in Europe, earning both the EuroLeague MVP and ACB MVP in 2018, but he’d never worked out with a player of Curry’s caliber. He had done shooting sessions with shot guru Mike Penberthy, now with the New Orleans Pelicans. But nothing quite like what he was about to experience.

In NBA circles, Curry’s workouts are the stuff of legend. How else does one go from Davidson to the NBA’s first unanimous MVP?

And so, Doncic tried Curry’s workout, which was supposed to last an hour. It lasted three.

“Luka,” Payne says now after working with Doncic up close, “is a basketball savant.”

* * *

It’s a Friday afternoon in Fort Mill, SC., at Payne’s training gym just outside of Curry’s hometown of Charlotte. Curry’s longtime trainer is cackling as the film begins. 

“He’s f’ing huge,” Payne says of Doncic, who dwarfs Curry on the screen. “Luka is a big dude. He’s 6-8, easy. Big, big kid.”

The third round of 2019 All-Star voting returns had just come in and the big kid had widened his lead over Curry as the second-most popular player in the Western Conference (LeBron James is still first). Doncic, the only rookie among the top-40 vote-getters, received more love from voters than Curry, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

In the roughly seven months since the Mavericks traded up to pick him No. 3 overall in the 2018 NBA draft, Doncic has become a cult-like figure in league circles. His LeBron-like rookie averages of 19.9 points, 5.3 assists and 6.1 free throw attempts helped certify his starpower. The Ringer’s hypnotic #HalleLuka anthem only added to his aura.

In August, Payne saw some of these clues firsthand. He invited me to his film room to show me just before his flight to Los Angeles to launch Curry’s Underrated tour. He insisted that I see how far Doncic has come in just five months.

Payne has micromanaged Curry’s every movement using tools like strobe-light glasses, tennis balls and FitLight training bulbs that operate like traffic signals. He even trained Curry’s breathing patterns. Some have called him a basketball version of J.K. Simmons’ character from Whiplash. 

Not my tempo. 

Duffy felt Doncic would benefit from seeing what life is like at the mountaintop.

“I wanted to show him that someone at that level can take instruction too, be corrected,” Duffy said. “Brandon is up here telling Steph, do this, don’t do that, correcting him. I think someone like Luka, was like, ‘Woah -- Steph is top 2-3 players in basketball and he has someone pushing him to be the best he can be?’ To be exposed to that, was special.”

On the film, Payne is belting out dribble-and-shoot orders to both Curry and Doncic. One dribble, side step 2. One dribble, escape 3, coming back the other way! Side step 2, mirrored footwork, escape 3. Side step 2, come back, one dribble, escape 3. 

“These are really difficult concepts,” Payne says. “When you’re Stephen, these are difficult concepts. This wasn’t a BS workout. This was a real I-have-something-that-I-have-to-get-done-with-Stephen workout. To be thrown into that and respond as well as he did, it was impressive.”

This particular drill took Curry three minutes flat to complete. His shots were flawless, barely grazing the rim. Doncic, trying to keep up with the commands and pace, took nine minutes and forty-eight seconds. (Doncic is also still learning English, his fourth language.)

“That’s a lot of information coming at him at once, that’s tough,” Payne says. “My terminology runs deep. The words aren’t complex. But when you start putting together combinations, it’s … tough.”

At one point during the workout, Doncic is seen dribbling up the court with two basketballs, a standard drill here in the States. Doncic is struggling. Jalen Green and Curry are just about lapping him. Doncic sticks out his tongue and laughs at it all. He does this a lot when he lags behind. I take this as a sign of Doncic’s self-awareness and his love for the game.

Payne nods. “Stephen’s like that, too.” 

Then Payne grows serious again. 

“Wait, back that up,” Payne says to his assistant at the controls. She rewinds and hits play. 

“You see Luka’s closed lips, then you see his tongue out?” Payne asks me.

Yes, he’s a kid having fun. He’s 19 years old.

“That’s the first sign of neurological overload,” Payne corrects me. “Like, it’s too much for a player. He couldn’t breathe because his mouth is closed.”

He tells me to watch Curry -- note his open mouth as he dribbles down the floor, like the grille on the nose of a Ferrari, cooling the engine.

“So,” Payne explains, “those are the things I’m looking for.”

Something I’ve never considered: How good will Doncic be when he learns how to breathe properly?

Doncic was a tad beefy during this workout. He had just taken a month off to recover from a grueling year in Europe that saw him play about 90 games. Says Duffy: “We had to rest him.” 

Payne estimates that Doncic has already shed 10 to 15 pounds this season, but the rookie of the year frontrunner is still far from slim. Listed at 218 pounds, Doncic’s conditioning was a point of pre-draft contention. What those people didn’t realize was how he uses his weight as a weapon. Doncic lulls you into thinking he can’t move quickly at his size before finishing opponents off. 

“Everyone’s like, he’s got this stepback,” Payne says. “Yeah, he’s got a stepback, but you’re not looking at how he’s slowing them down before that stepback. You fall asleep, your feet die and then all of a sudden, he hits you with this real hard stepback. It’s so easy for him because he’s big and strong. His mechanics are really good, too.”

