Thanks to a growing push for analytics and technology in the NBA, mathematics and statistics are becoming more important and prevalent than ever in the sport of basketball. And several Cornellians have made their mark at the forefront of that evolution.
Two first-year Cornell graduate students, Matt Wallingford ’17 and Doug Riegel ’17, along with recent alumnus Nitin Shyamkumar ’17, who graduated with a degree in Computer Science, participated in the NBA’s second annual, two-day hackathon from Sept. 23 to 24 at Skylight Modern in New York City.
The NBA received more than 900 applications for this year’s Hackathon, ultimately selecting 207 students to form 60 teams, according to information provided to The Sun by the NBA.
As a kid, Wallingford took a liking to basketball, playing for his high school varsity team. Hailing from Los Angeles, he also grew up around one of the sport’s most storied associations, the Los Angeles Lakers.
All the participants at the hackathon had the opportunity to meet current and former players, including two-time NBA champion Shane Battier, current up-and-comers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Tim Hardaway Jr. Also in attendance were basketball analytics gurus Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight.com, as well as ESPN’s Zach Lowe, a product of Dartmouth, and Pablo Torre, a Harvard alumnus.
“It was definitely exciting,” Wallingford told The Sun about participating in this year’s hackathon. “I was a big fan of Shane Battier and watched a lot of him guarding Kobe as a kid so meeting him was cool. [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver gave a talk about the importance of analytics in NBA decisions and knowing that the NBA is leading professional sports in that direction is exciting.”
Traditional computer science hackathons, such as Cornell hosted BigRedHacks, are typically predicated upon an individual or group building a computer science program in the form of a website or an application, Wallingford said. But the NBA decided to take a different direction with this hackathon.
“This [hackathon] was a data science hackathon, so they gave us a bunch of data then we tried to get different insights out of the data,” Wallingford explained. “One of the prompts we did was to try to predict the entertainment value of two games and then what the determining factors of entertainment value are.”
For this hackathon, there were three winners selected from the total 50 teams that participated. A panel of judges, including the well-known statisticians Silver and Torre, chose the winner based on a two-page write-up the teams had to submit by the event’s end.
Wallingford explained that the end-goal of the hackathon was to make a business decision based on the insights they gathered throughout the event. His group concluded that the main factors in determining the entertainment value of a game are social media presence and the popularity of the stars playing in that game.
“We drew the conclusion that the NBA should drive their social media presence, their jersey sales and their merchandise,” Wallingford said.
As a whole, the future of analytics in basketball has advanced with the hiring of several analytical whizzes around the NBA. All 30 teams employ individuals who focus on utilizing analytics to better the team’s play, according to NBAStuffer.com.
And this evolution this is not limited to the NBA. The Ivy League has emerged at the forefront of sports analytics with programs like the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective and Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, which provides forecasts and breakdowns for several of the Ancient Eight’s leagues.
All that is in addition to the Ivy Leaguers at the September Hackathon, including Wallingford, Riegel and Shyamkumar and friend Matt Cancilla, an undergraduate at Penn.
As for Wallingford, though he currently doesn’t plan to actively pursue a career in sports analytics, what he and his classmates showed at the September hackathon is the clear integral relationship between sports analytics and the Ivy League.