As the NBA as a whole continues its light-speed advancements in advanced data analysis, the Milwaukee Bucks are investing in the face to gain an edge in player evaluation.
As The New York Times reported Thursday, the new owners of the Bucks – hedge fund billionaries Wesley Edens and Mark Lasry – hired renowned facial coding expert Dan Hill to build an emotion metrics database in an attempt to quantify the previously unquantifiable – character, personality and chemistry.
Hill uses methods developed from the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Published in 1979, FACS based combinations of 43 facial muscle positions which correspond to seven emotions: happiness, surprise, contempt, disgust, sadness, anger and fear. Today, FACS has been established as a computed automated system which detects faces in videos and spits out quantified data based on every smirk, furrowed eyebrow and smile a player makes.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Hill told ESPN of muscle movements in the face.
He said players that score highly in his evaluations have only a moderate degree of happiness. He doesn’t want to see players too easily satisfied, and says that it identifies coachable players. Meanwhile, players that score highly in happiness tend to become sloppy.
Hill, whose 16 years of facial analysis have mostly been for marketing and advertising, also values disgust and anger, as they show levels of drive. Of course, it all comes in moderation, as high levels of anger lead to a hot head. Finally, cocky expressions are good, while arrogance on one’s face is a bad sign.
The Bucks hired Hill — owner of Sensory Logic, Inc. in Minnesota and the author of Emotionomics — in May, and he’s already made his mark. Working alongside team psychologist Ramel Smith, Hill watched video of potential draft picks, assessed the players and reported back to Smith. The Bucks considered Australian point guard Dante Exum with their second overall pick, but ultimately grabbed Jabari Parker, who was one of the top rookies in the league before a knee injury ended his season.
“Nothing against Exum, but emotional resiliency, stability and an immediate, assured presence were all key considerations in support of selecting Parker,” Hill told the Times.
Facial coding isn’t widely accepted. Until now, more interest has come from law enforcement and anti-terrorism agencies, along with marketing, rather than academia.
“To me the big question is, how well does the method actually work?” said Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview with the Times. “It’s not easy to get good evidence, because a player’s performance and teamwork are complex outcomes, and the teams are not run like clinical trials, with coaches and managers blind to the facial coding findings and so forth. So it’s hard to know whether this system works well, gives some marginal benefit or does nothing at all.”
Facial coding has made waves in another sport as well. Jeff Foster runs the NLF’s scouting combine and hired Hill in 2011 to evaluate prospects. He said Hill’s methods could be especially helpful for teams considering quarterbacks and safeties early in the draft, as those players require unusual leadership and cerebral traits difficult to project.
Washington State head coach Mike Leach had Hill evaluate players in 2012. He was just hired and wanted to know what kind of players he inherited to develop his coaching methods around.
“Someday Dan will be able to get hard data linking the face to on-the-field performance, and I don’t want to miss that,” Leach told the Times.
Not one to be behind the curve, I’m pretty sure Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has already left Hill 17 voice messages.