By Rob Mason | My time at NBA Summer League. From the perspective of a Learning Scientist.
Updated: Apr 13
Intro by Janx......
In 2016 the NBA total revenue was approximately $6.5Billion, and NCAA College Basketball is worth about $2.6 Billion in revenue per year. This is rapidly growing year on year at an amazing pace. The revenue boom in these sports is in large part to broadcasting rights. The modernization of our world, growing wealth of the world population means greater numbers of viewers and fans can access and follow the competitions these associations runs.
This money eventually filters through to organisations that run the sporting teams, that make up these leagues. Winning and success on the court helps these organisations capture a greater share of that revenue, build their brand on a global scale and endear pride and excitement amongst stakeholders (owners, board members, fans, followers, sponsors etc). As these clubs look for the edge to secure those outcomes more and more technical and professional specialists are being employed to ensure these clubs and teams have the edge over the competition. Scientists, researchers, analysts, scouts, statisticians, Doctors, physical therapists etc. have an excellent pathway into sport now.
An emerging leader in this field in the sport's industry in this country is Rob Mason. He is particularly focused on coach-athlete verbal feedback in an elite sporting setting. This experience and insight has seen him employed as a consultant to Port Adelaide Football Club, in the Australian Football League, looking at how feedback is provided to athletes in the program there from 1 on 1 player meetings, team meetings, training sessions, game day communication in the box. He comes from a basketball background, being his sporting love, having coached at Diamond Valley in the Women’s program for a number of years.
Rob recently headed to the United States on Coach Liam Flynn’s 3rd annual basketball tour. Like past bloggers (By Tony Casella | Summer @ the NBA) Rob has kindly agreed to share his insights on this fantastic experience. I can’t wait to hear of Rob’s unique insights on this tour, meetings he had, what he learned and how we can apply these ideas and information in our own coaching, as parents, and as athletes.
Over to Rob......
PICTURED: The 2018 Liam Flynn tour group includes a few past bloggers. 3rd from left we see Jamie Phillips, who has been physio for SA Metro, U23 National Team and at Australian Boomers Camps (Blog here: By Jamie Phillips | Using an ‘evidence based approach’ to help build long and healthy careers for elite basketball players and success for teams and organisations!). Also the man himself Coach Liam Flynn, 5th from left (By Liam Flynn | International insights and experience applied to top junior, Aussie representative basketball) and, of course Rob Mason, 3 from the right.
How did you hear about the tour, and why did you decide to go?
I first met Coach Liam Flynn at a coaching clinic he was running at my home club - Diamond Valley in Melbourne’s north. I think our first conversation was about how terrible my Movember effort was at the time... Liam and I kept in touch and when he emailed me about the 2018 tour, I was at a point in my studies and professional career where I knew the tour would be of immense benefit. The majority of my professional work throughout my PhD has been in Australian Rules football, but my first-hand coaching experience has been in basketball, so the opportunity to “test the waters” in the US with some of the concepts I had been applying in Australia was attractive. The access that Liam has been able to provide over the last few years to NBA staffers has been incredible, so it was an easy decision to sign up.
Who did you meet with on the tour?
PICTURED: Here the tour group meet with Danny Mills, an Aussie who is now based in the USA as a Scout with Philadelphia 76ers. We've also had a blog from Danny at www.HighPerformanceHoopsNetwork.com; By Danny Mills | An Aussie and a NBA Scout - My journey, insights on how to get here, thoughts on Aussie pathways and education opportunity for readers
The formal meetings held as part of the tour included:
Danny Mills (Scout, Philadelphia 76ers)
Mike Longabardi (Assistant Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers)
Darko Rajakovic (Assistant Coach, Oklahoma City Thunder)
Two S&C staff (Stephen and Kevin) also from OKC
Kevin Young (Assistant Coach, Philadelphia 76ers)
Arturas Karnisovas (GM, Denver Nuggets)
Shenton Wai (Advance Scout, Utah Jazz)
Sergi Oliva (Director of Analytics and Strategy, Philadelphia 76ers)
Ognjen Stojanovic (Assistant Coach, Denver Nuggets)
Jordan Brady (Head Coach, Wisconsin Herd)
Dan Purcell (Basketball Operations Manager, New Orleans Pelicans)
Dave Love (NBA Shooting Coach)
Logan Sullivan (Sports Science, Portland Trail Blazers)
In addition to this, we were able to watch on-court sessions with:
Cleveland Cavaliers (team practice)
Memphis Grizzlies (team practice)
Denver Nuggets (individual player workouts)
PICTURED: Up close at Summer League. Chance to see emerging talent, athletes pushing for a roster spot and of course this event has become like a networking convention for leaders in the sport with many meetings and catchups in and around the venues.
