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Start-ups

NBA star Jeremy Lin backs HomeCourt: a basketball app that helps players up their game

The HomeCourt app, developed by tech start-up NEX Team, provides an AI-based platform for coaches and players to discuss performance improvements

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 7:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 3:06pm

NBA star Jeremy Lin is looking to help basketball players improve their shotmaking on the court with the help of a mobile app powered by artificial intelligence (AI), marking another example of how the technology is increasingly being adopted in sports.

Lin, the Taiwanese-American point guard who plays for the Atlanta Hawks, is one of the prominent investors in San Jose, California-based start-up NEX Team, which developed the HomeCourt mobile app to track and analyse how a player makes shots during training or in a game.

“HomeCourt provides the platform for players to start working smarter,” Lin said in a statement. “The fact that this tech is now available to everyone anywhere, not just to professional basketball players, is very special.”

Launched in July, the HomeCourt app works with an iPhone or iPad to record on video shots taken by a player on court, while providing real-time statistics from that workout session. It also provides edited video clips for a shot-by-shot review of a player’s performance.

All that data is designed to help a player measure the accuracy of shots taken from different areas of the court, as well as a player’s running speed and height of vertical jump.

The app is free for the first 300 shots recorded in a month, and available for unlimited use with a monthly subscription of US$7.99.

What NEX Team hopes to achieve with HomeCourt is to “democratise AI technology” and make it accessible to a broader group of people involved in sports, according to a videoconference interview with Hong Kong-born company co-founder David Lee and vice-president Alex Wu.

“You can’t improve what you can’t measure,” said Lee, who serves as chief executive at NEX Team.

A number of NBA teams, including the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, as well college basketball programmes, such as those at Duke University and Stanford University, are already using HomeCourt in their training.

That initial adoption of HomeCourt represents another win for AI in sports, following the technology’s expanded presence in financial services, manufacturing, public security and other sectors.

AI in sports has largely been adopted in so-called wearable gadgets, which help analyse the movement of athletes in a particular sport and monitor certain health markers during intense training.

French start-up PIQ, for example, makes wearable devices with built-in sensors that tracks and documents the performance of athletes in boxing, tennis, golf and skiing.

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SciSports, a sports analytics firm from the Netherlands, records real-time footage of soccer players to simulate their next movements, using those as reference in developing game strategy and measuring talent.

All that number-crunching, however, is not expected to make sports less of a spectacle.

“The increased emphasis on data and analytics is simply the application of scientific principles to understanding each game,” said Ben Baumer, a statistician at Smith College in the state of Massachusetts and a former baseball sabermetrician for the New York Mets. “If learning more about a particular game diminishes one's appreciation for it, then we have things like slot machines and the lottery to entertain people who enjoy pure randomness.”

For Lin, AI would help foster a better approach to playing basketball.

If learning more about a particular game diminishes one's appreciation for it, then we have things like slot machines and the lottery to entertain people who enjoy pure randomness
Ben Baumer, former sabermetrician for the New York Mets

“I visit young players all over the world and I often get questions about how to improve their game, especially in places where the basketball development infrastructure is less mature,” Lin said. “One common misconception is about practising harder or longer, but it’s not that simple. It's also about working smart.”

The idea for HomeCourt came to Lee last year when his wife and daughter came to one of his pickup basketball games, where he failed to make a shot. Lee wanted to make an app that could record his casual practises to show his family how he typically played.

He said that initial idea turned into a more sophisticated concept about tracking and helping improve the performance of basketball players.

NEX Team is the second start-up venture for Lee. He founded a on online spreadsheet company called EditGrid in 2003 after he graduated from the University of Hong Kong. Apple acquired EditGrid for an undisclosed sum in 2008. That led Lee to relocate to California, where he worked as a senior engineering manager at Apple for eight years.

Lee left that job last year to start NEX Team and develop the Home Court app with some of his old colleagues from EditGrid and a few engineers from Apple, Google and Microsoft Corp.

While AI technology has been well-adopted in analytics tools, Lee said the biggest challenge for the start-up was to get AI running on a mobile device.

“Having everything working together on a smartphone locally is part of the engineering challenge,” Lee said. Wu added that the focus was on “making the app easy to use with an iPhone, without requiring the user to buy extra hardware”.

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Lee’s idea for an AI-powered basketball analytics app has attracted some of the most game-savvy investors around. Apart from Lin, retired NBA superstar Steve Nash, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, took part in the US$4 million seed funding round of NEX Team.

The use of AI, however, is not expected to steal jobs away from humans in the process of analysing the performance of players and helping draw up game strategy.

For HomeCourt, Lee said it is “not trying to dictate that you should do this or that because everybody is different”.

While the app helps to coach players, it was also created to be a shared platform for the coaches and the players to start a conversation on how performances can be improved, he said.