Meet the NBA skills trainer working with three Utah Jazz players

Aaron Miller works full-time with Malik Beasley and part-time with Jarred Vanderbilt and Collin Sexton, looking to balance expanding their individual games while keeping them within the team construct.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aaron Miller, an NBA skills trainer, works full-time with Utah Jazz wing Malik Beasley, and part-time with forward Jarred Vanderbilt and guard Collin Sexton, at Vivint Arena, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022.

It’s a social media “interaction” as old as social media itself: NBA player posts himself doing something not related to basketball, and snarky fan retorts something to the effect of, “Instead of [doing that], maybe you should spend your time practicing.”

It’s actually a difficult position for players to be put in, said Utah Jazz assistant coach Irv Roland, who previously spent five years working as a personal skills trainer.

“When people think of player development, they don’t fully understand there’s a tough balancing act,” said Roland. “… Most of these guys, they get bored with the process, you know what I mean? So you’re working on a bunch of things, and a lot of it doesn’t apply to what you’re going to do for your team that’s going to allow you to be successful.”

It’s something of a classic conundrum: Should players spend their free time simply perfecting the things they’re already good at, those singular skills which got them to the NBA? Or is it worth it to invest time and effort (and money) into shoring up weaknesses, becoming more well-rounded?

There’s no doubt that the Jazz’s players are, in fact, practicing. A lot. And not just in the team sessions scheduled by head coach Will Hardy, either.

A good many NBA players personally employ skills trainers to help them bolster their on-court capabilities. As it turns out, three players on the 2022-23 Jazz team happen to utilize the same guy.

Aaron Miller, who runs Elite Basketball Training out of Houston, counts Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Collin Sexton among his clientele.

Sooooo … who exactly is this guy partly responsible the development of a sizable contingent of an NBA team’s rotation?

If you’re laboring under the impression that NBA players’ skills trainers are athletes with commensurate or superior résumés, well, that’s pretty frequently not how it works. Miller’s curriculum vitae is certainly not filled with what the uninitiated might expect.

All-NBA? Multi-time All-Star? Actually, the 31-year-old 6-footer never played in the NBA. Never played overseas, either. He did play college ball, though not at some blue-blood program like Kentucky or Kansas or Duke. Try North Lake Community College. And Dallas Baptist. And Central Christian.

No wonder, then — right? — that when talking about his job, Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune, “I’m living my dream right now. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity, and I’m just hoping to make the most of it.”

Given that you’ve probably never heard of Aaron Miller, it would be easy to figure he’s lucky to have landed the high-profile clients he has. But then, those Jazz players he works with swear by him.

“I call him family already. That’s my brother. I love him to death,” Beasley said. “And we’re gonna keep going until I’m done.”

From P.E. to the pros

When Miller’s college eligibility was up, he, like a lot of other ex-college athletes, was not ready to let go, to leave it behind, to acknowledge that it was over. He kept up training, staying in shape, practicing, with the hope of landing a playing gig in Europe, or South America, or Asia … literally anywhere.

To pay the bills in the meantime, though, he took a job as a paraprofessional teaching physical education at a middle school.

“I was just trying to find something in my comfort zone,” Miller said. “I’m not built to sell insurance or vehicles — no discredit to any of those guys.”

At nights, he was hitting up Lifetime Fitnesses and 24 Hour Fitnesses to get some games in. It was at one of those runs that he overheard a conversation that would ultimately put him on what would become, quite unexpectedly, a new career path.

A group of high schoolers were nervously discussing the upcoming team tryouts. A few were lamenting how they weren’t good enough at this or that.

And the proverbial light bulb went off: I could help them with that.

“That’s how it started,” Miller said, shaking his head at the memory.

Those overseas gigs weren’t forthcoming, but, through word-of-mouth recommendations, more hoopers willing to pay for his help were.

Miller grew close to a Houston-area high school coach and offered to work for free with the guy’s district MVP over the summer, if he’d just help spread the word after about the job he did. He did. And athletes kept coming.

And so, soon enough, what began as a side hustle to make some supplemental income while waiting for his shot at playing wound up becoming a job.

“It wasn’t in the cards for me to play overseas, so that ended — but I had found something else I was comfortable with, and it grew,” Miller said. “And eight years later, here we are.”

Still … how does a guy go from working with high schoolers in Houston to NBA players?

Well, sometimes all it takes is one introduction to the right guy to make it happen.

After Miller had been doing skills training for about three years, his good friend and former AAU teammate Tre’ Bennett found himself in the same position that Bennett had been in before — college days at Lamar State CC and Indiana State wrapped, hoping to land a spot on a roster overseas.

Bennett asked Miller to train him. And then one day, Bennett asked his best friend — then-Washington Wizards guard Sheldon Mac [née McClellan] — to come and help him at a workout. Mac liked what he saw from Miller, and soon enlisted him to become his skills trainer.

And the word-of-mouth thing played out once again, but this time on a much higher level.

“Once I got him in Houston, that’s when the domino effect happened,” Miller said. “Then it went to D’Angelo Harrison, and Josh Gray, and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Arron. … Ever since then …”

Ever since then, he’s been a fixture in NBA circles.

Working with Jazz players … but not against the Jazz

During the offseason, Miller will provide his services to about 8-10 players. During the regular season, he has a couple who utilize him full-time, arranging workouts multiple times per week as the game schedule allows, and several more who employ him on a part-time basis, with more sporadic training.

Miller’s been working part-time with Vanderbilt for several years now.

“We’re from the same city, so I’ve been knowing him for awhile. We’re from Houston, and I’ve been training with him for a couple years,” Vanderbilt said. “… I just like his attention to detail. He’s a hard worker like myself, we have that in common. He’s just a cool dude, and his work is beneficial.”

