What Happens When Kids Have Access To NBA-Level Technology?
While you’ll commonly see center Kevon Looney putting in work at the Golden State Warriors’ dedicated team practice facility each summer, it’s not his only offseason development location. You’re also liable to find him at a different court, unlike any other basketball gym you’ve ever seen.
His drills aren’t the sort many fans are familiar with, either. During passing exercises, there are no cones or tires to guide Looney; instead, he fires passes at targets generated on a 10-foot-wide interactive screen, which records every impact of the ball and grades his accuracy in real time. There’s no coach or trainer showing him the desired move for each new dribbling drill; Looney watches that same screen for a slow-motion video example, then mimics it. These programs are often combined — a dribble move that flows into a specific pass, or perhaps multiple moves.
As Looney shoots, a video monitor above the basket displays detailed data for each jumper, again in live time: the arc of every shot, plus its precise depth and left-right alignment within the cylinder, down to the inch. If Looney’s shot is off on a given day, he’ll know it right away — and better yet, he’ll know how it’s off.
“I like to get the feedback,” Looney said. “How did I shoot today? Was my shot flat on my misses? What was causing my misses?”
Automatic rebound nets collect Looney’s makes and misses. A proprietary ball-return system can be programmed to pass him the ball anywhere on the court, including alternating shooting locations, allowing Looney to simulate in-game movement.
Must be nice to be an NBA player and get access to advanced tools that no one else does, huh?
Not so fast.
Looney’s location? The Oakland facility for Shoot 360, a company striving to bring modern, technology-infused basketball training to kids, teens and even aspiring — or current — pros. It’s part of a growing new wave of “gamified” training programs making waves in the world of athletic training. Shoot 360 and others in their space bring a simple concept to life: What if average kids could use the same tools as their favorite NBA and WNBA players?
The potential of this approach is obvious: It can make learning the fundamentals of the game more exciting while also helping younger players improve at a furiously accelerated pace as compared with previous generations. But it also raises questions about what happens when an entire generation of young prospects is developed through NBA-level tools — and who gets to have access to them.
I spoke to people at multiple such organizations, spanning various levels of the basketball world, to learn about this new trend that’s taking player development by storm.
Shoot 360 began, as so many good ideas do, with a bit of family inspiration.
Founder Craig Moody, a former longtime high school and college basketball coach in the Portland area, noticed his oldest son at home with some friends playing NBA 2K. Moody wondered aloud why his eldest, who was just starting competitive basketball, wasn’t outside working on his game; the boys, naturally, said they preferred the video game.
“I walked out and looked at my wife and said, ‘If I could build a gym like a video game, I’d have it made,’” Moody told me. “When I started looking at the technology, I just connected the dots.”
The first Shoot 360 location opened back in 2012 in Beaverton, Oregon. Early facilities had basic basketball technology like rebounding machines and limited stat-keeping, but were still “primitive” compared to today’s iterations, as Moody put it.
Quickly, though, Moody formed an important partnership that remains integral to Shoot 360’s program. Facilities began installing shot-tracking technology from Noah Basketball, a product now used by more than half of the NBA’s teams and across the college game, on every basket within their shooting “cages.” Every shot taken in the gym is tracked on an inch-by-inch basis for arc, depth and left-right alignment as it enters the basket.
Using monitors atop each basket, the partnership allows Shoot 360 to visualize Noah’s data in real time and in intuitive ways designed to aid in shooting development. Shooters try to keep their shots within the “Splash Zone,” optimized ranges of arc, depth and left/right orientation that help guide a shooter toward the ideal jumper.
Various other displays can be toggled on a touch screen at the base of the basket, including dozens of interactive shooting drills and games of varying difficulties, which can be played by individuals, or simultaneously by players either within the facility or on leaderboards throughout the Shoot 360 network. Many drills will involve a pre-shot dribble move demonstrated by an on-screen player; others have the player simulate off-ball movement.
