Phoenix Suns using analytics to project draftees’ futures


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.”"