Meet Synergy Sports Technology, the Company Revolutionizing College Basketball

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Meet Synergy Sports Technology, the Company Revolutionizing College Basketball

Gordon Hayward's half-court heave at the final buzzer that bounced off the backboard and nearly went in is what most remember about the 2010 national championship game.

But the possession that held far more importance to Duke holding off Cinderella came a possession before. With 13.6 seconds left and Duke ahead by one, Butler threw the ball in to Hayward above the top of the key. Kyle Singler was guarding him.

Hayward is right-handed, and the natural inclination for any defender would be to try to force a right-hander to go left. But when Duke went through the scouting report on Butler, it was clear you did not want to let Hayward go left. The numbers provided by Synergy Sports Technology had revealed that Hayward went left nearly 70 percent of the time.

"You watch five or six Butler games, and you learn that Hayward likes to go left, then Synergy backs up that data, and you go with it," Duke video coordinator Kevin Cullen told Bleacher Report recently.

Processing that data on the fly, Singler shaded Hayward to the right as he made his move (see the video to the right). Hayward tried to go left, but Singler stayed on his left hip and forced him back to his right and toward the baseline, where center Brian Zoubek was waiting. Hayward was forced to take an off-balance jumper over the reach of Zoubek, who is 7'1".

"If they're going to hit that shot and win that national championship game, then God bless them," Cullen said. "But that's going to be a really tough shot, and you're going to make them do something they're not as comfortable doing."

Hayward missed the shot. Zoubek got the rebound. And that's how advanced statistics and video helped Duke win its fourth national championship.

***

Coaches have watched game film practically from the time moving pictures became a thing. Back in the day—and by back in the day, we're talking early '90s—it was difficult for a coach to consume more than a game or two a night. They would rewatch tape just like any of us then—on a VCR with fast forward as the only way to speed things up.

The amount they can now consume has drastically changed.

Kansas video coordinator Jeff Forbes said that late in a season, head coach Bill Self will watch four or five full games of KU's next opponent in addition to watching an offensive and defensive edit of that opponent's last 700 possessions. Self is able to watch a lot of this while KU is traveling. Everything is web-based and mobile.

Sometimes coaches want something more specific than just the regular game film. When Duke was playing Miami last season, for instance, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to see how Miami used star point guard Shane Larkin in ball screens.

"It would take me four or five hours to find 20 Shane Larkin ball screens," Cullen said of the days before services like Synergy were available. "I can point and click, and boom, here's the last 200 ball screens that Shane Larkin ran. It's an incredibly valuable tool."

Synergy has come to streamline the entire process. And not only can you watch Larkin run through ball screen after ball screen, but there's also data that occupies such a set.

These are the statistics, provided by Synergy Sports Technology, from last season when Miami's Shane Larkin was the ball-handler in a ball screen.

Synergy's numbers can tell you how many points per possession Larkin scores off a ball screen or how often he takes an immediate jumper, dribbles off the pick, goes away from the pick or splits the defenders.

The service seems like such an obvious entry point in college and professional basketball, but it took one of their own to make it happen.

In 1992, Garrick Barr, who is now CEO of Synergy, started a job as the video coordinator for the Phoenix Suns. Video scouting has always been a huge time investment for coaches, and that's why the position of video coordinator came to be in the NBA in the 1990s.

It has become a good starting point for coaching at the professional level. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown and Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel all got their starts in the NBA as video coordinators.

CEO Garrick Barr (left) and CTO Nils Lahr (right) are the co-founders of Synergy Sports Technology.

One of the first tasks the Suns gave Barr was keeping track of how their players challenged shots on defense. They wanted him to log all challenged shots, and every time an opponent took a shot, Barr was supposed to rate the challenge.

"How do we know you're going to do a good job?" assistant coach Paul Silas asked Barr.

Barr had been an assistant at Grand Canyon University, but this was his first NBA job. It was a fair question. So the coaches watched as Barr went through clips and rated the challenges on the spot.

He had earned their trust.

Barr saw an opportunity to take what he did for the Suns and make it a service. In 1998, while still with the Suns, he started a company called Quantified Scouting with his friend Scott Mossman, who was the head coach at Grand Canyon at the time.

Mossman had several DirecTV dishes set up at his home, and he recorded every NBA game. He would take the tapes and hand them out to his players, and they would go through every possession, tagging play types and results, which turned into offensive-tendency reports on every player in the NBA. A majority of the NBA teams subscribed to these printed reports.

