TORONTO – After years of planning and months of work, the Toronto Raptors finally unveiled their biggest off-season addition on Tuesday.
Returning from the West Coast, where they opened training camp last week, the team held its first home practice of the young season. Greeting them when they entered the gym at OVO Athletic Centre: a massive, state-of-the-art multimedia screen that spans the length of the south wall and overlooks the practice court.
The facility’s newest feature, known as “the big board,” is 121 feet long and 10 feet tall. It’s made up of seven individual screens that can be used separately or as one and displays everything from real-time stats and shooting data to video or live television.
“I love it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “It’s great. There’s so much up there and so much that we can do, as you guys probably can see. There’s a lot of information flowing across those boards… It looks really cool, too. The players really like it.”
The installation process took nearly the entire summer. The facility, formerly BioSteel Centre, which opened on the grounds of Exhibition Place in February of 2016, contains two adjoining basketball courts. The team required the use of both courts for its pre-draft workouts in June. So, come June 24, the day after the draft, they began work on the big board and it wasn’t completed until Labour Day weekend in early September. For more than two months in between, the south court was completely decommissioned.
“I gave our venue tech group and our project manager an impossible timeline,” said Teresa Resch, the Raptors’ VP of basketball operations and player development, who oversaw the project. “I told them this was the only time we had to do it and they jumped over mountains to get it done.”
The concept itself had been years in the making. It was born in the fall of 2019, shortly after Toronto won the championship. The team held training camp at Laval University in Quebec City and there was a small screen displaying some stats next to the court where they were practising. Nurse and some of the coaches thought it would be cool to have something similar – but bigger – back home.
“We looked at a ton of different [options],” Resch told TSN. “At first it was projection and more of a television screen. We went through a lot of trials and tests of what might work, and then the pandemic happened. We’ve been talking about this for years; it was just a matter of what it actually looks like, what the actual installation [involves], what the best product to use is, and all those things. It didn’t happen overnight.”
At its debut practice session on Tuesday, the big board was showing clips from Sunday’s preseason opener against Utah, while also displaying stats from the 114-82 win, including deflections (Gary Trent Jr. and Josh Jackson led the team with five apiece) and assists.
At the centre of the board was a graphic featuring the word “win” surrounded by cartoon birds (symbolizing the team’s ball-hawk style of defensive play) and caricatures of all 20 players on the camp roster, as well as Nurse and some of his staff. Assistant coach John Corbacio commissioned the artwork.
At both ends of the board you could find shooting data for each basket, powered by Noah (named after Noah’s Arc) technology, a shot-mapping tool that NBA teams use to measure the arc and accuracy of a player’s jumper.
None of this information is new. Toronto’s coaches and analytics department track these things in every game and at every practice, and the Raptors were one of the first organizations to start using “Noahlytics” in 2017.
However, the intention of their new board is to change the way coaches and players are able to consume, analyze and hopefully implement that information. For instance, the Raptors have a 3D sensor installed above each rim in their facility that captures the flight of every attempt. Previously, a speaker system behind the basket would evaluate each shot – whether it was flat, wide right, etc. You could also track and review that data over an app. Now, players can look up and see it in real time while they’re taking shots before or after practice, or even during scrimmages.
Like the product on the floor, the big board is versatile. Instead of having to wait for the film session, Nurse can stop practice at any time to play clips from a previous game or reference a particular stat. They can go over scouting reports or watch tape of a future opponent. Last month, as players were coming in for individual workouts, they would put on US Open Tennis in the background.
“The biggest thing is we’re still finding new ways to use it,” Resch said. “It’s still really new. We’re still figuring out ways for it to help us continue to grow and develop and get better. I think we’ll be using it in all kinds of iterations going forward.”
Kareem Thawer, a recipient of the Wayne and Theresa Embry Fellowship, has been tasked with operating the big board. He’ll meet with Nurse and the coaches before each practice to get an idea of what they want to emphasize that day. Then, in collaboration with the tech group and creative team, they’ll execute that vision. And it’s all done from an iPad at the mid-court scorer’s table.
There’s no limit to what they can do with it, which might be a double-edged sword. Even being in the presence of this incredible wall of screens can be overwhelming, let alone practising or playing in front of it. That’s a lot of information, perhaps too much information. You run the risk of paralysis by analysis.
“It’s pretty distracting,” Pascal Siakam joked. “I’m talking to you guys but I’m not really talking to you because I’m [looking] over there. Like, it’s really distracting, but it’s cool, I guess.”
Maybe it just takes some getting used to? Regardless, if making this data more accessible and enhancing the quality of practice ends up bearing fruit on the court, the Raptors will be better for it. Already considered to be one of the league’s top organizations in terms of player development, this new addition could prove to be another feather in their cap.
If nothing else, unlike the roster, there’s no salary cap for team equipment, so why not spend where you can?
“It’s an investment we made in our players and our team,” Resch said. “It’s gonna help them learn, and not only learn but develop and help us be a better team. We never shy in investing in the team when we think it can make us better.”