Welcome to the 'Summer of Analytics'

PHOENIX – Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby labeled this the “Summer of Analytics” and by doing so provided a direction for the franchise. But where last summer’s goal was to enhance the training staff’s operations in attempts to make it not only ahead of the NBA curve but world class, this one wasn’t clear until Phoenix brought in someone to lead their endeavors.

Ryan McDonough is in as general manager.

Welcome to the “Summer of Analytics.”

Phoenix has the tools, including the $10,000 data-tracking cameras Zach Lowe detailed for Grantland earlier this year. Now, it’s up to the scouting and the to-be-hired coaching staffs to utilize them.

“We’re going to try to be at the cutting edge of all that,” McDonough said at his introductory press conference on Thursday. “We’re always trying to find the next big thing.

“On the NBA personnel level, I’ve have just started to meet with our staff here but I know there are some smart guys in place here and they have a very good reputation,” he added. “But yeah we need to embrace all the new trends that the good teams in the league are embracing.”

McDonough cited the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets’ three-point shooting this season as an example of where the game is trending. He also mentioned adjusted plus-minus, corner threes and two-for-one opportunities as examples of how analytics have become valuable. All that will be a key part in the interviewing process as the team continues its coaching search, McDonough said.

Building through the draft

Based on his history, McDonough’s own strengths lie in identifying talent and star-potential, and it’s also obvious that drafting is the biggest part of building a franchise in his eyes – he called it the “lifeblood” of a team.

“That’s how you have sustainable success over the years,” McDonough said.

McDonough has drafted prospects whose talent wasn’t the reason they dropped to the winning Celtics. Rajon Rondo had subpar basic statistics and wasn’t on the winningest of teams coming out of Kentucky after two seasons, and Jared Sullinger’s back problems helped the Celtics land him – while he underwent back surgery during his rookie season, Boston had prepared for that possibility heading into the draft.

So what does the Suns’ new GM look for in players?

“It’s probably what’s inside him, his work ethic, his toughness,” McDonough said. “That’s why we’re going to have our scouts here going to practice, we’re going to have them talking to college head coaches and assistant coaches and gathering all kinds of information. Toughness and intelligence can be a little tough – the physical skills are sometimes easier. We do have a limited evaluation window.”

Personality traits in draft prospects will be evaluated but so will analytics. McDonough said one of the tougher things in scouting is learning about application of the math, which by the way, is difficult considering the slower pace of the college game, among other things.

“The college scouts need to understand it,” McDonough said. “We need to develop a great model that we have studied guys in the past and seen which stats have translated to NBA success and maybe which ones have not.”

Finalizing the staff

As for scouting, McDonough added that he’ll get to know the staff that’s in place right now and consider adding his own guys to the mix. He said he preferred a small but trustworthy group on his scouting staff while working for the Boston Celtics.

During his interview, McDonough told Babby and owner Robert Sarver he is against hiring scouts who are specialists. No scout will be pigeonholed as a college scout, international scout or D-League specialist.

“What we had in Boston, what I generally preferred, is a smaller model,” the new Suns GM said. “You have a few guys who are master evaluators who know all the players, who can compare a guy who just got bought out in Europe to a guy who is available in the D-League to an NBA level free agent who is at home working out. You need to weigh all that.”

What style will the Suns play?

Boston’s teams of late have been more well-known for their defense, but McDonough made sure to emphasize that balanced teams win championships. He said the roster obviously has much to do with the style, but the value of analytics comes in how

“I mentioned the value of the three-point shot and the emphasis teams are putting on that,” McDonough said. “I think one of the other things analytics has shown is pushing the ball up the floor and getting into the offense early, and also turning turnovers into points on the other end of the floor. In Boston our guys did a great job of walling off the paint … we turned a lot of that defense into offensive opportunities.”

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