Copyright 2018 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Aaron Barzilai has always self-identified as a numbers nerd. A former captain of the MIT basketball team, Barzilai likes to say his game was "Steve Kerr without the shot."
That meant Barzilai, 45, didn't have any sort future in the NBA — at least not on the floor. But as a Ph.D. student at Stanford from 1993-2000, he started to tinker with statistics, years before analytics became part of the general sports lexicon.
"Like most grad school students, I was very good at coming up with projects to work on that were not my thesis," Barzilai told USA TODAY with a laugh. "I would think about stuff like, 'Hmm, maybe I could invent a better BCS formula.'"
Then he read a story in Sports Illustrated's 2005 NBA preview issue detailing how "the Moneyball math of baseball has come to the NBA," and referenced Dean Oliver's book Basketball on Paper. Barzilai thought he might have stumbled onto his own niche.
Thirteen years later, Barzilai has done exactly that, though it's come in an unlikely arena. Barzilai is the owner and operator of HerHoopStats.com, an advanced analytics site that tracks data like points per possession and offensive rebounding rate. It's been billed as the women's equivalent to KenPom.com, the men's college basketball analytics site frequently referenced by coaches, schools, analysts and even the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Analytics have exploded in popularity over the past decade, with data-driven decisions becoming the norm for coaches and front offices. Fans are numbers junkies, too. Friday and Saturday, Boston will host the 12th Annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event that's grown from 100 initial attendees to more than 4,000 in 2016.
But there's been a noticeable void in the women's game.
In a March 2016 Players Tribune article, WNBA All-Star Sue Bird — widely considered the best point guard in the women's game — made a case for advanced analytics in the WNBA.
"The disparity between NBA data — even data across all male sports — and WNBA data is glaring," Bird wrote. "Data for the WNBA is relegated to basic information: points, rebounds, steals, assists, turnovers, blocks. While worthy of being noted, those are the most rudimentary numbers in our game. Data helps drive conversations, strategy, decision making. ... Data helps tell the story of a player, a team, an entire career."
Stats help hammer home the points coaches want to make to their teams, Barzilai said. But first, they've gotta be able to get their hands on the numbers.
Barzilai spent 2008-2015 working in the NBA, first with the Memphis Grizzlies as an analytics consultant — reporting directly to general manager Chris Wallace — and then as the director of analytics for the 76ers until 2015, when new management took over.
In July, he got a call from Alex Varlan, a former co-worker in Philadelphia who had just taken the video coordinator position with the Tennessee women's basketball program. Varlan asked if Barzilai knew of any good options for women's analytics sites. When Barzilai couldn't find any, Varlan and he concluded that Barzilai could and should build his own.
"My theory is that what we've done is something between a business and a public service," Barzilai explained. "You can find stuff pretty easily on (all-time NCAA leading scorer) Kelsey Plum or (South Carolina All-American) A'ja Wilson ... but maybe your niece is the top 10% in the country in assist rate, and she plays for a mid-major school, so you don't know that. We're trying to unlock that information."
By the end of August, after a month of background research, Barzilai had brought on two programmers and started building the site. He's had experience in this type of entrepreneurial space before: Barzilai said he was the first person to regularly publish NBA plus/minus data — now a stat found in every NBA box score — on his website BasketballValue.com in 2007.
In the first week of December 2017, HerHoopStats.com went live. By the new year, it was being referenced on ESPN broadcasts.
Longtime analyst Debbie Antonelli is a fan.
Before each game Antonelli works, Barzilai emails her five interesting stats on the teams she'll see in person. Then Antonelli uses those numbers in the broadcast, giving HerHoopStats.com a shout out. In last Sunday's North Carolina State-Wake Forest game, for example, she pointed out that the Wolfpack are No. 1 in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, then explained why — because they do a great job of going under screens, keeping teams in front, and making opponents score over the top, all of which puts North Carolina State in an ideal rebounding position.
"You can't give a number like that in basketball, men or women, unless you explain what it means — I have to give you the 'why,'" Antonelli told USA TODAY. "These stats, it helps grow our game — it makes N.C. State look good, it makes (coach) Wes Moore looks good. ... We didn't have this in the women's game, and we needed it."
Barzilai stresses that the site people see now is "definitely version 1.0, if not 0.1," and has plans to grow and add more data, even before the Final Four next month. HerHoopStats.com already shows national rankings and percentiles, so the next logical step is conference rankings and percentiles. Win probability is also on the to-do list, as is growing readership. Grace Dickman, a senior guard at Division III Macalaster College, helps run social media, where Barzilai hopes HerHoopStats.com can get better at "visualization of the data."
Feedback from coaches, fans, pundits and sports information directors helps him understand what needs to come next.
"Analytics are not anything that would take away from my own two eyes scouting a team and watching team dynamics, but these (numbers) tell me a true percentage of what's going on," Louisville associate head coach Stephanie Norman told USA TODAY, adding that she appreciates that "you don't need a PhD to understand Aaron's site."
"This is a business (on the women's side) that's been untapped," Norman said. "I find it intriguing. ... It can be really useful for players to analyze themselves."
Watching his website, still in its infancy, get recognized on ESPN was "the kind of moment that helps energize and inspire us to work on it even more," Barzilai said. "It makes me feel good that we're making a contribution in a space that's been underserved."
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter