The Arc of Triumph
Alabama engineer and Silicon Valley physicist team on 16-patent optical system that optimizes basketball shots. A flood of early buyers includes five NBA and 20 college teams, including Troy, Auburn and UAB.
John Carter went to buy a device to help his children improve their basketball shots — and ended up becoming CEO of the company.
John Carter believes in better basketball through mathematics and physics, making him sort of a modern day Arc-imedes. Carter is the CEO of Noah Basketball, an Athens-based sports technology company that offers an innovative way to analyze shot-making in basketball, allowing players to quickly and easily recognize their mistakes and attempt to correct them.
When the company was formed in 2004, it operated a two-dimensional scanning system that could analyze only the arc that a shot made on the way to the rim. The ideal entry arc is 45 degrees — the name of the company is in reference to the biblical Noah, who Carter says “built the perfect ark” — and the original system offered numerical feedback on any shot taken from straightaway in front of the basket. Shots that registered below 45 were too flat and those above 45 were
It was an effective-but-limited tool used primarily to help improve free-throw shooting. But Noah Basketball has greatly expanded the ability of its system this year, offering a three-dimensional scan that documents every shot taken from any location on the court. And in addition to analyzing the arc of the shot, the system also provides the shot’s depth (11 inches from the front edge of the rim is perfect) and how far left or right the shot is from the center of the rim (which is 18 inches in diameter).
Now if a player shoots a 15-foot jumper from the left side of the court, the computer screen immediately shows the origination point of the shot, followed by a quick series of numbers. For example: 46 (degree arc), 9 (inches deep), +2 (inches to the right). During practice, players can look at any trends — such as not putting enough arc on the ball or consistently shooting slightly to one side or the other — and then make adjustments.
“We’ve had players take that type of feedback and improve their shooting percentage 15 to 20 percent,” Carter says. “It’s a lot of fun to see a kid as they take that feedback and adjust their release point and start making more shots. It’s like a light goes off for them.
“The most common quote I get from coaches is that this generation of players won’t argue with that computer. They trust technology. If the coach tells them they shoot too flat, players may or may not believe him. But if the computer says they shoot too flat, they believe it.”
A native of north Alabama, Carter played basketball at Elkmont High School and Calhoun Community College before earning a mechanical engineering degree from Auburn University. He worked for an Indiana-based manufacturing company for eight years, then began a software services business that he eventually sold to Edgewater Technology.
Meanwhile, a physicist and Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Alan Marty was inventing a product designed to help his daughter, who played high school basketball, improve her shooting touch. The final design involved a total of five patents in optical systems and machine vision systems. Marty formed a company called Pillar Vision and began marketing his new device under the name Noah Basketball.
Carter read about Marty’s prototype and found it fascinating. Carter was going to be in California on business and arranged to meet with Marty, primarily because he was considering purchasing the product for his children to use. The two men hit it off, and before long Carter was the CEO of the fledgling enterprise.
“I went there to buy it, not to run the company,” Carter says with a chuckle. “But really, you couldn’t draw up a better fit for me. I’ve always been a basketball nut. When I was a player, I read books about shooting and watched instructional videos. Both my sons played basketball and I helped coach them. It’s just an absolute passion. And then I’m also a pretty technical guy. I love software and technology.”
The system is definitely high-tech, encompassing a total of 16 issued patents. But it basically involves the installation of a depth sensor located 13 feet above the rim on each end of the court. The sensors are either attached to a pole extending from the top of the shot clock or suspended from the ceiling, and they log data on every shot taken from the court. This provides both real-time information and analytical data to study later.
“You don’t have to wear any equipment or use a special ball. You’re not doing anything differently than you normally would,” Carter says. “You’re just trying to build consistency to repeat that stroke, repeat that shot. It’s not intimidating to players. They shoot, they get the feedback and they make adjustments. It’s pretty simple.”
Carter says Noah Basketball has been “absolutely swamped” with orders for the system, which costs $4,800 to install ($2,600 for only one end of the court), plus $100 per month for access to the data. As of November, it was already being used by five NBA teams (including the hot-shooting Golden State Warriors), the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA, more than 20 college teams and 30 high school teams. Troy University was the first NCAA Division I school to purchase the system, and Auburn and UAB recently had it installed as well.
“I think this is cutting-edge right now in basketball,” UAB men’s basketball head coach Robert Ehsan says. “With technology growing, everybody is looking for what’s the next thing that’s going to help players become better. This has a chance to be potentially the next thing in shooting that can really help guys improve.”
That’s Carter’s goal. Studies show that fewer than 10 percent of high school players shoot the ball with the proper trajectory, he says, and even in college it is only slightly better than 50 percent.
“I didn’t realize until I got into this just how many players there are who aren’t reaching their full potentials as shooters,” Carter says. “That just bothers me. We want players to reach their full potential, whatever that might be.
“If you have a team of 15 players where only two or three are shooting correctly, and then you get all of them to shoot correctly, your team’s shooting percentage will go up substantially. There’s a very fine line between worst and first in sports. If you make one or two extra 3-pointers per game and four or five extra free throws a game, that’s seven to 11 extra points. That’s the difference between 15 wins and 23 wins — between an NCAA Tournament berth and staying home. That’s the kind of thing teams are looking for, and it’s something we can help give them.”
Cary Estes and David Higginbotham are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes is based in Birmingham and Higginbotham in Decatur.