Feb. 9, 2016
By John Heisler
They’d love to tell you what they do, but they’re not allowed.
They call themselves numbers guys.
Official titles often reference analytics.
The Chicago Bulls, for example, have a manager of basketball operations and analytics, as well as a basketball analytics coordinator.
These are the disciples of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager of “Moneyball” fame.
The University of Notre Dame men’s basketball program has one of these guys, but you won’t find him listed on the staff directory.
He is, though, the guy on the far left in the back row of the 2015-16 Irish team picture.
His name is AJ Meyer, and he’s a senior at Notre Dame, originally from Naples, Florida (he was born in New York and also grew up in New Jersey and on Long Island).
Technically, he’s one of the student managers for Mike Brey’s team-and yet his contribution has become far more than keystroking the itinerary for road trips and making sure the pizzas are delivered to the team bus (though he does that, too).
The reason you don’t know whom Meyer is? In reality, there’s a hidden-often purposefully mysterious–world out there these days in the sports business. It goes way beyond the eye test and the understanding of which player on the roster has the most heart at clutch time-or who is most dependable at the free-throw line in the last two minutes.
This is a world where teams and programs are using seriously detailed mathematical analytics on an extensive basis to prepare their players and coaches and to provide extensive analyses of games, personnel, opponents and trends. And yet none of these teams really want to tell any of the others exactly what they are doing or how they do it.
Enter Meyer, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as coordinator of basketball analytics for the Irish.
He showed up as a freshman at Notre Dame and volunteered as a student manager.
As Meyer tells it, he did some analytics in high school, got his feet wet as a Notre Dame freshman, helping at practices and learning how the program operated. He spent that year in the press box at games, doing shot charts and some other statistics.
“Some of it that year was experimenting for myself and trying to figure out how I could best help the program moving forward,” says Meyer. “Every year it has expanded in terms of what we do and how the coaches use it.
“It’s been a great learning process for me–and the coaches have been extremely gracious in terms of letting me be a part of this. They have had a very open mind in terms of using this material. It’s just a piece of the puzzle. It’s by no means the biggest part of it.
“Some of the things I did in the beginning I stopped doing because it was not worth anything to the coaches. So there’s lots of give and take even today. The coaches come in with projects on things they are curious about. What’s the best way to utilize analytics in college basketball? We’re still figuring that out.”
During games Meyer is on the bench, keeping track of a couple of things (he’s not interested in revealing what they are) the coaches look at after the games. Meyer also takes data from a couple of subscription sites-Ken Pomeroy’s web site and Synergy.
“You can find shot charts on every college basketball game,” says Meyer. “There’s more stuff out there than people would realize, with numbers on team style of play and individual player strengths and weakness. I’ve met Ken at conferences–he’s kind of the face of college basketball analytics right now.
“We look at our own players and system and what we do as a team and see how we can improve on that. Then we look at opponents coming up, and I provide reports to our coaches on personnel and a look at the other teams from an analytics standpoint. I’m going to take some numbers that already exist and back them up by watching film. I want to be able to back it up based on what I’ve actually seen.”
Meyer says analytics have really ramped up in the NBA over the last five years. Pro teams started with a couple of people working in that area part time-while now every team has multiple people doing it full time.
“You have two sides of it in the NBA-game strategy and team building. At the college level, team building comes through recruiting.
“At the college level it’s growing, with a lot of people looking to gain a greater understanding of it. It’s a slower process. There’s less of an emphasis because you have fewer games–30 games in college with 70 possessions per game with the new shot clock, compared to the NBA averaging 90-some possessions over 82 games.”
What Meyer has learned is that he cannot simply hand Brey and his staff sheets of numbers.
“I’ve gotten better at that-it’s got to be words and not just numbers. You’ve got to explain it with some context. That’s probably where I’ve grown the most. It’s turned into a number with why that may be. Statistics tell you what, video tells you why. You know your team’s averages–but what makes this game different than your average game? That’s the context in preparation with your players.”
Last summer Meyer (an economics and statistics double major at Notre Dame) spent seven weeks as a paid intern in basketball operations for the NBA Atlanta Hawks.
“I did analytics projects, helped prepare for the draft and free agency, made airport runs to pick up draft prospects, made coffee runs, helped with the logistics of draft workouts, picked up dinner-a little bit of everything,” he says. “You are looking both at the past and looking ahead to try to build the organization into a championship team. It’s a grinding process, especially right around the draft. Start early, stay late.”
Last year Meyer traveled to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston and twice has attended basketball analytics conferences sponsored by the University of North Carolina.
What does Meyer do for an average Irish game?
“I’ll start right after the opposing team plays its last game in advance of going against Notre Dame. I’ll work on my own and then get with the assistant coach doing the scouting report and meet with that person,” he says. “I’ll probably put in five hours of work for an individual opponent, putting numbers together and then watching film to make sure those numbers make sense. If my report says player X goes over his left shoulder three quarters of the time and I don’t see that backed up on video, then I’m not going to include that in my report. Then there are a couple more hours postgame, some of it written.”
Meyer likes the way former NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni talked about analytics.
“He said, `Use analytics as a brick. Every piece of analytics you give them is another brick that could slow them down. You still want them to go out there and play basketball.’ Shane Battier’s response to that was that, defensively, it turned him into a machine because he knew where to force guys to go. But he said, `Offensively it turned me into a robot-I only took threes and layups because that’s where the analytics were directing me to go.'”
Where does Notre Dame’s program stand in its use of numbers?
“Coach Brey has definitely started to embrace it a lot more,” Meyer says. “Efficiency is a key part of the conversation. He’s not going to change his entire philosophy based on analytics, and I wouldn’t if I were him either. But he’s incorporated some things into it–he has an open mind about it.”
Irish assistant coach Martin Ingelsby says coaches first need to understand their own priorities: “You have to determine what you value with your team and within a game. What’s most important to you?” Ingelsby says of all the numbers available to the coaches they may incorporate 10 percent of them into a scouting report. On a personal basis, Ingelsby is intrigued, for example, with the ability to know both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings for different Notre Dame lineup combinations.
Meyer says some student managers at some other schools are doing what he does–while Kentucky hired someone fulltime last year in this area.
“But it’s very quiet in college basketball. I think a lot of people are looking at it. They have the information, but they’re not sure what to do with it–or maybe they don’t have the right information to help them.
“There’s no real way to know exactly what people are doing. We share some ideas, but we’re not giving the kitchen sink away.”
Meyer would love to share more about his world-he just can’t.