April 9, 2024 

Inside the data revolution coming to the WNBA

Second Spectrum, a real-time data tool, to come online for teams in 2024

Few things interest coaches and executives more than the ability to access new data insights into the game, whether it was Synergy Sports in the early 2010s, the WNBA launching its advanced stats pages in 2016 or Her Hoop Stats coming online in 2018. The league’s recent announcement that Second Spectrum would be coming to the WNBA for the 2024 season is no exception.

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“I’m excited,” Cheryl Reeve, Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations, told The Next. “I’ve been wanting this for a while, I’ve been pushing [for this] for a while.”

“I think you can hear in my voice,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb told The Next, “I’m just very excited about it.”

“I think myself and then all my colleagues,” Dream general manager Dan Padover added, “it’s very rare when we agree on something, all 12 of us. I think we all agreed completely that this was needed.”

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Excitement has been ubiquitous since the WNBA announced that Second Spectrum would come online for the 2024 season, bringing optical tracking to a women’s sports league for the first time.

The WNBA has had Synergy for years, which uses video staff to categorize individual plays based on play and shot types before uploading to a central database. By contrast, Second Spectrum uses camera setups in each stadium to capture real-time information about what each player on the court is doing at a given moment and automatically identify play types.

The NBA has been using this technology since the 2017–18 season and the NBA G-League has had it since 2022–23. For the WNBA, this will the culmination of a years-long push by stakeholders across the league.

“We want the technology capabilities that we have to move along and evolve with the broader transformation of our WNBA business,” WNBA head of league operations Bethany Donaphin told The Next. “Having these technology advancements coupled with the way the game has evolved is a sign about where we are as a league. I think it’s going to continue to evolve and we’re going to continue to see what this development allows us to do and stories it allows us to tell and the capabilities that it unlocks, both from a basketball standpoint and ultimately a fan-facing standpoint.”

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To explain what this means in practical terms, let’s use Aces center A’ja Wilson as an example. Wilson won her second-straight Defensive Player of the Year award while once again leading the W in blocks and ranking 10th in steals.

Wilson also graded out in the top third of all players based on how Synergy tracks defensive points per play. But raw blocks and steals don’t really describe how well players defend — plenty of them rack up blocks or steals while defending poorly. Synergy has no way to effectively measure help defense, while generally underrating backline defenders and overrating point-of-attack guards.

Second Spectrum is revolutionary in this area because it can track exactly what coverages Wilson played on a play-by-play basis and how quickly she rotated at certain times. It can also show how frequently she contested shots, whether they were her assignment or not, and how that compared to others around the WNBA.

In a league that has relied on implicit measures of defensive ability through on-off statistical differences, this will be the first time anyone will be able to measure defensive impact explicitly. That ability had both Reeve and Kolb were each practically tripping over themselves with excitement when talking to The Next about this innovation.

“What I think is really going to be special about this,” said Kolb, “for All-Defensive teams, and Defensive Players of the Year, all of those things, now we can finally go beyond blocks per game, steals per game — we can really get into it! … You’ll be able to actually tell a player’s impact on defense.

“And then beyond that, to drill down further, that’s how you can start to tune matchups together in series. And I just get excited when I think about that.”

Second Spectrum’s impact may not be quite as groundbreaking on the offensive end, but it is still a big step forward for the league’s capabilities. This time, let’s use Liberty combo guard Sabrina Ionescu as our example, as she had the greatest shooting season in WNBA history.

Using Synergy, I could tell you how she scored in one-on-one off-ball situations based on whether she took a catch-and-shoot jumper or drove off the catch, and roughly where she shot from. I could tell you what kind of screens she shot off of and how well she did so, how she used ball screens and what her shots, drives or passes did in those possessions. Using WNBA Advanced Stats, I could tell you exactly what type of shot or finish they were — pull-up jumper, bank shot, floater, step back, finger roll, etc.

What I couldn’t tell you is who else was involved in the play, how far away the defenders were and what coverage they were playing. With Second Spectrum, I can.

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For teams, that means a greatly increased ability for coaches to scout and review. Just ask Paul Miller, a Fever assistant coach who worked with the Chicago Bulls and its G-League affiliate as an assistant for four seasons before joining Indiana last year.

