New Trainer Hire Good

The Jayhawks looked to the League for find their new strength coach. Let's read into it because it's September.

Above is a podcast featuring the new Kansas strength coach, Ramsey Nijem. It’s a strikingly good conversation, especially given that the pod is a hyper-targeted sports strength and conditioning show that’s over an hour long. Nijem is rattling off strength/conditioning minutiae like he’s an industry lifer. Nijem is 28 years old, and previous to coming aboard with Kansas, he had been the Sacramento Kings head strength coach for two seasons. He’s 28!

The CV (dual doctorate!) appears to speak for itself, as does Nijem’s willingness to plug himself into the new health care system Kansas Athletics is using. (“I think that adds another unique element to what I consider a competitive advantage over those who aren’t taking this approach,” he told The Star.) Nijem’s saying the right stuff, and in a recruiting landscape where being able to connect to the younger generation is not just a luxury, it’s a must, it seems like Kansas just got the closest thing to Chris Brickley as they could while also making sure they had the boxes checked when it came to formal qualifications.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Andrea Hudy leaving, and how I hoped that Jeff Long would let Bill Self make the hire himself, to save the basketball program from Long-ian decision laziness. According to that same Star article, it would appear that’s what happened—“Bill had the lead for us on it in identifying people, then we certainly had the (Kansas) Health System and others in our department that weighed in on behalf of coach,” Long said. I’m not saying Self should have carte blanche in all matters basketball, but he should be the decision-maker when it comes to basketball personnel.

I am encouraged.

Before last season, Jason Jones of the The Athletic profiled Nijem (it’s paywalled but if you want to see it hmu). It’s a good read, one that certainly frames Nijem in a good light while also tracing his path to the NBA and outlining his angle on the Wild Wild West of wellness. What stuck out to me was that there’s a lot of Kings player voices in this piece—an unusual amount for a piece about a team senior staff member of Nijem’s stature. Harry Giles is a pretty candid dude who cuts it straight, and everything he’s saying in this piece is glowing.

Zooming out for a moment, it’s probably worth addressing the baggage that the proper noun “Sacramento Kings” brings to the situation. The Kings owner, Vivek Ranadivé, is an owner that looks to data to make big decisions, often in a way that single-handedly exposes the flaws of taking that approach. I think we all remember when Vivek overruled everyone in the war room based on his proprietary research, risking it all to draft Sauce Castillo because he was convinced the Kings were one shooter away from contention. (I think I’d rather have Stauskas than Payton at this point? But I’m a Sauce-head I’m super biased. Sauce forever!).

The Kings hired Dale Joerger, who basically worked miracles in Memphis and improved Sacramento substantially, and tossed him out the door after one season in favor of Luke Walton, not exactly coaching’s hottest name. (They also fired Brandon Williams, a former Sixers front office and “The Process” veteran that I wrote about a few years back). Kings GM Vlade Divac, who often appears like he has no clue what he was doing, had the inside track on Luka Doncic, but selected Marvin Bagley III second overall instead of the future superstar. Bagley looks like he’s going to be a nice player, but passing on the top European prospect in a generation makes you wonder why the hell you have Vlade Divac in that role if he’s not going to pull the trigger there. This is what the Kings have done in the recent past.

While the Ranadivé decision-making engine might explains how a young trainer ascended to the top job of an NBA team, my read right now is that Nijem is an exception to general Kings chaos. In the future, I see successful college basketball teams trending two ways: they’re either going to be teams that basically mimic NBA talent development and strategy practices within the boundaries of a college setting (Kentucky, Duke) or they’re going to be teams that have played together a long time who perform at a level higher than the sum of their parts (Virginia, Villanova). Anything in the middle is muck. So to see KU immediately reach to the NBA to fill a big role—a role that is bigger than most casual fans might now—is extremely tight.

It feels like I’ve spent about 40% of this newsletter enterprise talking about strength coaching. It’s early September. It’s what we have to talk about. But these senior appointments are telling; I’d be curious to see how KU approaches the next assistant hire. Social media has flattened basketball, to some degree. Where’s KU’s sweet spot, the unique value proposition circa 2019? That’s what I’m beginning to wonder.