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How Shot-Tracking Is Changing The Way Basketball Players Fix Their Game

Partway through the 2018-19 season, just months before his Toronto Raptors would go on to win the franchise’s first NBA title, coach Nick Nurse had a problem.

Kyle Lowry, Nurse’s All-Star point guard, was in a shooting slump — and no one could figure out why. Nurse, an analytics-driven coach who also ran dedicated shooting camps as something of a specialty in his early coaching days, searched for quantifiable explanations.

“I went and looked at the data,” Nurse told FiveThirtyEight. “To see if there was anything I could see that was different in this 10-game slump he was in versus his history.”

But what was the data Nurse wanted? His staff wasn’t breaking down Lowry’s last 10 box scores or shooting charts; hell, they weren’t even looking at his shots from those actual games.

Instead, they were using the Noahlytics Data Service, a proprietary program designed by a company called Noah Basketball. The system uses high-quality motion tracking cameras positioned on or above the backboard of a standard basketball hoop, tracing the ball as it enters the basket area while also noting the shooter’s origin on the floor to allow for uniform “straight-on” analysis with every shot. Through detailed measurements of the ball’s arc, its depth in the basket and its left-right alignment on the cylinder, players and coaches alike get exponentially more detail about a shot — or set of shots — than raw make-or-miss notations could ever tell.

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Nurse and the Raptors were some of the earliest adopters in the NBA of the Noah system, and they turned to it for help with Lowry’s cold streak. They pulled Lowry’s data from practice sessions over that 10-game period (in-game use of this technology is not currently legal at the NBA level), then compared them with thousands of prior shots Lowry had taken from similar locations.

The problem stuck out immediately.

“His arc had dropped to 41 degrees,” Nurse recounted in his book, “Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win — Damn Near Anywhere.” “When he’s shooting well and the ball’s going in, it’s usually at 46 or 47 degrees.”

Two paralympic basketball players playing; one is blocking the other, who is reaching out to catch a ball flying through the air near them.

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Nurse and staff went straight to work. In the practice gym, they turned on Noah’s audio feedback option, a feature that provides real-time verbal analysis on shots as they’re taken, and turned it to the “arc” setting. “[Lowry] started listening for the numbers,” Nurse remembers. After every shot, the Noah system told him whether he was hitting his optimal 46- to 47-degree arc angle or missing it. “He concentrated on that for a couple days. About two or three days later, he started shooting the ball better.”

Nurse and his staff now regularly perform analyses like these on their players as part of a comprehensive program.

For much of the basketball world, though, services like Noah are a whole new realm. The company’s clients include over half of the NBA’s franchises, per multiple sources with direct knowledge, plus numerous NCAA programs. But the applications of this tech stretch well beyond the pro or even college ranks, reaching all the way down to youth programs and changing the way the next generation thinks about jump-shooting in basketball.

And before long, it might alter the way even the casual NBA fan considers the most important individual skill in the game.

The Noah system tracks shots as they fall at a Shoot 360 location.

Shoot 360

In the early 2000s, a venture capitalist named Alan Marty was looking for ways to help improve his daughter’s jump shot. He first tried attaching a rake to a ladder, but subsequent attempts became more sophisticated as he looked to calculate the “ideal” angle for her shots to take. Marty even began using modern motion tracking technology to find answers to his questions.

Before long, Marty realized he had something with value to more than just his own family. What began as a lark turned into Noah Basketball, named not-so-subtly for the biblical Noah’s ark story.

Marty applied for relevant patents and eventually added John Carter, a former software executive and Amateur Athletic Union coach, as the CEO and public face of the company, a role Carter still occupies.

Noah’s first commercial product, launched in late 2005, barely resembles what the company produces now. A cart system manually rolled onto the court, that iteration only tracked free throws or straight-ahead shots from the top of the key. Upgrades would follow over the next decade-plus, including components found in today’s system: 3D capabilities that allow for tracking shots from anywhere on the floor (the system automatically adjusts the “center” of the hoop based on where the shooter is standing), plus facial recognition software that automatically IDs players, allowing multiple players to shoot on the same basket at once without someone manually charting which shots belonged to whom.

