Dating back to the late 1990s, Joe Abunassar has helped train some of the biggest names in basketball ahead of the annual NBA draft.
Over the years, Abunassar has put future top-five picks such as John Wall, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis through the wringer in preparation for the start of their NBA careers. He’s also worked with eventual NBA champions — including Kevin Love, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry — during the pre-draft process.
Cartersville native Ashton Hagans is one of the potential draftees hoping to follow in their footsteps.
While it’s extremely unlikely that he will join that first group when the 2020 draft takes place Wednesday night and it’s impossible to know whether he will ever win a title, Hagans possesses the abilities needed to secure a lengthy NBA career Abunassar believes.
“I think he can be a rotation guard in the league for a long time,” Abunassar, founder and president of Impact Basketball, said Monday. “He’s got great size, plays great defense, and he’ll get with the right team and continue to expand his offensive game.
"He’s potentially a longtime NBA player. No question about it.”
Abunassar felt the same way when Hagans, 21, first arrived in mid-July at the Impact’s Las Vegas campus. Hagans, who grew up in Cartersville before eventually attending Newton High in Covington, spent nearly four months at Impact, going through a daily routine heavy on physical workouts that also included a focus on improving nutrition and mental approach.
“He’s done a really terrific job,” Abunassar said of Hagans. “These are long days, and it’s been a lot of months. The way that he approached his preparation is very professional.”
Given the success Hagans had as a defensive-minded, pass-first point guard at Kentucky, it’s unsurprising that one of the main points of emphasis during his time at Impact involved improving his shooting. While extending his range to the NBA 3-point line was a focus, an overall shift in Hagans’ offensive mentality towards being more aggressive in looking for his own shot proved to be an overarching theme.
“He had to shift from Kentucky mode — where he was defending, running the team [and] not shooting the ball very much — to more of an offensive mode,” Abunassar said. “So the biggest improvement was his shooting, and it’s something we spent a lot of time working on. It’s something he needed to improve to excel at the next level, and he very much did so — big time.”
The 2020 pre-draft process lasted much longer than normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the NBA season — delayed a few months before being restarted inside a bubble in Orlando — being pushed back into late summer, the two-round, 60-pick draft subsequently was rescheduled from June to November.
With the coronavirus also changing how the process went, with no draft combine and few workouts, Abunassar admitted that it is anybody’s guess how the draft will play out Wednesday. There’s a reason that Abunassar de-emphasizes the importance of what pick a player is taken (or even if the player is drafted) and focuses instead on what team they end up on.
As for Hagans, the expectation is that he will have his name called at some point during the virtual draft that will be conducted from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut. Most mock drafts have the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Hagans going in the second round.
“Anything can happen,” Abunassar said, “but I think the range that Ashton is in is anywhere from the end of the first round all the way through the second round.
“Wherever he goes, I hope it’s the right fit for him. That they play the right style is much more important than the number that he gets picked. Somewhere he can do what he does in a system and a culture that plays toward what he’s good at. Those are the guys who do well.”
During his two seasons at Kentucky, Hagans averaged 9.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. He upped his averages in each of those categories dramatically from his freshman to sophomore years, finishing the 2019-20 season with averages of 11.5, 3.9 and 6.4, respectively.
Hagans helped Kentucky reach the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. His final season with the Wildcats ended abruptly when COVID-19 led to the 2020 SEC and NCAA tournaments being canceled back in March.
After such a long layoff between competitive games, Abunassar doesn’t think Hagans or other prospective rookies will be adversely impacted by the NBA’s plan to begin the 2020-21 season Dec. 22 — barely a month after the draft.
“I think that once the draft happens, these teams will get these guys in, and it’s going to be a mad rush to educate them more so on the system than on the conditioning part,” Abunassar said. “I think it’s great. ... I think it’s going to be beneficial, and plus, these guys are going to be so hungry to play. These guys haven’t played in a long time.
“It’s going to be a quick turnaround, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for any of them.”