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SLU brings new technology to practice

Basketballs with sensors sit on a charging rack in the tunnel of Chaifetz Arena on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, as Michael Wilson, St. Louis University's director of basketball operations arrives at practice. The balls are necessary for a high-tech data-gathering system that the school has incorporated into practice sessions at St. Louis University. (Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com)

Big Brother is watching you . . . and he wants you to keep your shooting elbow in.

Over at Chaifetz Arena, looming sensors track the St. Louis University Billikens, who wear small devices on their sneakers. And the sensors track the basketballs, which are equipped with computer chips. The result is a sophisticated data-collecting operation that is influencing the way coaches coach and players play.

It’s called ShotTracker. It’s the future. It’s the present. And it’s emblematic of technology’s role in all sports in 2019, which these days seems more like “1984.”

One college league (the Mountain West Conference) already uses ShotTracker’s wearable technology in games. Others could follow, because more than 70 college basketball programs use ShotTracker. This is SLU’s first season with that.

So how does it work?

On Friday afternoon, SLU’s director of basketball operations, Michael Wilson, held an iPad that showed the court. He then attached a one-ounce sensor to his shoelaces, and instantly a green dot popped up on the iPad’s court diagram. It was him.

You could watch the green dot move as he walked over to the rack, where the balls charged. Wilson picked one, headed over to a hoop and took a shot from the right baseline. Swish. And right there on the iPad, you could see his stats — one field goal attempt, one field goal made, 100 percent shooting from the field. You could touch the screen for a shot chart — it showed the spot from which the ball was shot. And as he shot more, it showed his shooting percentages per each area of the court.

“It’s pretty cool to go back an hour later after practice and see what you shot,” Billikens freshman Gibson Jimerson said. “Where you shot from — and the areas on the court where you shot well from. For me, the top of the key was an area I always thought I shot well from. I looked back and it was one of my not-as-good areas. The corners were good. . . . Especially when I was younger, out in the driveway, shooting with my dad, you’re wondering — how many shots have I made? What am I shooting from the free throw line? Now being able to have this as a tool, I hold myself accountable. It helps — you can kind of be your own shot doctor, kind of tweaking things.”

The data goes right to the player’s phone. And the coaches’ phones. In real time. If a player is shooting at night at the arena, coach Travis Ford can sit at home and see the little green dot on his phone. And during practice, everything is tracked. More than 70 statistics, instantly.

“It keeps track of rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers, assist-to-turnover ratio, effective field goal percentage,” Wilson said. “Even distance traveled.”

A coach can hold the iPad during practice and see a box score of players’ statistics. The coach immediately can spot different data trends — and give feedback to the players and other coaches. Gone are the days of a student manager furiously tallying stats by hand. ShotTracker also has the capability to compare players’ stats with previous practices. It filters everything.

The distance tracking is particularly fascinating. In the NBA, teams track how many feet or miles a player runs during a given game or week or month. ShotTracker has that capability. In an era in which “load management” is part of the basketball vernacular, this data equips everyone involved.

“Our strength coach, especially in the summer and fall, he’s trying to see what we’re doing on a daily basis,” Wilson said. “He can see how far guys are going (on the court), and then he can tailor what they’re doing in conditioning and in the weight room.”

In 2019, sports is all about maximization.

Maximizing every moment efficiently — every workout, every practice, every video session, even every coach’s pep talk to a team or a player. Data does this. It’s all about accumulating data to change your perspective on your performance . . . or find holes in your game . . . or help coaches explain things visually or more easily.

Data-collecting technology is prevalent in youth sports, too. There are parents tracking stats from their kids softball or baseball games on their iPhones — or their kids’ exit velocities or launch angles during hitting sessions. Pitching coaches get ahead of the curve by using new technology to teach throwing one. It’’s all very modern. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses. It all might be too much . . . or it might be not enough — because even if your team has innovative technology, it makes one wonder what the rival team has.

As for SLU basketball, just as the Billikens receive data in real time, they’re learning in real time how it can help them become better. The process is a process.

“You’re investing in the future,” Wilson said, “and in the individual development of the player, which only helps grow your program, grow your team. It has it’s ability to improve the team from all of the analytics that come with it.”

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