A standard basketball rim is 18 inches in diameter, and this number serves as the basis for Noah’s left/right and depth data. Shots can range from -9 (far left of the rim) to +9 (far right), with 0 serving as dead center; for depth, shots are measured from 0 (front of the rim) to 18 (back of the rim). Noah also tracks arc, with most jumpers entering the basket at between 35 and 55 degrees. The precise centerpoint of the ball, tracked on a 30-times-per-second basis, is used to determine specific shot location.

Noah Basketball

Carter synthesizes the value of this system with a simple question: “Anybody can track makes and misses, but why did it miss?”

Noah allows for more detailed answers to that question than were ever possible before, turning what was previously a binary measure — either the shot went in or it didn’t — into something with numerous distinct data points. “That’s what we do,” Carter told FiveThirtyEight. “We take out the guesswork.”

And over the course of 15-plus years and nearly 300 million shots tracked, they’ve found out quite a bit. Did you know that the average jump-shooter is over twice as likely to miss short as they are to miss long, with many NBA players almost four times as likely? Or that players in the right corner tend to miss left more often because they’re subconsciously afraid of hitting the backboard, and vice versa?

Maybe you suspected those things if you’re a basketball die-hard; Noah provides hard proof.

Multiple sources say Noah is used in some form by roughly 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams. Nurse estimated that the Raptors spend only about 5 percent of their time with the system on situations like Lowry’s cold streak a couple years ago, with the bulk instead focused on long-term development and similar areas.

Maybe the biggest beneficiaries are young players, who sometimes enter the league with hitches or other problems in their jumper. Noah allows for a level of standardization and specificity that simply wasn’t available to past generations.

“You don’t become a great shooter if your shot is completely different from one shot to another,” said Anthony Tolliver, a veteran NBA player who’s used Noah with multiple teams throughout his career — and believes in it so much that he sits on the company’s advisory board. “But the differences are very small; with Noah, you can identify what those are pretty darn quickly.”

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Many teams also use Noah as a key component in injury recovery. How are a given player’s shots looking as he recovers from, say, a left knee issue? Is he missing left or right more often than he would normally? That could be a sign that he hasn’t yet rebuilt full strength in that leg.

For still other franchises, Noah’s key draw is its use during pre-draft player workouts. Like any workout setting, drawing meaningful conclusions from these abbreviated sessions isn’t always easy. “I go to a lot of gyms in the summer and watch workouts,” Nurse said. “Sometimes they’re judged by the amount of sweat. I want more information: What are the shooting numbers? Is there anything in the shot that sticks out, good or bad?”

A typical draft workout doesn’t answer many of Nurse’s questions, which are shared by others throughout the league. A given prospect might shoot a couple hundred jumpers at most, and make-miss data can be deceiving in those quantities.

With Noah, a 100-shot grouping no longer contains only 100 data points (make or miss) — now it contains thousands. Noah can tell which of two prospects with a similar raw shooting mark during a workout “deserved” that percentage, if you will, based on the consistency of the shot, and which of them was probably getting lucky through some fortunate bounces off the rim.

Shooting on a Noah system is nothing new for many of these prospects — they’ve already been doing it for years. Per team and conference sources, the service is in more than 100 NCAA practice gyms, including some of the top basketball programs in the country.

“Some of the best shooters I’ve ever coached who are now playing in the NBA have used it and still use it because they think it’s valuable,” said Tony Bennett, University of Virginia men’s basketball head coach.

Bennett isn’t just an immensely successful coach; he’s also the NCAA’s career leader in 3-point shooting accuracy at a blistering 49.7 percent. One might call him a jump-shooting authority.

And when he was introduced to Carter and the Noah system, the light went on immediately. Per Noah, the Virginia program was one of Noah’s earliest adopters at the college level, and Bennett and his staff have used different versions of it with their players dating back to 2010. “I used it [personally], and it just made sense,” Bennett told FiveThirtyEight.

That kind of buy-in from a legendary shooter is telling. Some basketball lifers can easily grasp the system’s value for a young player or a shooter with distinct problems in their shot, but they may struggle to see how it could help elite sharpshooters. Is a computer program really going to tell an All-NBA superstar that his arc is too flat, or that he comes up short too often? 

Bennett isn’t concerned about that.

“It’s not one size fits all,” he said. “It applies to everyone. You can go as in-depth as you want.”