Later in Shoot 360’s development came the creation of passing and dribbling station, dubbed the “skill court.” Designed entirely in-house by Shoot 360’s team of software engineers and architects, each station features a 10-foot wide, 7-foot-6 tall interactive screen that directs a player’s activities and measures participants’ accuracy when the ball is thrown against it. Hundreds of game-like exercises can be accessed, many combining dribbling and passing into sequences to build skills.
“Passing is a skill kids don’t work on because you have to have a partner to do it, and it’s boring,” Moody said. “With us, because of the immersive, gamified experience, it’s a blast.”
While instructors are always present to work with players of varying ages and skill levels, Moody said he’s actively looking into further advances like optical player tracking for these stations, which could allow for increased automation such as when coaching proper defensive-stance positioning or running dribble-drill evaluations.
Just as important as the real-time feedback, every member’s stats from both the shooting cages and skill courts are kept in the Shoot 360 app, which allows players to track their progress over the course of weeks, months and years. In other words, youth prospects will have access to mountains of diagnostic data about their performance at an age when earlier generations of players had very little (if any).
“It’s like a basketball Disneyland,” said former Warriors player and current front office staffer Shaun Livingston. Livingston isn’t involved in daily youth development operations, but he’s been to the Oakland facility several times. He said he even brings family to check it out when they’re in town because of how unique the setup is.
“You’re helping to further the next generation in sports through technology,” Livingston said.
Naturally, such an intriguing concept grew quickly, with Shoot 360 franchises opening up all around the U.S. in recent years, and many of them are operated by current or former NBA and WNBA players. Former Detroit Piston and Indiana Pacer Rodney Stuckey opened the first such facility in Seattle in 2019, with numerous other prominent names following in some capacity, whether through full facility ownership or investment: Trae Young, Breanna Stewart, Jamal Crawford, Sue Bird, Kelsey Plum, Thaddeus Young and more.
Several NBA teams also have gotten aboard. In fact, the building where Looney was working out had been Golden State’s practice facility before the team moved to San Francisco in 2019, building a new practice gym there, too. The old setup was converted into a Warriors-sponsored Shoot 360 facility that quickly became a central part of the franchise’s Warriors Basketball Academy youth program.
While that’s currently the only such arrangement among Shoot 360’s clients, Warriors Basketball Academy vice president Jeff Addiego said they’re looking into adding several more facilities throughout the Bay Area. Meanwhile, the L.A. Clippers have invested in the group’s Torrance, California, facility, which is dotted with Clipper logos. When I visited that location in September, head coach Tyronn Lue and other members of the Clippers’ coaching and front office staffs were in the gym, testing out the equipment. And the Utah Jazz, whose Junior Jazz program has long been one of the country’s largest youth basketball systems, are adding multiple Jazz-branded Shoot 360 gyms in Utah for camps and other youth programs. (A grand opening for one such facility is planned for Nov. 5, per the organization.)
Others are taking the concept overseas. Like Livingston, former NBA center Zaza Pachulia first learned about Shoot 360 shortly after retiring from playing and joining the Warriors’ front office. The concept piqued his interest, so he and Addiego took a short flight to meet with Moody at an L.A. location for what was supposed to be a brief day trip.
“I started using [the equipment],” Pachulia said. “Ben, I missed my flight back because it was so engaging.”
Pachulia was instantly convinced, but he had a different ask for Moody: He wanted to expand the concept overseas. In December 2021, Pachulia helped launch the first European Shoot 360 facility in his home country of Georgia, something he counts as a point of serious personal pride. He told me plans are underway for other facilities throughout Europe, a process he’ll be centrally involved in.
Pachulia said the interconnectivity between every Shoot 360 facility is a huge draw for the international market. “You can compete against anyone, at any other Shoot 360 facility in the world,” Pachulia said. “It offers you so many options.”
With so much growth in such a short time, it feels inevitable that more is coming. And Shoot 360 is far from the only company employing a virtual, competition-based approach that’s ubiquitous in modern basketball training.
