NBA Combine Gets HD Coverage on ESPNU

While the Heat and Bulls battle for a spot in the NBA Finals across town, 55 prospects are fighting for spots in next month’s draft at the NBA Combine at Tim Grover’s Attack Athletics Facility in Chicago. The ESPNU Combine telecast is the first to be produced in HD, and, although the event may not boast the popularity of its NFL counterpart, it is quickly becoming a key date on the NBA calendar.

“This is the last chance to see these guys in shorts and sneakers before the draft in June,” says coordinating producer Peter Watters. “It’s a little different from the NFL Combine, which most viewers are used to. The NFL Combine is very segmented, with one guy going at once. But here, they will have as many as four hoops going during a single 12-man group.”

The Combine, which is also being streamed on ESPN3.com and will be replayed on NBA TV, is a four-day marathon of drills, strength and conditioning workouts, tests, and team interviews, but no actual 5-on-5 scrimmages take place. ESPNU is providing four hours of coverage on Thursday (10 a.m.-2 p.m. ET) and six hours on Friday (10 a.m.-4 p.m.), when basketball drills are held.

Thinking on Their Feet
ESPNU has deployed seven cameras — three hard cameras and four handhelds — as well as a POV camera used primarily for promos and bumpers. The chaotic nature of the event, and lack of a true game clock or score, has forced ESPNU to adopt a very different philosophy, often requiring cameramen and producers to make decisions on the fly.

“It’s almost a variation of what you would do for a game, but, at the same time, it’s totally different,” says Watters. “We have two high hard cams, one for the game angle and one for iso shots, but we focus a lot on the handhelds. Because of the uniqueness of this event, we are focusing on individuals more than anything else.”

ESPNU has brought in Token Creek’s Hiawatha mobile unit and an Arctek HD satellite-uplink truck for its inaugural HD Combine telecast. In the past, the network used an SD truck or a hybrid production/satellite truck.

A Change in Philosophy
“In years past, we’ve tried to treat it as a hot practice and give viewers a behind-the-scenes look,” says Watters. “But we found that you weren’t getting enough information because it just happens so fast that you can’t expand on anything. So this year, rather than just spray with all seven cameras and have our guys react to what they’re seeing, we’re going to focus on our most interesting stories.”

For example, Thursday morning’s first group features Brigham Young University phenom Jimmer Fredette. According to Watters, all cameras are pointed at Fredette to begin the 50-minute session, and then coverage will evolve from there.

“The handhelds are floating around and giving us the ability to be up close and personal with these guys no matter where they are.”

This philosophy of individual-player-focused coverage also applies to the telecast’s preproduced highlight packages.

“Last year, we focused a lot more on longer highlight packages, but this year, we want to roll in a 15- to 17-second player package immediately after a player has completed their drill,” says Watters. “And then come out to a graphic with strengths and weaknesses. This year will have a bit more of a prepackaged feel to it than years past.”

Graphics & Replay
ESPNU is using its typical college-basketball graphics package, deploying two Chyron Duets in the truck. All graphics elements are prebuilt and focus on each player’s skills, pros, and cons (provided by ESPN.com’s Chad Forde) rather than statistics.

With a six-channel and two four-channel EVS servers on hand, ESPNU will also feature extensive replays after each group leaves the court.

“As session 1 is coming to an end, we will take a look back at Jimmer Fredette’s day,” says Watters. “We will play back some tight shots of his release on shooting drills or his footwork on defensive drills for our [talent] to analyze.”

Plenty of Talent
ESPNU has a full studio set featuring host Ryan Russillo, Forde (“voice of the scouts”), college analyst Fran Fraschilla (foreign-players expert), college analyst Len Elmore, and former Trailblazers VP of Basketball Operations Tom Penn. The talent is conducting studio segments as well as providing commentary during the live action.

In addition, ESPN.com’s Andy Katz is roaming the complex conducting interviews with NBA GMs and coaches, as well as with college coaches. Between sessions, ESPNU puts in interview requests for two or three top players, but the Combine’s highly regimented schedule often complicates matters.

“When these guys walk off the court at 9:50, their bus will leave at 10:15 to get them back to the hotel for their team interviews, so it can be very tough,” says Watters. “But we work with the NBA to get the highest-profile guys for a few questions before they run off.”

No Weight-Room Coverage
In addition to the basketball drills, ESPNU will cover strength and conditioning exercises, including the vertical jump, shuttle sprint, and 40-yard dash. One aspect the network won’t be covering, however, will be the weight-room action.

“A couple years ago, Kevin Durant was unable to put up one rep on the bench press,” smiles Watters. “Since that year, [the league] hasn’t not allowed us to document any of that stuff.”