Every aspect of the brand-new 53,000-square-foot practice center for the Phoenix Suns points players and staff toward the two basketball courts at the heart of the facility. Whether the strength and conditioning space that spills directly onto the hardwood, the players’ lounge overlooking the courts, or even staff offices, the literal and figurative focus of the new, privately financed $45 million Verizon 5G Performance Center rests squarely on the basketball floor.
It follows, then, that the Suns achieved NBA firsts not only with the facility but specifically within the space around the courts, merging together technology and analytics in a way no other NBA team has done before, all while making the facility the most accessible of any in the league.
Every NBA team uses technology to analyze player performance, but by partnering with Verizon, the Suns have crafted a unique 5G Lab opportunity to merge the team’s individual resources into a single, real-time tool so both players and coaches have a better understanding of every facet of a player’s movement, mechanics and progress.
“The purpose of this facility is to help our players become the best they can be,” says Robert Sarver, Phoenix Suns owner. “The tech piece was a major driving force. We are taking it to a different level here.”
The Suns, like many other NBA teams, use ShotTracker and Noah Basketball to monitor mechanics. But they do so separately. By installing 150 cameras, nodes and sensors in the ceiling and on the walls of the practice courts — the Suns had just four cameras at their previous practice facility — and working with Verizon to create a single app using 5G Ultra Wideband speeds for legitimate real-time processing, the Sun have merged the motion-capture power of SIMI with both ShotTracker and Noah to put a new combined data set in the hands of coaches.
“The difference between high-level teams comes down to decision making,” says James Jones, three-time NBA Champion as a player and current Suns general manager. “The margins are small, and analytics are a tool to help you increase decision making. These players want to get better and information helps you improve. Our guys are interested in whatever advantage we get.”
Jones calls the real-time data access a game-changer. “When you use data, the lags kill you,” he says. “Getting info two hours later than practice is not helpful. The real-time access, speed of data, it increases efficiency.”
Ryan Resch, chief of staff and director of basketball strategy, says that while these technologies are available to any team, making them work holistically, feeding ShotTracker and Noah into the motion-capture know-how of SIMI and seeing it in real-time, becomes a differentiator for the Suns.
Making it Matter
“Players are going to have visible markers and receive real-time feedback on just about every phase of the development process,” says Jeff Bower, senior vice president of basketball operations. “It is really empowering as an individual.”
Resch says staff now have information about how players move in relation to how it impacts their performance. “Having these cameras on the court for five-on-five play while players are shooting and dribbling, our performance guys will see how these players move in these settings,” he says. “That right there hasn’t been done before.” Staff can track everything from ankle flex to shoulder loads or monitor how the body changes during fatigue and understand what signs appear to signify a need for rest.
“We will be able to track Devin Booker’s fatigue and see that when he gets tired his right shoulder will collapse and can tell coach Monty (Williams) he gets tired at seven minutes of straight play and to take him out so his shooting percentage doesn’t decrease,” Resch says, as a hypothetical example. “We can get as granular as that.” It all comes with the goal of ensuring players can last over 100 games while improving their performance so “our tenth man performs as well as the other team’s fifth man.”
This focus on technology permeates the entire organization, from strategic roster planning to player evaluation. “This is something as an organization we are ready for,” Bower says. But it isn’t just for coaches. The team wants transparency, encouraging players to view data for benchmarks and as opportunities to understand their own performance and progress.
Having a consistent application helps everyone understand the data. “We are not here for a tech symposium, we are here to make players better,” Bower says. “That is where the tools come in. We know what we want and believe we’re able to fill the gap of how to get there. I’m excited to see the reaction in players when they not only feel themselves getting better but look at the data and have a way to measure it.”
The Verizon Connection
Verizon’s partnership is more than providing 5G coverage to a facility, but about creating a fresh approach to leveraging advancing technology for sports-specific applications. “The idea is we have this incredible tech, can we finally put it together to do things people talk about but don’t necessarily do? We have the ability,” says Brian Mecum, Verizon vice president of device technology. “Let’s see what our tech can do.”
