UK basketball notebook: Ex-Cats in NBA embrace analytics to gain an edge

Herald-Leader staff writerJune 7, 2014 


Justin Zormelo, center, founder of Best Ball Analytics, worked with Rion Brown during a training session at the University of Miami. Zormelo uses data to help clients improve their games.


Basketball players can have personal trainers, stylists, chefs, advisors and court jesters. To this ever-growing support group you can add — believe it or not — a personal statistician.

A recent story in The New York Times chronicled the rise of Justin Zormelo, 30, a Georgetown graduate and former student manager for the Hoyas' basketball team. In trying to enhance efficiency and production, he works with individual players, not teams.

Zormelo, who has a degree in finance, said in a brief telephone conversation that his clients include such former Kentucky players as John Wall, Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins and Nazr Mohammed.

Zormelo represents a growing allegiance to statistics in sports at the expense of conclusions based upon repeated observation.

"Intangibles like a player's 'killer instinct' or his 'clutch performance' have given way to mathematical equations that quantify every aspect of the game," The Times' Scott Cacciola wrote.

Zormelo sits at a computer and crunches numbers for his clients. For example, he tries to quantify how productive a player is when he shoots after taking two dribbles rather than four, or how well he shoots from particular spots on the floor.

The potential for conflict seems significant. Most, if not all, coaches want to be the sole voice of authority. UK Coach John Calipari often spoke last season of the outside "clutter" his players must process.

Former NBA coach (Warriors, Kings) Eric Musselman sounded philosophical about the impact someone like Zormelo provides.

"Ideally, you want to have all the basketball X's and O's coming from your coaching staff," he told The New York Times. "But I also think coaches are open-minded enough to understand that things have changed."

Rondo told The Times that his team, the Boston Celtics, was not aware of his reliance on Zormelo.

"Not really," Rondo said. "But I'm just trying to get better. There's nothing wrong with that."

Zormelo, who started the company Best Ball Analytics ( in 2011, has more than 30 clients. Kevin Durant, the NBA's Most Valuable Player this season, retained Zormelo's services three years ago.

The Times reported that Durant distanced himself from the personal statistician this season.

"He just wanted to start enjoying the game again," Zormelo told the newspaper. "That's the first thing he said to me this year: 'I'm not looking at stats anymore.'"

When Durant struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs, he got back in touch with Zormelo.

Randle revisited

UK's star of stars last season, Julius Randle, continues to prepare for the June 26 NBA Draft.

Toward that end, Randle is working out near his Dallas area home three times a day, his mother, Carolyn Kyles, said.

"He's dropped about 20 pounds," she said. "He's eating right. He's eating healthy."

A presumption would be that a slimmer, fitter Randle anticipates the need to play more on the perimeter at the NBA level.

Randle has workouts scheduled this week with Orlando, Philadelphia and Boston. He also has a workout scheduled for the Los Angeles Lakers on June 17.

Kyles dismissed the various mock drafts as "everybody expressing their constitutional right to have their own opinion.

"At the end of the day, they don't have a clue about what the GMs are thinking."

She likened the mock drafts to the ceaseless speculation in recruiting. She noted how the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked observers last year by taking Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick.

"So you have no clue what they're thinking," she said. Those who compose mock drafts might mention a name "just to get some hits and get people talking," she said.

More importantly (facetiously speaking), Randle has picked out what he'll wear at the draft. He and mentor Jeff Webster ordered a light gray, tailor-made suit three weeks ago. He also bought three shirts: lavender, white and gray-and-black checked.

Randle's mother said she would have input on what he wears. "Nothing too wild," she said. "Nothing like hot pink. Just look nice and professional."

There's at least one other fashion statement to make.

"I just have to go get my dress," Randle's mother said with a laugh. "I have to look cute, too."

Young prepping

Former UK wing James Young has been working out in California in preparation for the NBA Draft, his godfather, Sean Mahone, said.

Young first completed classroom work for UK's spring semester in what Mahone said was "respecting Kentucky's organization." Young has been working out in California since then with the exception of participating in the NBA Combine.

Mahone declined to reveal what Young will wear at the NBA Draft.

"It's supposed to be a surprise," he said before adding, "He looks like a million bucks."


Baseball's "Moneyball" and sabermetrics divide fans along generational lines. Younger people embrace such statistical categories as WAR (wins above replacement), plus-minus (a long-standing hockey stat now crowding into basketball thinking) and Pythagorean expectation (Greek to me, but something to do with how many victories a baseball team "should" have based on runs scored and allowed).

Meanwhile, older fans (blush) cheered last year when Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland dismissed pitcher Max Scherzer's supposed sabermetric deficiencies by saying, "I'm a manager, not a statistician."

Those who think the ever-increasing attention to statistics is a byproduct of fantasy leagues can take comfort in Red Auerbach's philosophy in guiding the Boston Celtics. The architect of the NBA's greatest dynasty once said, "Our pride was never rooted in statistics."

During a 1987 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Auerbach said, "I don't believe in statistics. There are too many factors that can't be measured. You can't measure a ballplayer's heart, his ability to perform in the clutch, his willingness to sacrifice his offense or to play strong defense. See, if you play strong defense and concentrate and work hard, it's got to affect your offense.

"But a lot of players on a lot of teams, all they point at is offense. Like in baseball, they say 'I hit .300, so I should get so much money.' I've always eliminated the statistic of how many points a guy scores. