Phoenix Suns using analytics to project draftees’ futures

Posted by on June 6th, 12:27 am

PHOENIX — One of the prominent themes of Moneyball centered around the inherent tension between old school scouts who have lived and breathed baseball all their lives and the geeks with their fancy algorithms that often tell a different story about a player.

As analytics permeate professional sports, that same discussion is going on behind the scenes at the Phoenix Suns’ headquarters as well.

The Suns have advanced stats guru Dr. Stephen Ilardi on staff as their Analytics Director and Harvard student John Ezekowitz on board as an Analytics Assistant as well as a full team of traditional scouts who spend their days in college gyms.

In the discussions leading up to the draft, Suns general manager Lance Blanks said the Suns try to meld these two disparate approaches “without starting a fight, because sometimes the numbers don’t always match up with what guys might see with their eyes.

“The way we apply it is the guys have a formula that they come up with that analyzes the players in a college setting, and they take that and they try to project into the NBA how those guys will perform,” Blanks continued. “There’s no magic dust — otherwise I’d probably be a gambler in Vegas — where you can pick exactly what’s going to happen, but what you do is let those guys speak for the numbers and tell you what the numbers are saying about the players.”

Blanks said the Suns’ analytics team looks for historical patterns to try to project the future, comparing draft-eligible players to current NBA players with a similar collegiate profile, which the team calls cloning.

I asked Blanks to discuss some college stats that he feels correlate well to NBA success, and as I expected he could not answer much on that count, which makes sense since this stuff is so secretive. He did give the example of being careful about high-volume, low-efficiency players who won’t have the same scoring opportunities in the pros.

With so much at stake in the draft, it’s encouraging to me that the Suns are strongly considering the analytic side of the game in their evaluations.

“I think that you’ve got to be really careful with those numbers so that you don’t make a mistake,” Blanks said.

Front office developing continuity

Although it surely beat the previous year when the Suns entered a critical offseason without a general manager, last season’s draft was the first one executed by the Babby/Blanks/Treloar team.

With a year of experience under their belt, Blanks said the front office no longer needs to “over communicate” with each other as a good deal of trust has been developed.

Last year “relationships were new, processes were new, so we haven’t had the need to over communicate, verbally that is,” Blanks said. “Kind of like our team did this year, when you play with people more you know where they’re going to be, what they’re thinking and so forth, and I think we’re getting to the early stages of that where we understand each other, we know the process, we know the expectations, we know what we’re going for in terms of our process and we’ll just adhere to it and go at it.”

Blanks pleased with Keef pick one year later

Almost a year removed from his first draft as general manager, Blanks made sure the assembled media on Monday afternoon knew he felt last year’s selection of Markieff Morris was the right pick with the benefit of hindsight.

“He exceeded all expectations the way he came in ready to play, he was in shape, and Alvin did a great job of inserting him into the system,” Blanks said. “Now Markieff’s got to build on what he did. Hopefully this is a player who’s not finished growing. Hopefully he can impact this roster next year. Part of that will be on him, and part of that will be on us.”

To that point Blanks stressed the importance of player development, particularly with a soon-to-be sophomore like Morris.

In April ESPN’s David Thorpe wrote a piece advising 20 prominent rookies of a veteran they should seek to emulate, and for Morris that vet was LaMarcus Aldridge.

Thorpe wrote:

“When Aldridge first started his NBA career, he was mildly in love with his jump shot. Then it took over his thinking to the point where experts questioned whether he’d ever reach his vast potential to be an offensive force. He answered them last season by focusing more on paint touches, working hard to get position there first. And now he’s an All-Star.

Morris is an excellent deep shooter, something which will keep him relevant in the NBA for a decade. But he has the potential to be more than just a stretch big if he develops the mindset to do so. Hunting paint shots would be a great start.”

Michael Schwartz founded ValleyoftheSuns in October 2008 and is the owner/editor emeritus of the site. He is currently working toward his MBA in sports business at San Diego State University.

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Tags: Draft · Lance Blanks · Markieff Morris · Phoenix Suns

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott // Jun 6, 2012 at 1:32 am

    It’s good to hear they’re using some analytics.

    I hope it helps. :)

  • 2 James // Jun 6, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Did their analytics tell them Dragic would put up 18 and 8 as a starter? Oops.

  • 3 Tony // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    @James,

    Yup, remember Blanks said about Dragic that “he’s a better person than basketball player.” I definitely question Blanks and his ability to evaluate talent just based on his thinking that Brooks would be a better player than Dragic.

    Michael,

    the difference between Aldridge and Morris is that Aldridge is much bigger. Morris is too undersized to ever be effective as consistently effective in the post. I know he’s listed at 6-10, but there’s no way he’s that tall. I saw him face to face with Carl Landry, who’s only 6-8, and their height was identical.
    Furthermore, the fact that he missed drafting Faried or Shumpert seems to me that he actually did a poor job in drafting. That’s not to say that Morris is a bad pick, as he is probably going to be an effective role player, but considering the team was so far out from contending, it made little sense to draft such a safe pick in Morris, who’s talent ceiling wasn’t considered very high. They should have gone with Faried or Shumpert.

  • 4 Ty-Sun // Jun 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    It’s very difficult to speculate on who the Suns should draft while the future of Nash and Hill with the team is still in doubt. I assume that the FO is at least listening to Steve in order to know what he thinks the team’s greatest need is IF they really want him back next season but so far I’ve gotten no idea as to whether they really want him back or will let him go and dive head first into full rebuilding mode. In full rebuilding mode the Suns would probably just draft the best player available no matter what position he plays and then trade everyone that they think they can get value back for. No offense meant to Grant Hill but at his age I doubt he’s valuable as a sign and trade option. Nash is but he’s also not that great of a sign and trade option at his age. I’m sure there are many teams that would want him but nobody would offer him more than a 2 year guaranteed contract… with maybe a 3rd year team option.

    Like it or not, whether Steve comes back next year or not really determines where the Suns go in the future.

  • 5 Rich Anthony, (KJL) // Jun 6, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Some of you are still missing the point in how last year’s draft was handled.

    Morris was picked for the Steve Nash System.

    Faried doesn’t work because of what he is. If the Suns drafted him he would not have been able to start because he would not have been able to stretch the floor and it would have caused spacing issues with Gortat already assigned to be the roll man.

    Shump wasn’t missed because the team signed Brown obviously had plans to bring in Redd for awhile. JMZ was already in house on the edges keeping the floor spaced for Nash.

    Those two names you mentioned weren’t “missed.” They “didn’t fit” a super specific role while Nash was the captain of the team.

  • 6 Tony // Jun 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    @Rich,

    as usual your attempt to indirectly criticize Nash falls short. While I agree that Morris is better-suited than Faried in stretching the floor, but he doesn’t come close to having Faried’s athleticism, which is highly valued in a “Nash” type offense. Shumpert would also have been an asset because his speed and athleticism would have likely helped speed the pace and provide strong perimeter defense, something the Suns lacked most of the season from the 2nd unit. Furthermore, Brown in no way should have been any influence on whether they were deciding whether to draft Shumpert or not, especially since they only signed Brown for 1 season.

    Once again Rich, the only player on the Suns roster of this season ideally suited to Nash’s style was Frye. Your recurrent theme that the roster was designed around Nash is completely false with the exception of Frye. If the roster was tailored to Nash, do you think he would have preferred running pick-and-rolls with Gortat or Amare? Do you think he would prefer his fast break option to be Dudley or Richardson or even JJ?

  • 7 Bill-in-Tokyo // Jun 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    @Schwartz The VOS crew has used lots of the analytics in passed posts. Do you intend take Blanks’ draft “target of a perimeter player” and test against potential available draftees with your analytic tool kit? Like to see your results.

  • 8 steve // Jun 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    Any organization caters to its superstars. It isn’t just a guess that a large part of the consideration that went into personnel decisions over the past 8 years has revolved around Nash. It’s a certainty.

    As far as Morris’s potential effectiveness in the post, I seem to remember a short guy named Barkley who had quite a post game. Post play isn’t as much about height as it is about using your body to your advantage. I’m not saying Morris is going to be a stud, but your reasoning that “he’s not tall enough” has no basis. Does it HELP to be tall? Yes, of course. Do you have to be a 7-footer to have an effective post game? No way.

    Btw, Landry is listed at 6’9″ in the first and only source I checked (it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between 6’9″ and 6’10″). Paul Millsap is an animal, and he’s listed at 6’8″. Kevin Love 6’10″. Blake Griffin 6’10″. Aldridge 6’11″. Boozer 6’9″. It’s not like Morris is “short.”

  • 9 GoSuns // Jun 6, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Also tony you over looked the fact that we had dudley and had plans for redd (not only adding brown), meaning no play time for shumpert, he wouldnt have a had a chance to shine cause remember he also played a chunk of mins at pg and we didnt know if brooks would be back

  • 10 Michael Schwartz // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    @Bill I actually hope to do it one better. Blanks said he may invite me to spend some time with the Suns’ analytics team to get a better idea of how they do things and what they’re looking for. If that comes to fruition I may have lots of juicy stuff to report, but knowing how secretive those things are I would understand if a lot of that is off the record or if it doesn’t happen. In any case, I’ll definitely by taking a look at some of the prospects through some of the analytic tools produced by Hollinger, the Wages of Wins guys, Ian Levy, etc.

  • 11 Scott // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    BTW, I’ve started watching some video evaluations of draft prospects on Draft Express. The videos are pretty good, done by Mike Schmitz of VotS.

    I just saw the one on Tyshawn Taylor, and to me it shows how much talent is available this year in the 2nd round. In some regards he reminds me of Barbosa. He might make an excellent combo guard for some team.

  • 12 Bill-in-Tokyo // Jun 7, 2012 at 1:31 am

    @Schwartz That’s too good and a possible book. You all talk about Stats. You can actually model these discret choice situations and create an equation to predict a choice. We use it in transportation Econ to predict mode choice (rail, auto, bus, etc. ) by traveller. ( sorry everyone I’m economist)

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