Computers Are the New Basketball Coaches
Computers Are the New Basketball Coaches
‘Today’s players will not argue with a computer.’ The latest shot-tracking technology in basketball is the latest sign of a profound shift in the making of professional athletes.
By Ben Cohen Updated July 19, 2019 3:06 pm ET
Admiral Schofield was in the middle of the most important workout of his life at the NBA draft combine a few months ago when he introduced himself to a man in a polo shirt with a logo he recognized. It was the least he could do. Schofield might not be a professional basketball player if not for this person he’d never met.
“Thank you!” he told John Carter, the CEO of Noah Basketball. “Thank you for everything.”
Since the summer after his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Schofield had been using Noah’s shot-tracking technology, which attached cameras to the baskets to calculate the angle and the ball’s position in the hoop. It would have been easy for Schofield to ignore this kind of information. He’d already made it to the highest level of college basketball without listening to a piece of technology named after a biblical character.
But it turned out that Noah had something compelling to say: It told Schofield that his shooting trajectory was too high. His shot’s entry angle was 55 degrees when it should have been closer to 45 degrees. And he trusted the data more than he trusted his own intuition.
What happened next would change Admiral Schofield’s life. He spent months tinkering with his mechanics until he was no longer shooting moonballs. As his shooting angle came down, his shooting percentage went up. Schofield made 30% of his 3-pointers as a freshman and 41% over the next three years.
That improvement would be worth millions of dollars when he signed with the Washington Wizards last week and became one of the first players to follow the advice of technology all the way to the NBA.
This is a profound shift in the making of the American professional athlete. It used to be the great paradox of sports that employees in one of the world’s most carefully quantified lines of work chose to reject the numbers that governed their profession. But not anymore. Schofield belongs to a generation of athletes that guzzles data.
“The most common quote I hear, whether it’s a middle-school coach, high-school coach, college or NBA, is that today’s players will not argue with a computer,” Carter said.
Carter says these athletes won’t respond to subjective coaching now that more objective information is available to them. They prefer exact numbers to estimates.
“That type of feedback is not accurate enough,” he said, “and honestly players don’t trust it.”
The fantastic amount of granular information created about every shot is not simply changing the way that players like Admiral Schofield develop. It’s fundamentally changing the game.
This has already happened in other sports. There was a similar confluence of events in baseball not long ago as players realized they should optimize their swings to hit line drives and home runs while stadiums were being equipped with tracking cameras that created valuable statistics and proved how right they were. The effect was powerful enough to bring change to Major League Baseball. More players took extreme measures to adjust the launch angles of their swings all so they could hit a few more homers.
The NBA equivalent of the home run is the 3-pointer. It’s no longer a mathematical secret that threes are worth more than twos, but now players are coming into the league having studied geometry in addition to arithmetic. They have shots that have been fine tuned by technology.
“If you can get young players engaged, it just becomes part of their habits,” said San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, “as opposed to trying to change their habits mid-career.”
There is now such a premium on shooting that it’s spawned a technological arms race. The ancient shooting gurus have been replaced by products with names like HomeCourt, RSPCT and Noah in the gleaming practice facilities of NBA teams, because they keep a comprehensive record of everything you could want to know about any shot, in addition to all the things you didn’t know it was possible to know.
The NBA even uses Noah at the draft combine after a former college player named Rachel Marty Pyke, a daughter of Noah’s founder, trained a machine-learning algorithm to search for patterns in more than 20 million shots. Her research helps teams make reliable predictions from limited samples. If someone like Schofield only takes 50 shots at the combine, for example, a three-dimensional profile of those shots reveals more about his ability than his percentage.
It was during Noah’s demonstration with the Brooklyn Nets a few years ago that Carter discovered a solid 3-point shooter hiding in plain sight. The data suggested this player had a consistent shot and should be taking more 3-pointers. But the reality clashed with that data. This player wasn’t taking any 3-pointers at the time. As it happened, Carter was prescient: Brook Lopez has suddenly become that solid 3-point shooter.
When she’s not studying basketball shooting, Pyke is busy crunching another kind of data. She’s a cancer researcher. But you don’t have to be attempting to cure disease to appreciate the latest advances in shot-tracking technology.
Nets guard Joe Harris, who led the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage last season, has always taken advantage of the most sophisticated technology available to him. But for most of his life, it wasn’t very sophisticated. It was barely even technology. He kept track of his makes and misses by counting to himself or writing them down in pen and paper.
That changed when he got to college at the University of Virginia and had access to Noah, and it changed again this year when he learned about HomeCourt, a popular mobile app that lets him watch a highly technical, real-time analysis of his shooting workout.
He liked it so much that he invested in the company. The startup behind HomeCourt announced a round of funding last week that included a deal with the NBA and backing from Bradley Beal, J.J. Redick, Sue Bird and more of the world’s best shooters.
“I would’ve used this every day,” Harris said.
There are some players who actually will. Schofield believes he would be in the NBA even if he hadn’t stumbled into shot-tracking technology. “Because of my other intangibles,” he said. But he’s also living proof that the most important parts of basketball are precisely the opposite. They have never been so tangible.