Soon, we could be looking at a basketball world where every prospect has access to Noah or similar technology — including those who haven’t even reached the college level yet.

If you walk into a Shoot 360 basketball training location for the first time, you might think you’re in the wrong place for a second.

The facility looks as much like an arcade as a gym. Monitors are as common as hoops and basketballs, displaying a mix of colorful real-time data and visual cues to augment the experience. Instead of dribbling in front of a mirror, players try to mimic a visual target on a screen in front of them; rather than pass into nets or bins, players are challenged by a state-of-the-art virtual passing tool. Every drill can be “gamified,” to use a facility term, including regular competitions between participants.

Kids work through a simulator at Shoot 360.

Shoot 360

Shoot 360’s mission is the combination of traditional basketball training and emerging technology. The first partner Craig Moody identified when he founded the company in 2012: Noah Basketball.

Hoops in Shoot 360 facilities are outfitted with Noah trackers, complete with 75-inch monitors directly above them that produce real-time data for the shooter. Per Moody, every player’s data is stored securely in a permanent database, allowing for tracking over a period of weeks, months or even years.

“Shooting is all about consistency,” said Moody, a former 20-year college and high school coach. “If you look at a typical shooter, to become an elite shooter, that might take 10 years of 500 shots a day. And you’re using some subjective information in your ability to recognize, over time, what you need to do to adjust that shot.

“We’re taking what might be a 10-year learning curve and collapsing that down to a couple years.”

You could look at the growth of Shoot 360 as evidence of the program’s success: The company only began franchising in 2019, but it already has 15 facilities across the country, and it has plans for eight more before the end of 2021.

Moody, though, only needs to look around his dinner table. He reports that his two sons both shot over 50 percent from three at the high school level, and he offers as robust an endorsement as you’ll ever hear from a parent: “I think they’d be decent shooters [without it], but they’re very good shooters because of [Noah].”

In the same breath, while recounting a recent conversation with his son just after a high school game, Moody verbalized how this technology is creating a seismic shift in the way young players view shooting.

“He wasn’t shooting very well that night,” Moody said. “He said to me, ‘I’m shooting just off to the left, and a little too short. I think I’m shooting about 6 inches into the hoop. I’ve got to get it deeper and correct to the right.’ What’s incredible about that is the realization it’s not a confidence issue – it’s hey, I’ve gotta make these two corrections to get my shot on track.”

Even if most kids aren’t as immersed in the program as Moody’s, these shifts are happening — at every level of the sport.

Noah may have largely pioneered this space, but they’re not the only ones with interest in it. In January, Noah settled a patent lawsuit with a competing NBA entity, RSPCT, with terms requiring RSPCT to leave the United States market; league sources say that some teams that had used RSPCT’s system have since switched to Noah. Multiple sources in NBA team analytics departments predict that other companies — including those with greater financial resources than RSPCT, and therefore the ability to wage a more competitive patent battle — will eventually challenge Noah’s current dominance in the NBA.

Honestly, though? No one knows exactly how this landscape will look in a few years.

The NBA could use this technology to entertain its fans. In 2018, the NBA experimented with RSPCT basket charts displayed in real time during the 3-point shooting contest. “I think they could mainstream it really easily and make it an interesting part of the viewing experience,” Nurse said.

We could also see the tech used to improve the on-court product itself. Both companies confirmed that they have used their systems to design an automated goaltending tool that determines whether the ball is in ascent or descent (or has hit the backboard first) when it’s touched by a defender. Using that option would remove one of the single toughest calls in the game from referees; sources say that while the league has investigated it, the resources required are currently too vast. Who knows how quickly that could change?

Make no mistake: There are those in the NBA who think these and similar forms of tracking are the future of the game. They envision a day when stats pages contain not just field-goal percentage, but also Noah Scores. Much like Statcast in MLB or even Second Spectrum (originally SportVU) tracking in the NBA, some forecast a time when this kind of data evolves from a novelty into a broadly accepted form of analysis used by every team.

Whether or not this happens, the impact of the tech on the realm of jump-shooting — at all levels — is clear.

“If I would have had that thing [when I played],” Bennett said with a chuckle, “I would have worn it out.”

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Ben Dowsett is a writer and videographer based in Salt Lake City. His past NBA work can be found at ESPN, GQ, The Athletic and elsewhere.