Justin Zormelo stands on a Georgetown University basketball court, a cellphone pressed to his ear. No answer. Where is Glen Rice Jr. ? The Washington Wizards player was supposed to be here hours ago.
Zormelo, dressed in the same baggy white Hoya shorts he wore when he was a team manager and a black T-shirt with his company’s logo on the chest, looks like someone who just wandered over from the pickup game on the next court. But unlike those Saturday morning jocks, the 30-year-old Fairfax County native has dozens of NBA clients listed in his cellphone, including Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, Wizards guard John Wall and Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. Not to mention the guy who helped Zormelo start it all: Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
Zormelo is one of the hottest trainers these days because of his creative use of stats. Not the usual stats, such as points, rebounds and assists, but an advanced analytics approach that has allowed a basketball fanatic who didn’t play past high school and never coached to help Durant become the NBA’s most valuable player.
Finally, Rice strolls in, three hours late, with a bunch of excuses. Zormelo brushes aside the explanations and greets the 23-year-old with a hug.
“I ain’t had no good workout in a long f---ing time,” says Rice, who would be assigned to the NBA Developmental League two months later.
“This is going to be a good workout today,” Zormelo promises.
Zormelo puts Rice, who plays guard-forward, through two hours of ball-handling and shooting drills. When Rice misses a shot and barks an expletive, Zormelo reassures: “That’s a good miss. I want you to know when you’re going to miss, when you’re going to make. You feel it. I want you to feel it in your feet, your hands.”
Pretty soon, Zormelo has Rice running around the court taking shots.
“Get to your spot. What’s your spot? What spot do you want to get to in the game?” Zormelo says.
“You tell me,” Rice replies.
Zormelo points to the left corner of the free throw line. “Around the elbow area. I think that’s a high-percentage shot for you.” Then he points to a spot just in front of the three-point arc.
“Right here, that s--- ain’t good. That s--- is probably 25 percent.”
Zormelo’s affinity for numbers and sports comes from his family. His mother, Dulce Gomez-Zormelo, is the chief financial officer at the National Wildlife Federation; her brother, Edwin Gomez, played for the Dominican national basketball team. Justin’s father, Justice Zormelo, works at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and played soccer at Brandeis University.
“We introduced him to a lot of the sports because he had asthma,” Dulce Gomez-Zormelo said. “It was really good for him to be active.”
Basketball was the one that stuck. At age 6 or 7, Zormelo began keeping statistics on players. Dulce remembers that when the family watched games on television, Zormelo would make observations that the announcer would repeat almost verbatim moments later.
“We would look at each other, and I would say, ‘Justin, you’re going to be a sports announcer,’ ” Dulce said. “He’s like, ‘No, I’m not. I’m going to play in the NBA, Mom.’ ”
Unfortunately for the 6-foot Justin, his high school career, first at Bishop O’Connell in Arlington and then at Annandale, was unremarkable. “I always say he was too slow and he couldn’t jump high enough,” his father said.
Instead, Zormelo persuaded then-Georgetown assistant basketball coach Ron Thompson to allow him to become a Hoyas team manager.
“He was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, had a lot of energy,” Thompson said. “He definitely had a passion for basketball.”
Zormelo soaked up information from the sidelines. “He learned our defenses and our offense as fast as any of the players,” said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, Ron’s brother, who became the coach in 2004.
Zormelo started working out players individually and helping them prepare for the NBA draft. When he graduated with a finance degree in 2006, no NBA jobs materialized, so he sold copiers. An internship with the Miami Heat led to a position as an assistant video coordinator with the Bulls in Chicago, where he began devising a formula for evaluating player efficiency based on which plays they executed well and which opportunities they missed. Most players didn’t like being graded, and the coaches were indifferent.
The next season, Zormelo became a “logger” for Synergy Sports Technology, an analytic service that breaks down game film. Only one player reached out to him: Ben Gordon, who had left the Bulls for the Detroit Pistons, wanted Zormelo to provide him with video clips during the 2009-2010 season.
In the middle of the 2010-2011 season, Zormelo contacted Durant, whom he had met through Georgetown player Brandon Bowman, and offered to break down video for him. Durant agreed, and Zormelo sent him clips after every game.
