- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you're an NBA fan — and especially if you're the type of person fascinated by the development and use of advanced analytics in the professional game — you already know all about SportVU.
If you're not this kind of person, you might be in the dark. Let's catch you up. Essentially, SportVU is a camera system developed by STATS LLC that uses high-speed, wide-angle camera lenses to track everything that happens on a basketball court several times a second. The data possibilities are endless; for the first time ever, teams can track, record and analyze everything a player does while he's on the court.
It didn't take long for NBA teams to catch on. Soon after STATS debuted the system, a handful of progressive NBA front offices shelled out to have it installed. In the years since, the MIT Sloan Sports Conference has runneth over with really smart using spatial data to come to new, interesting conclusions about the most efficient way to play the game; ESPN.com sister site Grantland frequently features SportVU-driven spatial analysis by Harvard visiting scholar and geography Ph.D. Kirk Goldsberry. By last season, 15 teams were on board, and in early September, the NBA announced that it would partner with STATS to furnish every NBA arena with cameras. By the time the NBA season opens in a few weeks, every NBA front office will have access to SportVU.
Watching all of this happen from a college perspective has been somewhat disorienting. College hoops has its fair share of wonks, a bustling advanced analytics community powered by the work of ESPN's Dean Oliver, Ken Pomeroy, John Gasaway, and Synergy Sports scouting data, which you see in this space frequently. The smartest coaches in the game absorb this data and impart it on their players. But college basketball is not the NBA. The games are different and so are the market imperatives. So it wasn't unfair to ask whether college basketball would ever totally get on board. SportVU isn't cheap, and college basketball is almost impossible to standardize. The NBA has no such issue. What if the revolution ended at a price point?
Now it seems inevitable. According to Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal, the Duke Blue Devils will become the first team to employ SportVU in their arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, this season. The Blue Devils will also put the cameras to work in practices, adding a large sample of player motion and movement data to track and analyze. That is not a minor decision: Stats senior vice president Brian Kopp told the WSJ that no NBA team had done the same. But it makes sense for a college team whose data windows are limited to just 17 home games. Sample size is everything.
The Blue Devils might be the first independent purveyor of the Stats tech, and certainly the most high-profile. But they aren't the only one. Because Marquette shares the Bradley Center with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Golden Eagles will share the SportVU system for their 16 home games this season, too.
"Knowing our coach, two minutes into [Stats'] presentation, we knew it was something he'd want to pursue," said Marquette deputy athletic director Mike Broeker.
No surprise there. Few coaches in the country have so openly embraced advanced analytics as Marquette coach Buzz Williams; only Butler's Brad Stevens scouted and prepared his teams with more impressive game-to-game precision over the past five years. Now Williams will get a chance to look over the next data horizon. Who cares if it's just 16 games? If I was one of Marquette's new conference members, I would be slightly afraid.
Which is where we get back to the sport at large. Opposing coaches don't like disadvantages. They don't like having substandard facilities. They don't like when they can't charter a plane to see four recruiting targets in 10 hours. They don't like it when they can't budget for top assistants. We can go ahead and posit, then, that these coaches are not going to like it when just one or two schools in their conference are outfitted with uber-precise cameras and an operations staffer plunging into vast amounts of data that they in turn don't have access to. Even if Mike Krzyzewski never once looks at SportVU (you know Williams already has his Howard Hughes-esque screening room set up), other coaches in his conference will hate the idea that he has access to a piece of information they can't obtain. I mean, they will hate it. These are desperately competitive men. It will keep them up nights.
That's precisely the same force that got us all these glimmering, booster-funded practice facilities in the first place. You can't fall behind. You have to keep pace. Now, keeping pace means adding expensive cameras and hiring quants to analyze the number of potential hockey assists your power forward could have had were he more aware that the defense was only doubling him after his first half-pivot. And the NBA would love nothing more than for its would-be lottery picks to arrive with eight months' worth of spatial data attached. That's the other force at work here: the desire to record and measure everything. Basketball is hardly immune.
SportVU might not achieve widespread collegiate adoption right away. But is there any doubt it one day will? Already, we know eons more about what makes basketball work than at any time in the sport's history. In reality, we're just getting started. How exciting is that?