200 Day Countdown: An Interview with Rachel Marty

Today marks the 200 day countdown to #SSAC18 – follow along as we continue to announce conference details by subscribing to our newsletter!

In honor of this exciting milestone, and while eagerly awaiting the arrival of abstracts for the Research Papers Competition presented by Wasserman, we sat down with Rachel Marty, who took first prize in last year’s poster competition. As part of her prize, Rachel had the opportunity to present her research to coaches and executives at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last month.  Rachel’s paper, “A data-driven method for understanding and increasing 3-point shooting percentage,” used data captured by Noahlytics cameras to investigate how factors like shot depth and angle impact shooting success, and investigated how these insights could be leveraged to help athletes improve their shot. 

Could you give us a refresher on your research and some of the conclusions you came to in the paper?

Sure, our goal was to quantify three-point shooting from the perspective of the hoop. The Noahlytics data gave us the ability to understand why players made or missed their shots instead of just knowing their percentage. This allowed us to look at population trends and define the region of the hoop where shots are guaranteed to go in. Moreover, it let us isolate the qualities of exceptional shooters and demonstrate how other players could capitalize on these qualities to improve.

We found that players, across all levels, tend to shoot nearly two inches short in the hoop – and are losing several percentage points as a byproduct! This can be explained by the Guaranteed Make Zone (GMZ). The GMZ includes swishes but also shots that hit the back of the rim and go straight down. So if players are only aiming for a swish, they will often be short of optimal. We also clustered players by their strengths and weaknesses to infer their optimal path to improvement.

What was your experience like at SSAC 2017? Any highlights from presenting your work and engaging with some of the VIPs?

Last year was my first year at Sloan, and it surpassed all of my expectations. I can’t imagine a better environment for a data nerd who likes sports. It was awesome to find other people who get as excited about these kinds of things as me. The highlight for me was getting to explain my research to both Shane Battier and Dean Oliver. I was star struck and a bit giddy afterward.

Take us through your trip to Summer League in Las Vegas. What were some of the highlights from your time there?

It was quite a whirlwind. I arrived on Monday afternoon and then presented to the NBA Coaches Association on Tuesday night and at the Enrichment Seminar on Wednesday morning. When we weren’t presenting (or preparing for the presentations), we enjoyed watching several of the games. The summer league is such an energetic environment, so there is never a dull moment. We wrapped up the trip with Daryl Morey’s annual ping-pong tournament. As expected, that was a blast as well.

What response did you get from the basketball coaches or analysts to your research? 

I’d say I get a mixed reaction from coaches but a very positive reaction from analysts. Some coaches are more old fashioned and understandably don’t appreciate being told how their players should shoot by a random 25 year old girl with a laptop! But for the most part, people just want to learn and take advantage of the new research to give their team an edge. I think the analysts were intrigued because they wanted to know how to take advantage of this new type of data that is now available to several teams.

Is Daryl Morey as good at ping pong as he says?

I did stick around for the ping pong tournament. I was dealing with some significant jetlag (I’d flown in from Switzerland), but I couldn’t miss it after all of the hype! It was definitely entertaining to watch some of the VIPs match up against each other. Some were surprisingly very talented and others could have used some improvement… Everyone turned out though, so it was definitely the place to be.

What have you been working on since SSAC17? Any plans to submit another paper to the 2018 Research Papers Competition presented by Wasserman?

Well, to be honest, I have been spending a lot of time analyzing cancer patient DNA to understand how the immune system impacts tumor progression… Turns out, they don’t give you a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics for analyzing basketball shots! But I’ve also been trying to sneak some time in to build on the foundation that Simon (Lucey) and I created last year. The data we were working with was so new and unexplored that our paper really only scratched the surface. So in short, yes, I am hoping to submit another paper to the 2018 conference.

Any advice for someone who’s considering submitting their work to the competition this year?

My advice would be to go after a question that has strong utility for a specific party (coaches, managers, players, etc.). You will generate much more excitement if your research is applicable to one of their problems as opposed to only being technically cool.