Beasley became Miller’s second full-time client — alongside Lakers guard and momentary Jazz player Patrick Beverley — this past summer.

His agent, Brian Jungreis, who’s worked with Beverley before, recommended him. And when Beasley saw some of the work Miller was doing with Vanderbilt, he decided to at least give him a try: “We had a few workouts to see how it went, and we just clicked from the beginning.”

Meanwhile, Miller laughs about how Sexton came to be one of his part-time clients. The trainer came to the Zions Bank Basketball Campus during the summer to do a workout with Beasley. Then he had one with Vanderbilt immediately afterward.

“And Collin was lifting weights the whole time, and he just sat there and watched our workouts,” Miller said. “Then he texted Jarred immediately afterward and said, ‘Hey I want to get working with him, too.’ That’s kind of how that started.”

Beasley, though, decided to pay up for more of Miller’s instruction, because he’s been wanting to add a few very specific things to add to his game. He’s pleased with the results.

“I’ve been looking for a trainer who can help me get my handle right and help me play-make. And he’s really good at that,” Beasley said. “He’s had a lot of players in his days to play the point. And we’ve been working [on those things] ever since. … Just getting in extra work and becoming comfortable and more confident every game.”

Roland knows of Miller from overlapping time in Houston (when Roland was with the Rockets), though he said they don’t have a personal relationship, and thus did not want to speak on him individually; in general, though, he acknowledged being wary of the promises made and the work done by various skills trainers.

Roland has been in the NBA since 2004, save for three years in Miami and two years in Los Angeles working as a player development specialist (including some time spent working with famed trainers Tim Grover and Mike Procopio). He’s also worked on the staff of five NBA teams now, and has “at least one friend on every coaching staff in the league.”

That, he argues, gave him “the upper hand” in his working relationships with players, the ability to go to a coach and find out what an athlete should be working on, as opposed to wasting time with flashy-but-pointless dribbling drills.

“A lot of guys that work privately don’t have relationships with guys on staffs, so they’re just kind of doing what the player wants them to do,” Roland said. “… The problem is a lot of players don’t have a clear view of who they are in this league and what it’s going to take to make them successful.”

It also should be noted that Miller insists he’s keen not to step on the toes of the team’s coaching staff and player-development personnel, and that he approached Hardy for exactly those reasons: “We’re all on the same page. It’s never me going back to the coaching staff and asking, ‘Where can we get Malik more shots?’ It’s me asking, ‘Where do you see him needing to improve, and how can I help?’”

(Photo courtesy of Aaron Miller) Utah Jazz wing Malik Beasley and NBA skills trainer Aaron Miller work out at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus. In addition to training Beasley full-time, Miller also works with Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt and guard Collin Sexton.

Furthermore, it’s not an inherently bad thing for a player to want to expand his game beyond what he presently does.

Miller, in breaking down his work with Beasley, mentioned that of late, they’ve been figuring out counters to defenders swarming him at the 3-point line: Where are the best spots for him to get shot opportunities, and how can he get more of them? Is that being a better screener? Slipping to the basket when teams are top-locking him?

Beasley concedes it’s partly about eliminating the narrative of him being only a shooter; but then, he adds, it’s not merely a vanity project — he truly believes that varying his skillset will help the Jazz win more. Yes, he could go the Klay Thompson-lite route and bury a ton of 3s without ever putting the ball on the floor, but if he’s more adept at driving past a closeout and then either getting a better look himself or locating a teammate, doesn’t that benefit everyone?

“I had a play [against the Suns] where I went between my legs and drove the ball to a left-hand layup. Last year [in that possession], I would have just shot the 3,” Beasley said. “I’m just feeling more comfortable. If there’s five seconds left on the clock, I can get in my bag and make the right play. That’s the biggest thing.”

Hardy, for one, likes the progress he has made with his dribbling and passing.

“He’s worked really hard in those areas. For a player like Malik, who can shoot the way he can, he’s going to draw a lot of attention; so his ability to play off a close-out — put the ball on the floor a few times to attack a close-out — is huge for us,” the coach said. “It’s about the decision-making behind that. We want to take great shots as a team, and sometimes that means that you’re going to have to pass the ball four or five times in a row when you drive it. Malik’s done a great job of recognizing the moments when he should shoot and recognizing moments when he should attack for a teammate.”

Miller, meanwhile, takes pride in the work he does and is enjoying the ride.

It is a grind — he’s been married to his wife, Kelsey, for six years, and they have a 4-year-old son Madden, 2-year-old daughter Memphis, and he often sees them for just half of each month if that. He’s frequently flying out to Salt Lake City to work with Beasley and perhaps the Jazz guys, or out to L.A. to work with Beverley, or out to wherever those guys want him to be.

If a player’s team has four games in a week, Miller might have some time off; but if there’s a lighter schedule — such as when the Jazz had Monday, Nov. 14 off, played the Knicks at home the next night, then two non-game days, followed by another home game vs. the Suns, he’s packing his suitcase.

“My wife’s an all-star. She makes my life very easy as far as scheduling. We take a look at the beginning of the month at who has games where, and how can I go and provide value for a long enough time in a city,” he said. “For example, Patrick had a four-game homestand in L.A., and I was there, and it just so happened that Utah came and played the Lakers, had a day off, then played the Clippers, so I was able to work with Malik during that time, too.”

Despite the grind, though, he loves his work. Asked what Elite Basketball Training looks like at its optimum trajectory, Miller said that it’s pretty close to perfect as is, and he’s not looking for some massive uptick in clients.

“The best advice I’ve ever received is, if you have five guys, instead of trying to get 50, really just take good care of those five guys,” he said. “… I’m not saying better days aren’t coming — I pray that they are — but I’m kind of living my dream right now.”

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