In 2004, Barr decided to leave the Suns and take advantage of the Internet boom. He found investors, and someone to help him figure out a way to connect the data with video, and they changed the name of the company to Synergy Sports Technology.

A year later, during the 2005-06 season, they started recording college games of the top 100 NBA draft prospects.

By the 2006-07 season, Synergy had college clients and was logging the majority of college games. Barr says they now have approximately 95 percent of Division I teams as clients.

Data and video for every college game is available for consumption within 12 to 24 hours of the end of a game.

Similar to the test Silas gave Barr when he joined the Suns, the Synergy loggers, who are the guys who watch the tape and tag each play, have to go through a screening process that includes a series of tests and training.

Forbes said it’s like he has an entire video staff working for him. When he first started at Kansas in 2010, he spent that summer along with former Kansas assistant Brett Ballard breaking down video of KU's ball-screen offense.

"It took like three months," he said. "I did that in pieces. I did that in the evenings and nights. I can do that in a day now or maybe less because of Synergy."

Barr should probably hire Forbes for an infomercial right away.

I used to take months editing video. With Synergy, I can do it in an hour and actually spend time with my wife!

Whether coaches embrace technology or not, they all acknowledge that the advancements in video have changed the game.

"In the corporate world, learning from data, crunching data has been going on a long time," Barr said. "In sports, it's a bit reactionary. Coaches are old school and are proud of how they do things. It takes more time to get them to change, and there are two factors that kind of turns on the light.

"One of them is a budget, and you can afford this kind of stuff, so the NBA has that going for them, but so do big schools. (Synergy executives would not disclose how much they charge.) The other thing is the value of it. They've watched the Moneyball movie. They've read the book. They see what Synergy’s doing for them, and they start to get imaginations about what else can be done? I think we're seeing some things go in that direction."

***

The trendsetters are typically the pros, and everything trickles down to college. NBA teams, for instance, have been hiring math geniuses to study advanced stats to help them make personnel decisions and game plan. Former Butler coach Brad Stevens was the first to make such a move on the college side last season.

The new thing in the NBA is a player-tracking technology, called SportVU, that tracks every movement of the players and the ball. Want to know how fast LeBron James can accelerate when he goes to his left as opposed to his right? Or how about a breakdown of every point on the floor where Chris Paul could have a potential assist?

This technology can provide those answers. Coaches and general managers can figure out something that would seem subjective—who is hustling and who is loafing, for instance—and now they have actual data to back it up. The cameras are now in all 30 NBA arenas, and Duke became the first college team to purchase the technology, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

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The core question most coaches want answered is "what’s the likelihood that this play or this particular shot from this place on the court will result in a basket?"

"I know the game, and I know how coaches talk about the game," Barr said. "They don't talk about plus/minus stats or some of the stuff that comes out of MIT Sloan, which is very interesting stuff but hasn't made its way into the coaching workflow.

"Coaches talk about pick-and-rolls and post-ups and isos and transition. That's what they talk about. The game is what it is. There are only so many play types. There are only so many ways to defend them. There are only so many ways to run this stuff. If you're in the game, we should be able to define those components."

Synergy's numbers can tell you what you're doing right or wrong, and there's video with it. 

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Clemson's K.J. McDaniels goes in for a layup during the ACC tournament.

Last season, Clemson wing K.J. McDaniels was struggling finishing at the rim. With the help of Synergy, video coordinator Lucas McKay was able to easily send McDaniels a file with all of the possessions where he took a shot at the rim, and he could study at home on his laptop what he was doing differently in the shots he made and missed.

"He's investing in his own development," McKay said. 

Later in the season, most coaches are focused on showing their teams how to shut down or score against the opposition as much as they're concentrating on improving themselves.

Most coaches spend hours in the film room with their players, showing them what they did right or wrong and also how to stop the next opponent. This is nothing new.

What is new is the ability for those players to study on their own time as well. Every Duke player is given his own iPad. Most schools do not have that luxury, but video coordinators can share game film and edits with players over email.

"It's an incredible teaching tool. It really allows the player to learn at his own pace," Cullen said. "When you're in the locker room going through a scouting session, just like in a classroom setting in school, if you don't fully understand what the teacher is saying in class, it takes a lot of confidence to be able to ask a question in the middle of the lecture.

"You don't want the teacher to think you're stupid. You have the ability to watch their lecture again."

And it's no longer just in-season when coaches and players are utilizing the technology. Those studies have turned into year-round pursuits. The best time for player development often takes place in the offseason, and video plays a big part.

