PHOENIX — Basketball coaches and their players — from colleges to the pros, men and women — turn to a technology company founded by a former Grand Canyon University assistant coach to evaluate players, scout opponents and recognize tendencies.
Launched in 2004 by Garrick Barr, Synergy Sports Technology provides its service to every NBA, WNBA and NBA D-League team as well as NCAA men’s and women’s programs, national teams and international clubs.
Even video game designers at EA Sports have used Synergy’s data and video.
Barr, an assistant at Grand Canyon before joining the Phoenix Suns as a video coordinator, wanted to provide coaches and players with specific, individualized data married to video clips.
Teams utilize the program in different ways, but all have open access to a wide range of information.
“Everyone now is using Synergy,” Barr said. “It is used on a daily basis throughout their work flow to scout opponents, scout players to draft or trade for, or to acquire in free agency. That whole workflow is pretty futuristic.”
When players and coaches are searching for data in Synergy, they can easily isolate individual possessions within a game and access video and data about certain types of plays, such as a pick-and-roll play or an isolation play.
A player might use it to determine how often he or she goes to the left on a drive versus going to the right, and what the player’s success rate is on those drives.
“I think that analytics is just interpretation of statistics,” Barr said. “But from there, it gets deep very fast these days.”
Barr, who was with the Suns from 1992 to 2004, built Synergy using the knowledge he gained coaching and scouting.
“In my first year with the Suns, I introduced two new technologies that transformed sports,” Barr said. “Not just in basketball, but everywhere.”
One technology was simply putting scouting reports into an accessible system. There was no Internet at that time, so he used phone-sync technology.
The other was a digital editor from Avid Technology, which was mostly used by movie studios. With this program, Barr was able to provide a faster way to watch film. Instead of watching the entire tape from beginning to end, Barr was able to edit plays digitally and put them back on videotape to provide coaches with a version of game footage.
“In the 10 minutes before the players arrived, I could run into the other room, find a bunch of clips, put it in the right order, output it to a tape, run in, stick it in the tape deck and show it on the big screen to the players in the nick of time,” Barr said. “That gave us a big advantage. No other team could do that.”
Eventually, technology caught on with other teams in the NBA.
In 1998, while still with the Suns, Barr created Quantified Scouting Service, which provided the blueprint for what Synergy would become when Barr left the Suns to launch the company in 2004.
Synergy has 800 hundred employees who watch games, record them, edit clips and tag specific information from every possession in the game. The result is data-based video that teams or individual players can access on the Internet.
This year alone, Synergy will record about 60,000 basketball games. The main goal for Synergy is to show the data in the most user-friendly way possible for coaches.
“You can present data a lot of different ways,” Barr said. “And coaches, you need it to come out and look like something that maybe somebody compiled for them. You want to automate a system that would read like a scouting report and the data is presented logically and just resonates with them.”
Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said Synergy has “changed the game” in terms of efficiency and availability of data.
A big believer in statistics and sports science in his approach to coaching, Hurley has opted to expand the technology he uses with his team. Hurley implemented wearable technology from Catapult Sports that measures and records the energy output of players during practice. With that, his staff can monitor players to better manage their time.
As for Synergy, Hurley said it is great for evaluating prospective transfer players and recruits or to analyze his team or scout opponents.
“When you look at statistics, you are looking at what your opponents do well and how you need to attack certain things that they don’t do well,” Hurley said. “A lot of times that’s revealed in the numbers.”
Most programs use Synergy to study tendencies of their opponents, but also their own tendencies.
“Synergy is a useful tool in our scouting tool belt because it allows us to not only break down opponent film, but also see tendencies in offensive and defensive efficiency,” said Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy. “In scouting reports, we can pinpoint individual players’ hot spots on the court with the information that Synergy provides.”
Some collegiate players, like ASU junior guard Shannon Evans, use Synergy to watch the tendencies of their peers or study NBA players.
“I look at a lot of NBA players, like Chris Paul, because I like to see what he does and compare his pick and roll to mine to see what I can work on,” said Evans, who added that he also likes to study Iowa State’s Monte Morris.
Evans said ASU rarely uses Synergy in a team setting, but he often watches clips in his free time. ASU’s Kodi Justice has been using Synergy since he was a senior in high school and used it on a consistent basis during the offseason.
“In season, it is a lot harder to focus in on things because as a team there is so much more to worry about,” Justice said. “But in the offseason, that is where I’ve used it the most.”
And while ASU doesn’t utilize Synergy on a regular basis as a team, Grand Canyon University’s women’s team relies heavily on it, according to assistant coach Milee Karre.
“Some (players) don’t feel prepared at all if they can’t watch anything,” Karre said. “For example, this year’s team is much more analytical. They want to be told A, B, C and D. Other teams who might be a little more talented can go out there and just figure it out and just play.”
Using Synergy, GCU assigns players video to study on opponents. But to Karre, analytics are not the “end all be all.” It’s just part of the equation.
ASU women’s coach Charli Turner Thorne said all the information available on Synergy has turned her into “filmaholic.”
“The technology out right now is really helpful,” she said. “I try to do it all, but shame on you if you are not prepared as a coach.”
Since there is so much information on Synergy’s server, Turner Thorne has a plethora of data at her fingertips. However, she doesn’t give her players a lot of data during the season.
With the growing availability of information, Barr said there is often a disconnect between industry experts, fans and players on the topic of analytics.
Former NBA player Charles Barkley is one who has been open in his criticism.
“You have to have superstars, and they deserve all the credit,” Barr said. “I think they get irritated when the media starts talking about how analytics should get the credit somehow, and analytics are so important. I think it’s human nature to not give into that.”
Suns guard Leandro Barbosa, who is in his 14th NBA season, said analytics software has taught him to “be smart” on the court. When he first got into the league, analytics weren’t a huge aspect of the game. But as the years have gone by, he has come to rely on them more and more.
“Before, I used to be crazy on the court, taking shots just for taking it,” Barbosa said. “I think about it (now), taking smart shots and giving the best option for the team. It made me a better player, and I think it did it for the other players. So you know it’s successful.”
Suns coach Earl Watson said analytics can help teams win a lot of games and send programs in the right direction, but it is important not to rely entirely on the data.
“It can keep you away from a Kawhi Leonard (of the San Antonio Spurs),” Watson said. “It can keep you away from a Draymond Green (of the Golden State Warriors. It can keep you away from a Tyler Ulis (of the Suns). You have to be careful. Look beyond the numbers. Accept them, allow them to give you wisdom, but it can’t be the defining moment.”