“A lot of the stuff that we do is based off film, based on what we have experienced,” Miller told The Next. “And I feel like what Second Spectrum does — and analytics in general, kind of more philosophically — it just kind of gives you some perspective, right? Like a lot of times I feel like when I gameplan or when I watch our own film, I watch the film and then I go back to look at the numbers and say, ‘Hey, did my eye really catch what the numbers are telling us?’

“… Last year, I did miss some of that, where, during the beginning of the year when we started to figure out who our team was and what stats were even important to our team, a lot of that stuff we started to do by hand — we would do it on the video, and then we would just start keeping track of those things on our own. And so now to have the optical tracking do all of that for us and be[ing] able to dig through different different analytics is going to be really helpful.”

When those analytics will be directly available to fans and media is a “medium-to-long-term objective,” per Donaphin and NBA vice president of basketball strategy Tom Ryan.

“There’s near-term opportunities that we’re excited about, just in describing the way the game is played, being able to articulate how incredible the athletes are,” Ryan said. “Really just being able to double-click on what coaches and players have known for a long time, to be able to bring that to the masses and bring it to our media partners.”

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A rising tide lifts all boats, but all boats do not lift the same amount. Investments in front office personnel will matter even more with so much data to sort through. How much of Second Spectrum is noise, and how much is valuable data? Every team is going to need time to figure that out for themselves. Savvier executives are already consulting those familiar with the software on best practices and will be leaning on staff with NBA or recent G-League experience.

“It’s gonna be a lot,” Reeve said. “The most immediate impact will be scouting. So I expect our scouts to be able to more effectively communicate in game preparation to talk about, ‘Hey, we should have so-and-so guarding so-and-so.’ Now, we’re gonna need some data behind us, because the sample size will be pretty small early.”

But with the right people getting paid to dive into that data, the capabilities are endless.

“I think you [will] see [Second Spectrum’s effects] in player development,” Reeve added. “So as all of our staffs have grown, and have player development coaches, there’s a big space for player development to go through and go, ‘Okay, look at all your moves to your right. Look at your move against this player, this is what they’re doing to you defensively. Here’s how you can counter this action.’ Literally, if you name an area, Second Spectrum is going to be able to enhance the work that that area is doing.”

Being able to translate new insights from raw data into coaching plans and player workouts demands much greater communication skills from coaches. Data analysts and players usually don’t speak quite the same language — the insights that “defenders tend to help off this player by two additional feet over average when one of our bigs is in the post” or “we’re getting beat a ton by back cuts when this center is in drop coverage” are not worth a lot to players by themselves. Teams will need their coaches to translate those analyses into plans that work on off-ball movement or pick-n-roll footwork.

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Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

Going forward, Second Spectrum should increase every team’s capabilities and greatly enhance the quality of scouting and planning around the WNBA. Within the next few years, those increased capabilities will reveal which teams are investing in front offices like they are professional operations built for the 2020s and which are okay hiring one data analyst and calling it a day.

“I think all of our organizations, from a W perspective, are growing our staffs, which is a very positive thing for this league,” Padover said. “One of the biggest areas of growth over the next five years will be each of our data departments and analytics departments. I think, in comparison to some other sports leagues, we’re behind there. I think most of us are doing it, but I think it’s a big area for growth.”

The fact that the WNBA is in a place where front office investments will have important effects on winning is itself a remarkable achievement. It speaks to the level of resources both within and around the league that allows these investments to thrive. It also indicates that the league is so saturated with talent that non-player personnel are the next frontier in finding the winning edge. These are things that were tough to imagine just five years ago.

“Back when I was at the league office [from 2014–19], I was really happy to present to the GMs at the time in our annual meeting that we were going to be bringing advanced stats to our website, just to put that in perspective,” Kolb said. “It really, really wasn’t that long ago that finding statistics beyond the basics, you really had to do it by hand in the WNBA.”

Reeve added, “Because of the lack of commitment of resources and treating women’s sports the same as men’s sports, this is a bit revolutionary, that we have this mindset that what we’re doing for NBA teams, we should be doing for WNBA teams. But we’re seeing that grow. And companies are making sure that their product can cross all sectors, whether it’s men, women, different sports.

“And so that has been revolutionary for women’s sports.”

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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