From Europe to the NBA: ratiopharm Ulm is Setting the Standard for Player Development

Following the conclusion of the 2018-19 NBA season, Greek forward Giannis Antetokounmpo became only the fourth player from outside of the United States to receive the prestigious NBA Most Valuable Player Award (MVP), typifying Europe’s growing presence in the world’s premier basketball league. In the same season, Slovenian guard Luka Dončić claimed the Rookie of the Year award with on-court play far beyond his age.

Next up is Killian Hayes, expected to be among the lottery picks in the NBA draft next month, and described as “the 2020 NBA Draft’s Top Prospect” by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. The 19-year-old French point guard, who grabbed attention last year with his impressive footwork, is the latest talent developed by Basketball Bundesliga side ratiopharm Ulm to make it to the NBA, following the likes of Boston Celtics duo Daniel Theis and Javonte Green.

And Hayes is unlikely to be the last Ulm player to find their way to the NBA. In September, the club will open the doors to its new $25 million development complex, a facility designed to take Ulm’s player development strategy to the next level.

With the OrangeCampus, Thorsten Leibenath, Sports Director for Ratiopharm Ulm, believes the club can create the “top development program” in Europe. The club’s success won’t be determined by the quality of the complex, but how the club utilizes it:

The most important thing is the people working here and the idea we as a club have in order to develop players. There are quite a few good facilities, but good facilities don’t make a good program

Thorsten Leibenath Sports Director, ratiopharm Ulm
ratiopharm Ulm Office

Creating a ‘good program’

Giving young players the opportunity to grow is a key part of the development program at Ulm, regardless of the risks. With the backing of the club’s owner, players like Theis and Hayes could be guaranteed playing time despite their age, allowing them to progress at a greater pace.

“We as an organization like to take bigger chances, like to take bigger risks when it comes to giving players responsibility,” Leibenath says.

With the development of OrangeCampus, Ulm will be able to provide greater support to future talents as they adjust to playing at a higher level.

Video analysis will play a significant role in that process. Spiideo cameras will be utilized at the new facilities to record and tag games and practice sessions for both the professional and youth teams, providing vital footage that encourage the club’s talents to grow both individually and as a team.

“We will use [Spiideo] as one important tool to correct players, to improve players, and to learn about what we are doing on the court,” Leibenath explains. “You don’t want to rely only on gut feeling. You want to have evidence.”

Throughout basketball, clubs recognize the importance of video analysis – a process that Leibenath believes can help young players to develop faster. It’s essential for clubs to use video pre- and post-game. However, Spiideo’s cloud-based analysis system offers further potential.

I felt the technology behind [Spiideo] is really advanced and developed. The cameras are really developed. I felt with other solutions, the cameras might not be on the level that we’re looking for. We like the app behind it, the tagging is really advanced already

Thorsten Leibenath Sports Director, ratiopharm Ulm

And with footage available instantly, through the web or on a mobile device, coaches can use Spiideo footage to address and discuss situations with players during practice sessions as they occur.

We’re considering the idea of discussing situations during practice. I encourage players to have discussions. If we can use video to strengthen or prove a point, I’m fine with that. It’s not about wrong or right. It’s about having a strategy that everybody can support

Thorsten Leibenath Sports Director, ratiopharm Ulm

In addition to video analysis with Spiideo Perform, Ulm will also deploy Spiideo Play to stream their youth games from the OrangeCampus; empowering the club to create new revenue streams and further showcase their players’ development.

A big selling point is that we can livestream games and create revenue. And not only because of Corona, we need to develop new ways of earning money and see what other possibilities there could be. It cannot be the only possibility that people walk in a gym and watch a game live. And we thought the technology from Spiideo offers the best opportunities in that regard.

Thorsten Leibenath Sports Director, ratiopharm Ulm

A development-first philosophy

Ulm’s investment in its new state-of-the-art facilities is testament to the club’s commitment to putting player development first. Rather than winning titles, the club chooses to prioritize the development of its players above all else.

“For us as a professional club, the first priority isn’t to win the title. The first priority is to develop players,” Leibenath explains. “When you have 18 teams in the BBL and all 18 teams want to win the championship, 17 teams will fail. You need to create further goals.”

Rather than disappointment, Ulm can mark each season off as a success, having seen talents such as Theis, Green, and most recently Hayes, emerge.

Leibernath acknowledges that players may be able to earn more money playing elsewhere. Yet, few clubs can offer a better place for talent to develop.

We were able to give Javonte Green a chance. He came from the second division in Italy, so there were question marks. Is he good enough to play on an international level in Germany? Because we don’t rely on winning a title, it’s easier to take those risks

Thorsten Leibenath Sports Director, ratiopharm Ulm

Such an approach empowers coaches, giving them the freedom to provide their future stars with the minutes they need to grow. And when players are given that opportunity, they tend to give back, Leibernath says.

So far, the approach is proving to be fruitful. The club’s recent progress is evidence of the success of this development-first strategy. The club reached the BBL playoff semifinals for the second time in four seasons this year, and fell just short in the BBL-Pokal semi-final too.

With the opening of OrangeCampus, Ulm will be hoping to take another step towards clinching their first BBL title next season. First though, Ulm will pause to celebrate another of their talents taking a huge step as Hayes heads to the NBA.

“It’s a good feeling,” Leibenath says. “We enjoy working with young players, and when you see them achieve something, that is deeply satisfying.”