This offseason, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari told those who approach basketball from a purely analytical standpoint and have never played the game to “beat it.” So it was mildly surprising when the program announced the hiring of Joel Justus as their Director of Analytics this past September.
In a recent profile of Justus by Ben Herald of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Justus said of getting hired, “[Calipari] wanted someone who would be able to talk ball with him. And I think that’s a little bit of the criticism when you talk to folks in the NBA: ‘All right, you’re giving me all of this stuff, but what does it mean?’”
Basketball analytics hirings aren’t new for the NBA, but the coming out party for analytics positions in the college ranks occurred just over a year ago when Drew Cannon emerged as a driving force behind Brad Stevens’ success at Butler. Cannon has since followed Stevens to the Boston Celtics. With the currently undefeated Wildcats hiring Justus, it’s a trend that is sure to continue.
Basketball analysts can provide all sorts of insight to improve team performance, like optimal lineups, tempo-free stats, and video analysis. But this wasn’t why Calipari hired Justus. Ever the salesman, Calipari hired Justus in order to market his players to NBA scouts. This is because Kentucky is so loaded this year that Calipari is playing two platoons of five players, switching them out like hockey lines.
Calipari revealed his motivations for hiring Justus at a pre-season luncheon. “If you’re playing 20 minutes, what will your NCAA stats look like? Terrible for NCAA stats, so we’re going to have big data stats, per-minute and efficiency stats that we can send to NBA teams.” Calipari later said that he’s never coach a team this way and his change in mindset was to make sure “every one of these kids eats.”
It’s unlikely that the platoon system will become a permanent fixture of the Kentucky program, and Justus certainly seems to understand this. As he told the Herald-Leader, “I’ve got to make sure that [Calipari] sees that I’m valuable. So I have to make sure that what I’m giving him is good.”
As the premier huckster in college basketball (NBA players he has coached have made a combined $820 million in salaries), Calipari has made another canny move for his program, ensuring his players will have a seat at the NBA table for years to come.