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Internships Put Students at Controls of NBA’s New Analysis System

by Bill Giduz
Bobcat Interns
Patrick Bolton, an optical analyst for STATS corporation, guides Ross Kruse ’17 in operating the SportVU system.

There'll be a half-dozen high-tech "eyes in the skies" watching every National Basketball Association (NBA) game during the coming season. And in Charlotte's Bobcats' Time Warner Cable Arena, there will also be two Davidson students in the arena to monitor this cutting-edge sports technology.

The "eyes" are new, high-speed SportVU cameras that will provide teams with gigabytes of data that coaches and management can use with proprietary software to analyze the game to a far greater degree than ever before. The cameras, which have been in use by some teams for the past three seasons, will be in every NBA arena this year.

Mounted on the overhead catwalks, each camera shoots 25 frames per second. Accompanying software provides X, Y and Z coordinates of the ball and X,Y coordinates of every person on the court for each frame, and makes the data available within 90 seconds.

The two Davidson student interns each game will monitor the SportVU system on personal computers from stations midway up in the stands. They will have a range of duties to make sure the system is operating properly, including alignment of the cameras, feeding lineups into the system, applying numbers to players, and answering queries from the system when data is unclear.

SportVU was created in 2005 by an Israeli scientist whose background was in missile tracking and advanced optical recognition. The American company STATS purchased SportVU in 2008 and turned its focus to basketball. In addition to its implementation in professional basketball, some college teams are showing interest. Duke University has already installed the system in its arena, and it will be employed during Davidson's game there on November 8.

The system is also being used in soccer, and the company is researching the possibility of applying it to hockey and football.

Though every team has the system this year, there are many questions about how to put it to maximum use. SportVU tracks so much information that most teams haven't yet figured out what to do with all of it. To help get the most from the system, and possibly gain a competitive advantage, teams are hiring data analysts as key members of the coaching squads.

Bobcat Interns
(l-r) Ross Kruse ’17, Matt Pacifici ’15, Richard Yan ‘15, Alex Ostrow ’15 and Shane MacNamara ’16 with Bobcats statistical analytic managers Jason Rosenfeld and Ben Woldenberg at their station during a training session.

The Bobcats last year hired Jason Rosenfeld into the position of "manager of basketball analytics," immediately following his graduation from Harvard University, where he majored in statistics, minored in East Asian Studies and earned a foreign language citation in Mandarin Chinese. While at Harvard, Rosenfeld worked in sports analytics in the US and China, and co-organized the 2011 New England Symposium on Statistics in Sports (NESSIS).

Rosenfeld is excited about what SportVU can do for the Bobcats, but recognized a need for interns to monitor the system during games. He had become acquainted with Davidson Associate Professor of Mathematics Tim Chartier at a local presentation on math and sports, so he turned to Davidson in searching for capable students to work with the new equipment. "It's a good school with hard working, motivated and skilled students," said Rosenfeld. "I also wanted interns who are close enough to Charlotte to be there for every game."

Rosenfeld worked with Davidson's Center for Career Development to inform students of the opportunity, and he spent most of a day on campus talking with almost two-dozen who responded. He offered the position to five- Ross Kruse '17 from Tappan, N.Y., Shane Macnamara '16 from Arlington, Va., Alex Ostrow '15 from Charlotte, Matt Pacifici '16 from Charlotte, and Richard Yan '15 from China. Two will work each game, with assignments rotating throughout the season so that each student ends up doing about 20 games.

The range of new statistics SportVU can generate is nearly unlimited-touches in the paint, passes per possession, three-pointers off kick-out passes, total distance run in a game, speed a player runs, leaping ability, shot trajectory, secondary assists, fouls drawn, dribbles per game, who dribbles the most compared to how many shots they take, etc. All that information could be crucial to a game's outcome, but it's not found in traditional box scores.

Matt Pacifici, a Charlotte native and economics major who has attended Bobcats games throughout his life, began working with Rosenfeld even before the first preseason home game on October 17, conducting miscellaneous college basketball research.

Ross Kruse, a freshman from the New York City area, views the internship as a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a field he might pursue as a career. "I've always been a big sports fan, and like math as well. A career that blends them both sounds really interesting, and the internship will be a great way to explore it from the inside."

Richard Yan grew up in China as a fan of Yao Ming, and brought his passion for the game with him to America. As a Davidson math and economics major, he's interested in how math applies to real-world situations. In addition to monitoring the SportVU cameras, he hopes to contribute his analytical skills to the process.