As you can see, the diversity of experience within this list is huge. There was so much to take in, and I left Vegas with a notebook overflowing with notes and quotes from these coaches.
Some of the major points that hit home for me during the tour included:
Nearly every coach spoke about the importance of having a supportive partner or family. It seems to be a cliché, but working in the NBA is a grind. There’s lots of time spent on the road and away from home. Elite sport is a fickle industry, and coaches have to accept that their next job might be on the other side of the country or even the world.
I was surprised at how similar the individual and team workouts were at the NBA level compared to what I have experienced in Australia. There are no magic formulas or secret drills that separate NBA training to what you might witness at a decent quality session back home. The difference most likely lies in the attention to detail, the consistent intensity, and the sheer number of hours these athletes are able to put into their craft as a result of having basketball as their full-time job. I think this observation also highlights the quality of coaches in Australia – we really do have some of the best in the world!
The various NBA teams have quite different priorities when it comes to investment of time and money. Philadelphia has a large analytics department, and their staff have really bought in to the concept that data can improve the decisions made in their organization. Milwaukee is a front-runner with strength and conditioning, while Portland and OKC are also doing interesting things in that area. Certain teams might have 7-8 scouts on their books, while others will have just 1-2 dedicated scouting staff. Most of these decisions come back to the front office, and what they see as the interventions likely to give their team the extra 1% to win the next championship. Often these decision-makers will want to see 10 or 15 years’ worth of NBA data as evidence of effectiveness.
The high performance staff we met with spoke of the importance of keeping things simple and not falling for expensive gimmicks. When asked about the best recovery strategy that players anywhere can implement, it wasn’t Gatorade, compression garments, cherry juice or ice baths – instead, they emphasized the importance of sleep.
Along with the staff we met with on the tour, it was also extremely valuable to learn from the other tour members and to hear about their experiences with basketball in different parts of the world. This blog post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging Eric, Mike, Jamie, Donovan, Chris, Justin, and of course Liam.
What did you learn about the quality of teaching and instruction in the NBA?
PICTURED: The tour group with Ognjen Stojanovic, Assistant Coach with Denver Nuggets.
One of the big findings for me was that coaches are experts at knowing their players and how they respond to their coaching. Coaches spoke of the importance of personal relationships with players, and knowing them as people before they know them as athletes; Darko Rajakovic (OKC) takes new players out for lunch when they first arrive at an organization and talks about anything but basketball with them.
Other coaches spoke about the difficulties associated with providing feedback to these elite athletes in such a high-pressure environment. In the film room, some players need to see their highlight reel before an upcoming game to build confidence, while others will want to break down and analyse every mistake they’ve made in order to feel like they’re ready for the next game. This can change, too – players will go through hot streaks and cold streaks, and will want to see different edits depending on the stage of the season and how they’ve been playing. It’s a dynamic environment, and coaches must be “tuned in” to their athletes in order to understand what they need at any given time.
In terms of the teaching on the court, I was blown away by the ability of the players to learn and recall dozens of sets and wrinkles in a short period of time such as the Summer League tournament – even if we just ended up seeing lots of isolation basketball in the early rounds of the tournament! The team practices we saw with Memphis and Cleveland were collaborative learning environments, where mistakes were seen as opportunities to learn rather than something to be ashamed of. If a player missed a screen or made a wrong pass while running sets 5-0, players on the sideline would point and verbally direct the player, and this seemed to be in a genuinely supportive manner. Coaches spent very little time instructing or lecturing players, and time with a ball in hand was maximised.
Watching Ty Lue drain a corner 3 over one of his players was also a highlight…
Next steps for you and your career?
I’m now half way through my PhD studies, so my focus over the next 18 months is finishing up data collection and writing my thesis along with publishing some findings in academic journals. I have been fortunate enough to be able to interview some NBA contacts from my time in Vegas about the use of feedback in their coaching, and I hope to publish these findings in the next few months.
I’ll also continue my work in AFL in Australia, while keeping an eye on the NBA and looking for any and all opportunities to apply some of my research findings to basketball.
Rob Mason | Learning Scientist and PhD Candidate
For more information on Coach Liam Flynn and his next Summer League tour for 2019:
Twitter: @coachliamflynn (Liam's Twitter is a great, world renowned resource for coaches)