SportVU: An Inside Look, Part I

Photo by Getty Images; design by Sam Flood

Editor's Note: The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of 10 teams who used a new computer-based scouting software called SportVU last year. In Part 1 of this three-part series, Timberwolves.com explains SportVU's purpose and how the Wolves use it to analyze players both on the team and across the league.

Alex Conover
Web Editorial Associate

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A new cutting-edge technology is aiming to change the way NBA teams dissect and analyze statistics forever, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are one of 10 teams dabbling with the up and coming software.

SportVU, a player tracking technology that uses cameras above the court to capture locations 25 times per second, is a software system that tracks motion, data and statistics well beyond the traditional box score. The cameras, usually affixed to the arena’s rafters, capture movement of designated objects on X, Y and Z coordinates.

Imagine the Target Center court as a graph that you might remember from high school Algebra class. But instead of tracking lines or bell curves, they’re tracking the movement of the ball and all 10 players. 
At the annual Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Conference in 2010, Timberwolves basketball operations assistant Matt Bollero learned about the cutting-edge scouting technology already adopted by a handful of NBA teams.

“When I was at the conference, SportVU had a booth set up in the hallway and there was a large group of students surrounding it,” Bollero said. “I walked over and started reading about their service. The concept of cameras analyzing players on the court was quite intriguing, and I knew right away that this concept would eventually become mainstream analysis within the league.”

 Bollero then connected with Brian Kopp, Vice President of STATS, LLC. Kopp and his team began helping the Timberwolves transition into this new way of scouting. The early results of this new technology were impressive, and the Timberwolves front office committed to adopting the system.

Along with his duties as vice president, Kopp heads STATS’ Sports Solutions Group, a new group that focuses on team operations and data. STATS, LLC has been the industry standard for collecting and distributing sports data for 30 years, and they are the official data partner for all of the major leagues and media clients. 


It took all of last season for the Timberwolves’ scouting department to get accustomed to SportVU; the information drawn from the cameras is so plentiful that it can be difficult to initially determine what is truly relevant, and this continues to be an ongoing process. The analysis drawn from these numbers, however, helps the team scouts on a much deeper level than from a traditional box score.

SportVU and its cameras can bring three levels of data: visual, contextual and physical.

“First, there’s the things you can see with your eyes,” Kopp said during a phone interview. “How many times is a guy touching the ball in a certain area? What’s his efficiency in the low post versus high post? You could count those things manually, if you wanted, but it would be very tedious.”

The second layer adds more context to existing data. SportVU allows a front office to see something like secondary assists, also known as “hockey assists” — making a pass that leads to an assist.

“Another category is rebounding,” Kopp added. “How many rebounds are in traffic? How many aren’t? How many chances did they get? Are they active around the ball, but they don’t come away with it? How big is their rebounding radius? Rebounding has more context to it than the number on the tally sheet.”

The third layer is something that might have the most potential of all of the data: fitness analysis.

“Between speed, distance, and fitness, we want to know when a player gets tired,” Kopp said. “There’s a lot of cutting and acceleration. The training side will be an emerging area that’s very valuable.”

The Timberwolves’ front office is already seeing the benefits.


“From a front office standpoint, SportVU’s accessibility and its ability to distribute to the front office makes things much easier,” Bollero said. “The information can be utilized at season reviews and will become more valuable as more teams continue to join.”

All of this information is stored in a database called “Interactive Collaboration and Evaluation” (ICE), which is also developed by STATS, LLC. Data and statistics that are stored in ICE are shared between each NBA team that uses the service, while personal scouting notes are exclusive to each front office.

Still only a few years old, ICE had 10 teams sharing data last year. The more teams that adopt ICE, the more effective this network will become. Kopp estimates that there could be up to 20 teams using the system for next season.

“ICE gives us a database for every pro and collegiate player,” Bollero added. “Stats, background, history, it puts all of our notes in a centralized location. Our scouts use ICE on a daily basis and are required to input things like player reports and background information on assigned players.”

Allowing player comparisons and advanced statistical analysis, ICE is the ultimate organizational tool for NBA front offices. Scouts who are traveling around the world can access ICE from an iPad, and a native application is in development for smart phones.

“We want to get more specific and more in-depth,” Bollero said. “The more prepared we are, the better off we are in making personnel decisions when the time comes.”

 


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