That summer, during the NBA lockout, Zormelo called Durant and asked him if he wanted to get some shots up. As soon as Durant said yes, Zormelo panicked.
“I’m like, ‘How am I going to work out him? He’s the best scorer in the NBA,’ ” Zormelo said. He decided to take an analytic approach to the drills. “After the workout, he said it was the best workout he’d ever had. He asked me to travel with him.”
For two seasons, Zormelo practically lived with Durant in Oklahoma, identifying inefficiencies in Durant’s game and tailoring their workouts to address them.
By the next season, Zormelo had helped Durant improve not only in the quirky stats Zormelo devised (see box) but also in the NBA’s traditional measures. Durant, now 26, became only the seventh player in NBA history to shoot 40 percent from the three-point range, 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the free throw line for the season.
Last season, Durant, who was the second pick in the 2007 NBA draft, was voted MVP for the first time in his career. He gives some of the credit to Zormelo: “He’s a big part of what I’ve done these last few years.”
Zormelo’s father had the foresight to suggest that his son form his own company in 2011 and even came up with a name for it, Best Ball Analytics. Durant posted videos of his training sessions with Zormelo on YouTube, and Sports Illustrated mentioned Zormelo in stories about Durant. Clients started calling.
“I’m still figuring out how to quantify what I do,” said Zormelo, who lives in Miami and is expecting a second child with his longtime girlfriend. Their first child, a girl named Isabella, died a year ago at less than three weeks old.
Zormelo, who declined to discuss how much he charges, has had more than 30 NBA clients, many of them all-stars.
“When you’re around NBA players of that caliber, they like to have people they trust,” said Hibbert, a fellow Georgetown grad. “To gain people’s trust like that is very important.”
Hibbert has hired Zormelo to work him out on occasion and to send him film clips not just of Hibbert, but of his upcoming opponents. “Say I’m playing against Tim Duncan,” Hibbert said. Zormelo will send Duncan’s “last 30 post-ups, what he likes to do, his tendencies. He likes to pump fake twice before he shoots. He shoots a lower percentage when he turns over the right shoulder as opposed to the left shoulder. Things like that.”
It’s the kind of information that one would assume players receive from coaches, and that coaches might not want them getting from an outsider (Zormelo said he is careful not to contradict coaches). But the players say their coaches tend to focus more on the team, while Zormelo provides individual attention.
“His main focus is on me. Their main focus is on winning games,” Rice said.
ESPN analyst Tom Penn said coaches are wary of players working with someone outside the team.
“You are thrilled that your player wants to work out. You are terrified about the way that he is directed to work,” Penn said. “There’s tremendous risk that the wrong trainer with the wrong ideas can train him in the wrong way and create significant risk of injury.”
“Moneyball” fever is spreading beyond baseball. NBA front offices are hiring stat geeks. Every arena has been outfitted with cameras tracking how many miles a player runs, how many dribbles he takes and how many passes he throws.
“There are many folks ... who would in an honest moment admit they don’t really believe in it,” Penn said, though more front offices are using analytics to select players, and coaches use them in their strategy.
Zormelo isn’t necessarily happy with this development. “They’re trying to make it like baseball,” he said. But basketball statistics “can easily be manipulated by different styles of play, by the players.”
As Penn explained: “Of all the sports, baseball and golf are the most built for advanced analytics because of the repeatable nature of the specific action. The other sports, basketball, football, are much more dynamic in nature, much more fluid and harder to quantify repeatable events.”
For that reason, Zormelo says it takes someone who understands the game as well as he does to make sense of them. “These [NBA] teams are trying to hire analytics people that don’t know basketball,” he said.
Those who have known Zormelo since he was a wanna-be college player are amazed at the niche he carved for himself.
“When we think of Justin as little Justin, we think it’s hilarious that’s what he’s doing now,” Ron Thompson said. “It’s just good to see that he took his passion and created something for himself.”
Even Zormelo has trouble believing his good fortune.
“I just started with two basketballs and a cellphone four years ago,” he said. If Durant had not agreed to work with him, “I would not be doing this. He saw something in me before I saw it.”
Kathy Orton is a Washington Post staff writer. Sportswriter Michael Lee contributed to this report.
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