***

Andrew Wiggins (above) has already started studying video to improve his game.

Synergy allows access to all college and NBA games—dating back to the 2004-05 season for the pros—and coaches say the NBA archive can be a great teaching tool. 

When Kansas coach Bill Self signed Andrew Wiggins in May, he knew he would need to make some tweaks to his offense to fully take advantage of his new superstar.

Self had Forbes put together edits of different NBA teams with big guards who post up to see how they get into those sets. They studied Paul Pierce with the Celtics, and clips of the Heat posting LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

"We want him to be a guard who posts, and we haven’t ever done that," Self said of Wiggins. "That's a little different for us. We won't do it a ton and change how we play, but we've got to give him and (Wayne) Selden opportunities to catch the ball in the post, because they could be two of our very best post players."

Everyone wants a comparison for Wiggins, and Self cannot give one—or at least he doesn't want to—but it's obvious Wiggins has ability that could be molded into something special. So this summer, KU's coaches had Wiggins study bits and pieces of other great players.

Wiggins studied how Kevin Durant comes off screens. "He is so good at reading defenders coming off screens, and his footwork is spectacular," Forbes said. Wiggins and Forbes also watched video of Tracy McGrady in his prime.

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It helped turn Ben McLemore into a lottery pick. The former Kansas shooting guard grew up a post player, and he watched a lot of tape of Ray Allen last year. Not coincidentally, Allen was the most common comparison for McLemore.

"Ray has spectacular footwork, maybe better footwork than any three-point shooter I’ve ever seen,” Forbes said. "That's one thing that we specifically looked at with Ben was Ray's footwork when he slides into a three, his step-back three, how he’s moving on the catch, how he gets his feet set and how quickly he gets rid of the ball."

Almost every college player you ask will tell you that he studies film of a certain NBA player.

Baylor center Isaiah Austin, who found himself floating to the perimeter a lot as a freshman, needs to prove to NBA scouts that he can play in the post this year. He said he watched tape this summer of Hakeem Olajuwon and Al Jefferson.

"That's who I've been mimicking my post game after," Austin said.

That seems pretty obvious, to study someone with the post moves of Olajuwon. Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid also studied Olajuwon this summer, but this visual learning isn't about creating pipe dreams.

/Getty Images

At Duke, for instance, Cullen wasn't about to try to get his big men to learn to score from the blocks like Olajuwon. Instead, Duke's bigs studied Tyson Chandler, a player who Amile Jefferson could realistically emulate in Duke's system.

"Through this entire season through 82 games, Tyson Chandler had something like 16 post-up moves in 82 games, yet he scores 10 points a night," Cullen said. "He's literally posted up and taken a shot 16 times over the course of a season. He's just getting rim runs off of pick-and-rolls, offensive rebounds, transition baskets.

"We tell our guys, 'Your skill set is similar to his, and you can do that for our team.'"

***

At one point, the early adopters of Synergy and other video-editing software might have had an advantage, but college basketball is at the point where almost everyone is using the same stuff.

Forbes describes it as a sea of information. "How do you find that one blue marlin?" he says.

Obviously, some are better than others. Sure, it helps to have the best talent, but good scouting can either close the gap or widen it.

Duke's coaching staff looks on during a game at Miami last season.

"If you can win one or two extra possessions based off of some knowledge that you're able to translate to your players, and your players are able to take that knowledge and put it into action on the court, and that can get you an extra one or two possessions over the course of 16 or 18 conference games, that's 40 possessions that you've won," Cullen said. "And that 40 possessions, that's a 50-point additional differential to your point spread.

"If the information from Synergy can be communicated to a player, the player can internalize that and execute it on the court, that's a huge difference over the course of a season."

The question when it comes to technology is always: What's next?

Barr has tried to look ahead, and Synergy is always implementing suggestions made by coaches. A new addition this year is a tool called Filtration.

Filtration allows the user to specify the information he's seeking. If a coach wants to know how many points per possession his team scores when the score is within five points and there's less than 10 minutes left, Synergy can now spit out that data.

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Kyle Singler celebrates Duke's 2010 national championship win.

But in the end, the biggest sample size is the best one.

Duke had 36 games worth of data that said you better not allow Hayward to go left. Singler internalized that nugget. He executed it. And the Blue Devils won the most important possession of their season because of it.

"A lot of people can have information," Cullen said. "But what can your players actually do with that information when the game is on the line? That's the key to being really good."

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