Verizon used its technology team to not only physically redesign cameras and sensors so they fit within the practice facility, but also craft a software platform that allowed these systems to work together. Mecum says that even with the abundance of tech in the sports world, nobody was marrying it together. So, Verizon took a “moonshot” to show how deploying resources makes a difference for individual sports teams, entire leagues and, eventually, the individual athlete across every level.
“This is all in,” he says. “This is true machine learning with cameras detecting biomechanics. We are trying to prolong careers, avoid injury and make a difference in how they play the game. We are trying to bring together something digitally in a way that hasn’t been anticipated.”
By offering a new perspective on data and showing the real-time capabilities of a cohesive system, Mecum says it isn’t a tough sell to those in sports. “We have an opportunity that is very ripe, and we didn’t want to pass on it,” he says. “We are working jointly with the Suns to take sports science in a very different direction.”
With that, Mecum works regularly with Jones to ensure the deployment in Phoenix has the most profound impact possible. “He is emphasizing and prioritizing time with this,” Mecum says. “I would never have anticipated a general manager would take this kind of interest and be that concerned. To have players and a general manager of a NBA team take us this serious, that is pretty unique.”
Performance Beyond the Court
While the cameras and sensors fill the court space, that isn’t the only place the new training center relies on data. Spilling off the hardwood through large, sliding glass doors is a training area, full of both recovery equipment and a variety of custom-designed strength machines.
With the goal of optimizing performance for professional basketball players, the Suns took a basketball-specific approach to training with its 5G Lab approach. Equipment was designed to load players for basketball movements. And machines were built for the height of the players. There isn’t a focus on Olympic-style lifts, but on movement that matters on the court. In a first, the Suns staff crafted a ceiling apparatus — one that required special concrete for strength — that allows upper-body strength training and a vertical medicine ball throw rebounder.
In keeping with the technology theme, the Suns installed a force plate with eight cameras in the training area to give players a baseline of their movements and then track progress over time, also helping staff and players understand improvement following an injury.
“We can develop programs tailored to their strengths,” says Brady Howe, lead trainer. “The ability we will now have is going to be a gamechanger.”
Whether custom-built machines or everything from an anti-gravity treadmill to a custom-built underwater treadmill, the focus on both recovery and training has a basketball-first mentality.
“In terms of layout, we wanted to have the players focus on the court,” Sarver says. “It is oriented toward looking at the court.”
A Facility Worth Going To
There may be no NBA practice facility transformation as profound as the Suns. The team is moving from the basement of the 1992-built downtown arena into the modern, spacious confines of a facility in the shadow of Camelback Mountain.
Daylight floods the court. Sarver commissioned a sun study and DFDG Architecture designed louvers on the outside of the building to ensure the practice court was lit with daylight without sun glare ever reaching the players. “Everything that is here was designed intentionally,” Jones says. “There is no wasted space, no distractions. You can’t go into the weight room and not get better. You can’t spend time in this space and not improve.”
Players will enjoy license plate recognition upon entry into the gated parking area and experience touchless entry and movement throughout the building. The main floor includes the practice courts, training center — complete with an area that spills outside onto turf — recovery areas with walk-in hot and cold tubs, wet sauna, showers with nine-foot-high heads and even a sensory deprivation tank. The Phoenix Mercury locker room space is on the opposite side of the courts.
The Suns locker room is an exact match of the new space in the team’s arena, with every locker facing the front toward an LED screen and dry erase boards. The stainless-steel lockers, manufactured in Germany, include power stations, ventilation systems and secure storage, even for 16 pairs of Deandre Ayton’s size 18 sneakers. When all closed, the perforated pattern across the 17 lockers form a graphic of Camelback Mountain. Tucked in the corner of the locker room, Jay Gaspar, head equipment manager, has a shoe room.