Pabail Sidhu was a couple of slices into his meal last week at Varlamos Pizzeria, a popular restaurant minutes from the University of Washington campus, when an email rattled his phone.
Another friend forwarded him another link to a video of Charles Barkley, an NBA Hall of Famer, railing against the league’s analytics movement — the use of advanced statistical metrics to aid in personnel and game management decisions — during a segment of TNT’s in-studio postgame show.
At this, Sidhu laughs. No more than 15 minutes ago, he had been discussing Barkley’s screed, which occurred two days prior.
“You know how many times I got that email yesterday?” Sidhu asked, rhetorically. “Funny. And that’s how Charles makes a living. … It’s humorous coming from him. The problem is, I don’t think most people understand what analytics really is.”
With Sidhu’s help, that understanding has grown within the Washington Huskies men’s basketball program. Sidhu, a 2005 UW graduate, is in his third season as the Huskies’ director of basketball strategies, a unique position in the college basketball world.
How unique? When Brad Stevens was still coaching at Butler University, he hired a 22-year-old named Drew Cannon to work as a graduate manager specializing in analytics. According to a Sports Illustrated article from March 2013, Cannon was believed to have been college basketball’s first “pure statistics-based hire.” (Cannon left Butler when Stevens did, and now works for the Boston Celtics.)
So the Huskies appear to be on the progressive side of the basketball analytics movement, which, thanks to forward-thinking owners such as the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban and such data-driven general managers as the Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey — against whom Barkley directed his rant — has established strong footing at the NBA level.
Sidhu’s position, then, is evidence of a trickle-down effect into the college game.
“He had approached me about a couple of ideas,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, “and said, ‘There are some things I might want to run by you with your team that may be able to help.’ And I liked them, so he eventually started working with us.”
After graduating from UW with a business degree in 2005, Sidhu, a lifelong NBA fan, developed a close relationship with former Seattle SuperSonics general manager Rick Sund — “he’s like my adopted father” — who taught him how to evaluate the game and scout opponents. Sidhu also recalls fondly his conversations with stats guru Dean Oliver, who worked in the Sonics’ and Nuggets’ front offices.
After the Sonics departed for Oklahoma City, Sidhu “got into some other lines of work,” outside of the sports world. But it didn’t take him long to get back into it. Shortly after UW promoted Scott Woodward to athletic director in September 2008, Sidhu reached out to Woodward and senior associate athletic director Stephanie Rempe to inquire about potential job opportunities.
He was assigned a fairly open-ended, stats-based project, and presented his work to Woodward, who liked it. So UW hired him on somewhat of a trial basis, to see if a full-time data analyst would serve a purpose within the department.
He did. Sidhu, an Everett native, assisted with the Husky Stadium funding model, helped with coaches’ contracts, assisted with capital projects and “pretty much any type of number-related strategic project.”
Eventually, Sidhu created a 50-page analytics packet to submit to Romar and the basketball coaching staff. They decided to create a role for him within the program.
“His commitment level to Coach Romar, and the staff in general, is off the charts,” assistant coach Brad Jackson said. “So I think that makes him really special. He’s not just a adjunct numbers guy. He’s very much a part of what we do.”
As Sidhu explains, coaches watch film to figure out why and how something is happening. He watches film to figure out where and when something is happening.
And by “something,” he means pretty much everything. He tracks what happens any time any player touches the ball, anywhere on the floor. He tracks how UW’s offensive efficiency changes depending upon the number of passes thrown per possession — four or five typically yields the greatest efficiency, he says — and how everything correlates with the opponent’s personnel. It’s all stuff you won’t find in a box score. Efficiency is the emphasis. Statistical analysts don’t examine per-game averages so much as per-possession — specifically points per possession, both offensively and defensively — and that has become the primary focus of Romar’s statistical evaluation.
And that represents a transformation of sorts. Told that Romar referenced points-per-possession during a recent press conference, Sidhu smiled wide: “That, to me, is so big-time because I don’t think we were really talking about that when I first got here.”
Mostly, Sidhu said, Romar wants to see patterns — “the last four games, what’s going on in there? Or how’s an individual doing?”
“It gives you a pretty good read on how well you’re doing,” Romar said. “How many points you scored doesn’t always tell the story. That’s been helpful. Every time a guy’s fronted on the post, how many times does he score if he gets the basketball somehow? Transition, where you’re scoring from. It just gives you a little better feel, so it’s not guesswork. ‘Here are the facts’ in a lot of areas.”
At first, Sidhu said, he would present this information to Romar and his staff in a 30-page packet. After about eight games, he figured out “coaches don’t have time for this.” And that, surprising as it might seem, is where his business background kicked in.
Sharp marketing skills, obviously, are essential in the business world — and also when trying to disseminate complicated information to a group of basketball coaches and college athletes.
“Pabail does an awesome job of taking stuff that might be somewhat complex, putting it in a format that’s understandable and usable, and Coach Romar will take that and be able to relate that to the players,” Jackson said.
Sidhu helps the assistants construct each game’s scouting report, analyzing and compiling information about where and when each opposing player likes to shoot, dribble and pass. He packages that data into a PowerPoint presentation, which the coaches use to teach the game plan to the players.
During the game, Sidhu sits near the bench — either behind it, or at the scorer’s table — crunching live numbers on his laptop. He relays information to assistant coaches throughout the game. That’s not something Sidhu has seen many other places, even in the NBA.
“I’m giving a lot of live information to him. Coach (Romar) knows pretty much every four minutes where we’re at, on an efficiency level,” Sidhu said. “We chat about it briefly at halftime.”
Sidhu’s mind is restless. During the offseason, he collaborated with analytics maven Ken Pomeroy to develop a model to help predict how transferring players might perform with their new team. It was based largely on offensive rating and usage rates, and examined 10 years of data and trends.
With the help of a friend, he developed an app — Athlete Readiness — that uses a scientifically constructed questionnaire to help track players’ fatigue, sleep quality, muscle soreness and mood.
He has done analytics work with UW’s football program, too, and would like to further explore how data analysis might help the basketball team with recruiting.
Old-school as Romar might be, there are no Charles Barkleys on UW’s coaching staff. They view Sidhu’s role as a valuable one.
“It’s just another way to try and help your team be better,” Jackson said. “When you can dig into stats in a way that tells a story that otherwise might not be quite as clear, I think it’s very beneficial.
“I find it personally to be really helpful, really stimulating, and the other thing is, when you’re communicating to players, those things are very beneficial. It paints a realistic picture and is one that I think helps everyone.”