Changing the game: How Sportradar is evolving the use of technology in basketball
Technology is continually impacting the world around us, and those at the forefront are also using it to revolutionise basketball.
Some of us hoops fans know the game in and out, others just enjoy the spectacle without the want and need to get into the Xs and Os.
Plenty would be able to tell you what a pick and roll is, some would be able to explain different defensive coverage’s of a pick and roll, and even fewer would be able to give you some general tendencies of players they know and love.
If that’s the level of understanding for onlookers, what’s it like in the inner sanctum at the highest level?
The Pick and Roll is an independent reader-supported publication. To receive new stories and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Ben Turner, Sportradar's Global Basketball Chief, showed me behind the scenes of the level of data and analysis at the hands of the players and staff in the NBA.
Sportradar is a global sports technology and data company whose partnership with the NBA provides teams with the technology to track trends, scout, show areas of improvement for their own players, and much more.
Their new skeletal tracking technology uses AI and machine learning to provide a level of insight that hasn’t been seen.
Let’s take Josh Giddey for instance.
Any of us can go to NBA.com or ESPN to find out his shooting percentages and per-game averages. In some cases, we can go a little deeper to find more advanced details of his game.
But what if we want to know his efficiency when driving to his right and finishing at the rim? Or how often he scores when he goes to his left and shoots a floater? Does he make more jump shots when a defender closes out on his left or on his right? What are his tendencies when he gets a screen on the left side as the ball handler?
Sportradar has all the answers for every player in the NBA and with the click of the button can then take you through each time any of those specific things have happened in any season of a player’s career.
“We’re using AI and machine learning computer vision,” explained Ben Turner.
“We’re tracking every player in 3D. There are 29 data points on the player.
'Think about anywhere the body moves, the shoulders and elbows the easiest to understand, but there are 29 dots on the body that are then trans coded in XYZ coordinates across all 10 players that are on the court and the ball.
“What we then do is use our AI and machine learning technology to really break that down into things that matter for basketball. Our role is to then create the analytics and the insights on top of the data.”
Technology of this nature isn’t a new concept in basketball, however, Sportradar have taken it to another level in a move that illustrates just how quickly this area of the game is advancing in a short space of time.
To give you context, before the 3D tracking with 29 data points on every player, those on the court were tracked in 2D with around six data points.
“The actual technology upgrade is like moving from standard definition to 4K,” said Turner.
The most obvious application is scouting, with coaching staff able to give their defences clear guidance regarding opposition tendencies and style. The other key is the speed at which this information can be gathered, especially in a league that jams 82 games into a relatively short window.
The uses do go further though, with player development as another potential application. Those on the floor can easily find out what their individual weaknesses are and what parts of their game need work to become a more well-rounded player.
One other application that could get overlooked is how front offices could potentially use technology such as this.
In the NBA any advantage is huge because of the widespread talent across the league. So a greater insight into player tendencies and style can give you space to recruit for better cohesion and on-court chemistry.
“Now you can see ‘Okay if I put these players together and we play in this way, these deeper levels of analytics are going to allow me to put together a more cohesive unit around our coaches’ offensive and defensive play styles’,” explained Ben Turner.
With such leaps and bounds being made off the court when it comes to technology and data, it’s not out of this world to think that there may be some form of noticeable difference on the floor itself.
It may not be blindingly obvious, but Ben Turner believes it will have a positive impact on the sport we love so much.
“In the actual background, the opportunities are endless,” Turner said.
“I do think that will change the game to a degree.
“Coaches, as they are, have an influence on the game and I think that you will see that influence of data and analytics take the game to a new level and optimise how the game is played.
“I think it will be positive for fans and positive for the game.”
Interestingly a major part of the current NBA discourse, which has been driven by veteran players or those recently retired, is that many of the new generation play for the glitz, glamour and lifestyle that comes with being in the league.
“Being in the league for so long, you realise how many [expletives] don’t love the game of basketball, who take it for granted, who feel so entitled, who just want everything that comes with it but don’t want to put the work in,” said Demar DeRozan on Podcast P with Paul George.
With technology like Sportradar’s becoming increasingly prevalent and well-used at the highest level, there is a chance that the students of the game gain a further advantage and could separate themselves from those who potentially aren’t as committed.
It’s no real shock that Chris Paul is one of the biggest users of Sportradar’s platform among players in the NBA.
Of course, the player regarded by many as the smartest and having the highest basketball IQ of the last 30 years would use every possible tool at his disposal to help dissect defences and get his teammates their most efficient shot.
The space where basketball and technology collide is fascinating and one that is only going to grow more influential as time goes on.
Companies like Sportradar are continuing to push the boundaries and in the end, it’s only going to mean great things for the game.