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The Emerging Role of Analytics in Basketball

Brendan Mann believes basketball can learn a few things from baseball.
Years ago, statistics took over on and off the diamond. These days on the court, statistics are getting basketball back in the game even though Mann calls the sport “decades behind” baseball.

Mann, the junior varsity boys basketball coach at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona, likes the direction statistics are playing in basketball as it’s in the midst of a new wave.

“Baseball statistics for baseball buffs have always been big,” Mann said. “But I think they were more glorified and brought more into the public attention obviously with Moneyball, and there’s a Hollywood movie on the story on how a team took statistics to basically beat the odds. I feel like basketball stats have always been important, but I don’t know how necessarily important they’ve been for in-game basketball decision making.”

With stats readily available via scorekeeping tools, coaches can get more information quicker. It is key categories such as points in the paint, offensive rebounds and second-chance points that are allowing coaches to dig deeper into statistics.

“It’s technology that’s giving us these numbers at our fingertips when we need them, so we can make immediate, data-driven decisions,” Mann said. “You no longer have to make feel-good decisions in a game, you’ve got data that supports it. That’s always going to feel good. You always want numbers to back up and validate what you’re doing.”

Stats are revolutionizing the game. It’s newer, younger coaches who tend to embrace the advances and challenge the statistical approach to basketball. However, longtime coaches are also starting to come around to new ways of thinking.

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In helping out in the past on the nationwide NIKE Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), Mann has watched coaches eagerly call up stats on their iPads in-game and at halftime.

“These are reputable, longtime coaches who have always had access to a grid of stats at half,” Mann said. “But I think strategically looking at certain stats — points in the paint, shooting percentage vs. offensive rebounds and second-chance points, points off of turnovers — those are stats you can make in-game decisions on.”

Baseball, using sabermetrics, implemented such obscure and unconventional stats as on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) and walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP). Basketball hasn’t come that far yet with odd ways of breaking down stats.

Can basketball narrow the gap and get close statistics-wise to what baseball has done over the years?

“I don’t see why not,” Mann said.

Mann thinks stats will play an important tool in recruiting, both from the player’s side as well as a college or NBA scouting department. Mann hypothetically uses the scenario of a player competing in a combine or skills academy who is being highly recruited by major Division I schools. 

“He goes through scrimmages and of course they get his height, they get his bounce, they get his 40 time, and for the first time they’re going to get his scrimmage stats,” Mann said. 

“There’s tons of buzz, the kid had 14 points in a six-minute scrimmage. They look at his shot chart and how many shots he’s taken, but they think 14 points is nice but they look at the shot selection and shooting percentage and it’s exposing some players . . . John Smith scored 14 points, but he shot 19 times and took one shot from darn near half court. It’s going to exposure you to your decision-making skills, your maturity.”

As basketball statistics improve and expand, it’s an area that Mann thinks can only help the sport.

“You’re looking at more details,” Mann said. “There’s lots of opinions out there. It’s out there now that Steph Curry’s all of a sudden hurting the game. I don’t know what’s hurting it. The guy makes all his shots. They’re saying it’s hurting the game because more kids are taking shots. Yeah, kids can take more shots, but are they making them? I think kids, teams, coaches, scouts, even NBA scouts are going to look for the amount of shots a player’s taking, shot selection, percentages, all that kind of stuff.”

From GameChanger and Greg Bates.

Basketball, Basketball Features