Wherever Markelle Fultz is shooting, rest assured: Brett Brown is watching. Sort of.
Brown, through the Sixers’ sports science team, can track and chart every shot, made or missed, that Fultz takes this summer while he’s away from the team. At least, Brown can keep track of Fultz’s shooting if Fultz places his iPhone on a tripod at courtside, tilts it at a 45-degree angle and turns on the HomeCourt application.
“It’s still in a bit of an early adoption phase, but we are using it with some players,” said Dr. David Martin, the Sixers’ sports science chief.
Martin was asked about this app in reference to Fultz because Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick last year, injured his right shoulder last summer while altering his jump shot and spent most of his rookie season trying to relocate the shot. If the Sixers had this technology last summer, then maybe Fultz wouldn’t have come back hurt and scarred.
Well, better late than never. They’re certainly delighted they can now keep track of Fultz’s three-pointers and Ben Simmons’ free throws wherever they go. In a league dominated by three-point shooting, Fultz went 0-for-1 last season. Simmons was 0-for-11. Simmons also made just 56.0 percent of his free throws.
There’s an app for that.
HomeCourt is one of the innovations the Sixers, who are sports-science crazy, have implemented in the past year. Martin was one of a dozen speakers at a sports science summit the Sixers hosted June 27. It drew about 100 industry developers and practitioners, including representatives from the Nets, Thunder and Celtics as well as the NFL’s Eagles and Colts. They heard presentations from experts in fields such as decision-making, exertion, culture development, nutrition and recovery.
And Martin got to show off 10 of his newest toys.
Comfortably fastidious and tastefully bespectacled, Martin might be a sweater vest model; so, as the conference’s coordinator, he looked the part. A year ago, he would have been too busy managing the Sixers’ injuries to coordinate a tea party.
With that in mind, Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer hired Dr. Daniel Medina last summer to oversee the player-performance wing of the organization, which now uses analytics and sports science as much as any professional team in North America. Martin coordinates that, too.
“I’ve been freed up to explore performance-enhancement methodologies and prevention methodologies and network-building and technology-building,” said Martin, in his first extensive interview since he was hired three years ago.
Sports science now dominates the franchise. Brown said last month that it is no coincidence that the Sixers improved by 24 wins over last season and won their first playoff series since 2013. Brown, who is the acting general manager in the wake of Bryan Colangelo and Twittergate, calls the team’s 17-person analytics staff and nine-person sports science staff “front-office firepower.” It is stocked with Ph.D.’s. Brown works with them hand-in-glove.
Martin was working in 2015 for the Australian Institute of Sport, where he mostly supported Australia’s successful cycling teams, when the Sixers poached him to become the director of performance research and development. He was too busy to research or develop much, he said, until Medina took over the medical wing. Since then, Martin has filled out his staff and focused more on monitoring players and buying technology.
The result: microchips that tell Martin how a sprained ankle is healing; cameras that tell him how much weight Joel Embiid should be lifting; and video systems that track the quirky jump shots of Fultz and Simmons, whether they’re in Camden or California.
Also, 52 wins.
“Before Daniel came, I was really looking after medical issues,” Martin said. “We had multiple ACL reconstruction surgeries. We had Nerlens Noel with his knee. We had Joel Embiid, which was a massive project.”
Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, had missed the 2014-15 season with a foot injury. Less than a month after he was hired, Martin announced the decision to have Embiid undergo a second surgery that cost him his second season. Noel, the first piece of The Process, missed the 2013-14 season with a knee injury that haunts him still. Then Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, needed knee surgery at the end of his rookie season and battled knee issues until he was traded in 2017. Finally, Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, suffered a season-ending broken foot at the end of his first training camp.
And those were just the cornerstone players. There was a raft of Tony Wrotens and Kendall Marshalls, too.
“I found myself almost having to park my entire medical training and be a ‘medical coordinator,’ ” Martin said. “What you saw me talk about here at the summit, and the growth that we’ve had — that’s all really happened in about one year.”
After years spent hoping for public dollars in Australia, Martin can’t believe how eager Harris and Blitzer are to spend on cutting-edge strategies. A team source indicated that the analytics and sports science budgets exceed $5 million per year. That sounds like a lot, but the Sixers’ projected starting five will make about $58 million this season, so spending less than 10 percent to get top performance from $58 million worth of basketball players is a sound investment.
Where will they be in another year? That depends on Colangelo’s successor.
“There’s a couple of more hires that I think could enhance what we do, but there’s a time and place for everything,” Martin said. “We will have some new leadership coming on board, with a new general manager, and it’s important that those new leaders have the ability to put their fingerprint on some aspects of the organization. You can always make your house look nicer, and we can always make our group look better.”
Wins make teams look better. If guards such as Fultz and Simmons make jump shots, they can help their team win. Technology can help them make jump shots, Martin said. It’s a more precise process when the players are in town.
The Sixers have a video system installed at their practice facility that tracks every shot every player takes from every spot on the floor. It also records whether the ball went in the hoop, how close to the center of the hoop it was when it went in, and what arc it followed.
The mobile app isn’t quite as sophisticated.
“This doesn’t tell you whether the ball hit dead center,” Martin said. “It just tells you if it went in.”
For Fultz and Simmons, for now, that’s enough.
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