Shortly after retiring from the NBA in 2012, Larry Hughes found himself interested in developing the next generation of basketball talent. He thought he noticed something missing in his hometown of St. Louis, though: standardization and coordination of basketball development programs that would keep kids on a steady track as they moved up the ranks. So he decided to get involved.
In 2015, Hughes partnered with former investment banker Rick Campbell to launch Basketball Training Systems. BTS focused on achieving Hughes’s goal through a combination of approaches, some of which overlap with Shoot 360’s.
For instance, BTS trains fundamentals by having coaches run stations that blend traditional basketball drills with modern equipment. The primary tech used at BTS comes from KINEXON, whose wearable player-tracking tools are used by a number of NBA teams in their practice facilities. Each student is assigned a dedicated sensor that goes in their waistband as they work out and tracks things like distance, speed and jump height. Monitors around the facility display digital court renderings from KINEXON to give students a futuristic look at their own movements, plus various metrics and leaderboard rankings.
All of the data is stored permanently for access by members, parents and coaches through BTS’s “Digital Locker” app. Kids can get on their cell phones and judge their progress, or compare stats against their friends. This feeds into another of BTS’s foundational concepts — a martial arts-inspired approach. Specifically, BTS draws from the Kovars martial arts system, which is designed to move kids up through a tiered, consistent program over several years. Instead of wearing belts, BTS students wear colored shirts, starting at white for beginners; new shirts can be earned as students progress through various five-week program cycles and test into new levels based on both the mental and physical components of their development. They can also see how close they are to their next promotion level via the app.
“I think it’s important that we understand how our young people think and how to keep them motivated,” Hughes said. “Like anyone, if you can reach a certain stage and you get a reward, I think that’s an incentive for you to continue on.”
For Hughes and BTS, everything is about maintaining engagement and motivation. When the staff realized early on that kids weren’t responding well to traditional “heat map”-style shot displays on monitors (the kind you might see on NBA.com), they switched to a display that mimicked NBA 2K instead — and immediately saw improved results.
Hughes owns the first BTS facility, which opened in St. Louis in 2015, and has since opened another. Soon after, BTS partnered with Chris Paul, who licenses their programs and technology for his CP3 Basketball Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bobby Jackson, who played 12 years in the NBA, has the same arrangement with a facility in Sacramento. Five BTS facilities are currently in operation, and the company says four more are set to open within the next few months.
Along with the positives, there are surely potential downsides to training children NBA-style from an extremely young age. If there are criticisms about basketball in the 2020s after hardly a decade of players responding to the incentives of analytics — from shot selection to playing styles — just imagine how those might be accelerated when the league is entirely made up of players raised on tracking data and obsessive optimization.
Furthermore, the wholesale adoption of this technology is unlikely to be distributed equitably. The move to a more analytically driven and computer-based approach to basketball training could reinforce — if not perpetuate — the sorts of inequalities that have come to define youth sports in recent years.
And yet, who can resist the vast potential to improve through ever-more-personalized and sophisticated training methods?
“I wish I would have had [Shoot 360] as a kid,” Looney said. “I spent a lot of time at the park and at the gym by myself, just shooting and doing random stuff and making up drills. If I was able to use the drills that pros use, and be able to see the numbers and see the data and see how I was shooting and be able to set goals, I think I would have been even better.”
Besides, there’s no stopping the trend. Improvements in optical tracking will soon make facilities like Shoot 360 and BTS even more futuristic. Applications like virtual reality and various Web3-based technologies might not be far behind. These companies have proved capable of bringing these tools to youth while turning a profit; the model is sure to continue growing.
But for Hughes and some of his peers who already are set financially from their playing days, the business side of things isn’t the most important part. There’s a real sense of personal pride in how this can benefit their youth communities.
“When I was coming up, my coaches said we were different than the generation before us,” Hughes said. “I think that’s true whenever you’re working with kids through different eras. … I wish I had some of these gadgets and things I could lock into to perfect the craft. But I can use these tools now to teach it.”
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