More than fifteen years after the publication of Michael Lewis’ seminal book Moneyball, it’s difficult to overstate the impact of the analytical awakening in US sports. Data informs everything from scouting, coaching, tactical advancement and injury prevention to performance optimisation and fan engagement.
However, much of the key metrics informing crucial decisions are still collected manually. Humans still sit courtside at basketball games, for example, counting shots, completed passes, turnovers and other key-in game stats relayed back to teams and broadcasters.
Essential reading: The best GPS multisport watch and sports wearables
Many companies in the wearable tech realm are working towards automating that process and providing new and insightful data points. Athlete-worn devices in a number of professional and amateur sports are offering more granular, quantitative data. Companies like Whoop, STATSports, Hyksos and Motus are pioneering new approaches, and we’ve covered most of them in depth.
One device already preferred by half of all NBA teams is promising a similar awakening on the basketball court.
Before an injury, we can collect data that can be used as a reference for return to play
Kinexon Sports & Media offers a 15.4-gram sensor worn in the waistband of basketball shorts. The 47 x 33 x 7.5mm device is equipped with an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer, which combine to gather precise player motion and positional data. That data, which is accurate to 3-4 inches, is beamed to a dozen RF receivers stationed around the court, before it’s fed directly to coaches’ displays in as little as 10 milliseconds.
“When you know exactly where the players are in real time, you can track their speed, direction, distance covered, acceleration and deceleration in a very precise way,” Kinexon managing director Mehdi Bentanfous tells Wareable. This positional data is augmented by the motion sensors, which chart things like changes in direction, intensity of movement, and the frequency and airtime of jumps. Together, the solution provides accurate indications of power output that “tell us how hard a player is working.”
Eventually, Kinexon believes its solution will be game legal, but in training scenarios, it’s already enabling coaches to tailor sessions, monitor individual performance and minimise the risk of injury to players, while helping others with recovery.
Helping Embiid achieve his potential
In this regard, Kinexon already has a high-profile success story to its name. In January, the Philadelphia 76ers publicly credited the technology for helping them effectively manage the workload of injury-ravaged All-Star centre Joel Embiid.
Embiid was the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but hardly played for three years. Only in the 2017/18 season, when consistently healthy, did he begin to show that potential. Today he’s one of the league’s most domineering athletes.
As the 76ers return to action this evening, we hear from company CEO @ScottONeil, who highlights the benefits of technology when it comes to managing a player's workload…featuring @JoelEmbiid pic.twitter.com/sYzzgVnjKr
— LEADERS Business (@LeadersBiz) January 19, 2018
“Before an injury, we can collect data that can be used as a reference for return to play,” said Bentanfous. “After an injury, the player will not be at the same level as he was before. When it comes to the change of direction, for example, the intensity will have dropped. During the recovery you manage the load and slowly work towards reaching those numbers again.”
Bentanfous points out that keenness to get injured players back on the court often results in a setback “because the training is too intense, too soon.” Kinexon’s real-time delivery of data during sessions helps to avoid this.
“The system helps you manage training in intensity over time and see where the player is compared to where he was before. Teams are looking at the specific numbers in real time and can decide whether to pull a player from the next drill if it is has too high-speed intensity.”
Precise positioning and movement data can help teams build up much of this picture, but Kinexon can integrate with more technologies to offer a more holistic outlook. While the sensor reports the number of sprints, their intensity, the speed and the distance covered, integration with a heart rate sensor offers a clearer view on how this exertion is physically affecting the player.
“We provide teams with the external load metrics based on motion, but we also integrate biometrics based on a heart rate sensor,” Mehdi adds. “You see how much [the player] is doing on the court and the impact on the heart rate, telling us the fatigue level.
“We see teams use the system to put together the training plan for the day. What did we focus on yesterday? Were there too many high-speed drills in a short period of time? The training plan can then be put together in terms of load management.”
Spot the smart basketball
Of course, while accurate positional data offers great insight into fitness and recovery, it’s the player’s position in relation to the ball that’s more important from a tactical standpoint. Naturally, Kinexon is developing its own official ball, with a built-in sensor of its own.
It’ll automate valuable data on how players are spacing the floor, whether they’re executing pick and rolls on offence, whether they’re taking up the correct positions on defence, how often the point guard is driving to the basket and whether the centre is leaping high enough to grab his usual quota of rebounds.
Kinexon can also sync with advanced shot tracking technologies. The RSPCT technology, currently being used by the Indiana Pacers, among others, offers a camera that sits behind the glass on the backboard. The two technologies enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
“It detects all of the shots extremely accurately,” Mehdi says. “You know exactly where the ball lands, whether it’s a make or miss, the arc and the angle of the arrival. Because they know where the ball is coming from and we know the position of the players at that time, we synchronise both systems and now we have automated shot tracking technology.”
Will Kinexon ever be game legal?
RSPCT’s camera tech was trialled at the NBA All-Star Game back in February, meaning we could see it in league play sooner rather than later. For Kinexon the path onto NBA courts and into ESPN broadcasts is more complex.
The league prohibits wearable devices of any kind for in-game use. In fact, the first we heard of the Whoop Strap was the league stepping in to stop Matthew Dellavedova (then of Cleveland) wearing it during games.
As we’ve seen with wearables like the Motus Throw sensor – permitted for use in Major League Baseball – in-game use is crucial for these devices to provide the most useful insights and the most detailed overall picture of strain athletes are subjected to.
Kinexon believes its tech will allow all boats to rise. The benefits on offer to both teams and broadcasters mean an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement to enable its use could be on the table in a couple of years.
Mehdi Bentanfous says the real-time nature of the data will open up new avenues for the league, through commercialisation of the data. Broadcasters will be able to leverage next-gen stats like who had the highest jump and the fastest break, and relay them to viewers immediately. Betting and fantasy sports companies could offer the data to punters picking teams and players.
“We already have a solution for the teams, if they’re able to use it in the game they will automatically benefit because of the performance elements. If the data goes to the broadcaster, it can be used with fan engagement.”
The NBA has been reluctant to embrace wrist-worn wearables partially due to potential danger to players. Arms are constantly flailing at high speeds and eye injuries are already commonplace. Kinexon however is integrated within the waistband, and poses no safety risk.
There are more advantages. While the NFL uses the GPS-based Zebra system, this doesn’t work in an indoor sport like basketball, for obvious reasons. Kinexon’s RF tech not only works indoors, but also offers more precise data.
The NBA does currently have an player tracking arrangement with a camera-based, in-game solution from a company called Second Spectrum. This doesn’t require players to wear additional wearable equipment and it delivers precise positioning data, advanced next-gen stats and deep insights.
Second Spectrum is currently geared towards assisting teams with post-game tape analysis, but is also offering content providers AR-based visuals, like a live shot success probability meter, that could make live televised action look like the NBA2K game. However, Kinexon says the expense and complex set up means it believes this is not feasible for the practice environment.
Overall, Kinexon believes its real-time insights and accurate motion and positional tracking data in both the training and game settings could literally change the game for teams and broadcasters alike. Those courtside shot counters better watch their backs.
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