Feb 25, 2018; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ dribbles against Michigan State forward Nick Ward during the first half at the Kohl Center. Mary Langenfeld, USA TODAY Sports
Ethan Happ wore a small red mark on his right upper lip – a keepsake from his intense workout with the Detroit Pistons.
The Wisconsin junior power forward, who withdrew from the NBA draft, suffered the busted lip going through drills and scrimmaging with other prospects shortly before the May 30 deadline for underclassmen to return to college.
In Happ’s case, he was looking for information to help boost his case to remain in the draft and take his chances in the draft.
The workout represented the physical part of the visit.
The mental part was next.
The Pistons created a buzz with their use of virtual-reality technology at the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month. Prospects who visited with the Pistons donned a headset that measures reaction time and decision making.
The Pistons will also test prospects who participate in workouts at their Auburn Hills practice facility before the June 21 draft.
The Pistons lack a first-round pick because of the Blake Griffin acquisition, but they do have a second rounder (42nd overall).
Happ and the other five prospects were taking their turns after speaking with reporters.
San Diego State's Malik Pope using virtual-reality technology on a visit with the Detroit Pistons in 2018. Vince Ellis/Detroit Free Press
For youngsters who are accustomed to mobile technology permeating almost every aspect of life, the use of VR makes perfect sense. It's almost like playing a video game.
“It’s 2018,” Happ said. “Basketball is ever-changing and there’s new ways to try and test guys. The best way is what we just did, playing basketball, but it’s an interesting concept.
“It definitely fits us more than maybe some of the coaching staff, but I’ve never done virtual reality, but I’m excited to get this done.”
In December 2014, Stanford football coach David Shaw asked Derek Belch to leave his position as a graduate assistant.
But it wasn’t for poor performance.
Belch owned four degrees, including a master's in virtual reality, and his master’s thesis was basically a business plan geared toward applying virtual-reality technology on the football field.
Belch, who was a placekicker for Stanford from 2003-07, began to see applications for virtual reality as an undergrad.
The thesis laid the groundwork.
Shaw told him to go make that money.
“The project was so successful that the coach encouraged me to leave and go start a company,” Belch said with a laugh. “He thought that what he had done was really cool and there was a real chance for it to be something special.
“He basically fired me. He was like, ‘You got to go. You got too many degrees so get out of here.’”
STRIVR Labs opened for business in January 2015.
The company instantly found clients in the football world.
The technology is commonly used to judge and drill quarterbacks on reading defenses, as the company has agreements with seven NFL teams and also works with college teams.
Put on a headset and the STRIVR virtual reality system can replicate what it’s like to see receivers breaking open.
Basketball usage has come slower and is still experimental. But Pistons center Andre Drummond used the tech in 2016 in an attempt to address his poor free-throw shooting.
The company reached an agreement with the Pistons, its fourth NBA team, before the start of last season.
The Pistons' video staff pushed for the technology, but with only a few NBA teams using it, there has been experimentation.
The Pistons use it to gather useful data on prospects’ basketball I.Q. The prospects don headsets and face multiple scenarios, and the player must pick the correct option.
It's not position specific; basically the player must be able to pick where the ball should go based on how the defense is playing — very much like how a quarterback reads defenses.
The prospects in Chicago said a little more than 10 scenarios were presented.
Michigan State's Matt McQuaid guards Penn State's Tony Carr during the first half Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 in Philadelphia. Derik Hamilton, USA TODAY Sports
“It’s kind of like a video game with real people,” Penn State guard Tony Carr said at the combine. “It’s like a 360 thing. You turn around, look around. It’s pretty cool.
“You put the glasses on and they give you different type of scenarios of where you are on the court and what decisions you would make, who you would pass the ball to and things like that.”
The front office staff has enjoyed the reactions.
“A lot of them have found it really cool, really new,” Pistons assistant video coordinator Jordan Brink said. “A lot of them have played video games and you find they are a little more comfortable in the headsets just because some of them have experienced a little bit of VR.”
The Pistons are exploring other uses.
Video sessions are one way to limit the need for drill work, the goal being to save energy for game nights.
“We’re continually looking for ways to train our players without increasing wear and tear on their bodies,” said former Pistons general manager Jeff Bower, who recently left the organization. “It allows you to work on mental reps without the physical pounding on bodies.”
The goal is to explore anything that can help the organization — even if it’s in the middle of a transition after former team president Stan Van Gundy was fired in early May.
“The goal is just to get your team better — anyway possible,” Brink said. “If there’s a feasible way out there to improve performance, we’re ready to navigate those routes. It just opens the doors to possibilities.”