The week before the Curry workout, Doncic had spent time assessing and training his biomechanics at P3 Sports Science lab in Santa Barbara. They found that his deceleration abilities -- to figuratively go from 60-to-zero -- are some of the best they’ve ever seen among hundreds of pro athletes. (Doncic has visited P3 annually since he was 15 years old).

“He’s a gamer,” Payne says. “I have never seen anybody control the defender with change of pace the way he does. He takes control of you. You don’t control him. He controls you. He just has a touch and feel that you can’t teach.”

Beyond his physical attributes, Payne won’t stop talking about Doncic’s palpable enthusiasm for the game and how that propelled him through Curry’s relentless shot-making. Doncic did break out giggling several times during the grueling workout, partly in awe of Curry’s power and partly in making light of his own struggles. 

By the end of the three hours, he was hanging with Curry shot-for-shot. 

“Stephen has been working out with me as long as Luka has been playing basketball,” Payne says. “Stephen goes on these runs where he’s not human. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be in that workout. It’s almost like when Stephen touches the rim, we don’t count it as a make.”

After the first hour of nonstop shooting and dribbling drills, Doncic wanted more. After hour two, Payne offered to end the workout. Doncic waved him off. More. After three hours, they went upstairs to lift.

“He’s smiling, laughing, having a good time,” Payne says. “I think he’s just having a good time doing it. He felt challenged. Stephen just did it. Now, I want to beat him.”

Footage from the August workout is a study in contrasts. Curry is a 30-year-old robot of precision and efficiency. Doncic, on the other hand, seems like a 19-year-old lump of clay -- really high-quality clay. And that’s the scary part.

“His footwork now is incredible, it’s amazing,” Payne says. “At the end of games? It is incredible. But if you think about it, it’s completely unrefined. Think about how good he’s going to be if he does get this stuff.”

* * *

It’s admittedly hard to watch Curry and Doncic play basketball next to each other and not immediately want to jump in a time machine. Is this what Doncic will look like in a decade? Curry is a model of efficiency both in his movement and shooting percentages. He hardly missed during the entire workout and never lost control of the ball. Doncic, however, was a work in progress. A dribble off his foot here, an errant jumper there. But after just a few repetitions, Doncic would become shockingly proficient, a trait that’s been evident during his first season in the league. 

Doncic has scored 74 points in 76 minutes of clutch situations this season while shooting 51 percent in these close-and-late situations. After adjusting for pace, Doncic is scoring 46.8 per 100 possessions in the clutch, the ninth-highest rate in the NBA. He once went on an 11-0 run down the stretch to beat the Houston Rockets, prompting Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to tell ESPN, “It’s pretty clear he’s got a flair for the moment. He’s unafraid.” 

Take for instance the “3-2-1 Perfect” drill, which Payne purposefully picked as one of the last drills to simulate end-of-game fatigue. Make three shots in a row from five different spots around the halfcourt. Then, come back and make two in a row at the same five spots in reverse order. Then, finish with a perfect five-for-five at one spot. The drill doesn’t end until the player makes the five straight.

“Luka’s quads are on fire right now,” Payne says watching Doncic labor through the drill. 

On the film, Payne could be seen saying something to Doncic. What’d he say?

“I just asked him if he wants to quit,” Payne says. “He said no. Nine minutes is a long time to be shooting and doing hard dribbles non-stop. 

“Damn this was hard. This was real hard, now that I’m watching it.”

Doncic hits the five and smiles, just like he did in December after hitting an impossible,  buzzer-beating, over-the-backboard corner 3 against Portland to send it into overtime. This ability to perform fatigued and under pressure has fueled Doncic throughout his rookie season. When the moments are biggest, when the legs are their most tired, he rises to the occasion, usually with a grin. 

* * *

There’s one moment during the film where Payne pauses. He wants to make sure I pay attention. Curry pulls Doncic aside and starts coaching him up, directing him where to go and helping him understand the drill. 

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Stephen step into that mentor role in the middle of a workout,” Payne tells me. “That’s the first time.”

Curry does this at camps with youngsters, but never with a pro. Maybe Curry sees that Doncic is both.

Doncic is absorbing the NBA life and thriving. Where other top rookies like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Trae Young have seen their scoring opportunities plateau, Doncic has raised his usage rate in each month, shouldering more and more of Dallas’ scoring load. In October, he ranked 67th in usage rate, per NBA.com tracking. But in January, his usage rate ranks 15th, ahead of stars like Curry, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard. Doncic is only a rookie by definition.

“He’s made for this,” Duffy says of Doncic. “I don’t know what the ceiling is. Does Steph Curry put a ceiling on himself? Does Steve Nash? Kobe Bryant? Luka is definitely in that echelon.”

Cuban agrees, we’re just seeing the beginning.

“The best part of Luka, beyond how much fun he has, is that he has a lot of places he can improve his game,” Cuban says. “And he will work on them all.”

At the Accelerate offices outside Charlotte, Payne looks at his watch and sees he’s late for the airport. He quickly shows me a spreadsheet where they’re tracking every one of Doncic’s shots and pairing it with the drills he did in August. Doncic’s shooting percentages on Escape Dribbles, Wing Curl 2s, Slide and Read, all listed. Each shot has a link to both the in-game video and the workout video from August.

“I could watch this stuff all day,” Payne says as he grabs his bags. “There’s a whole lot of meat left on that bone, man. A whole lot.”

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.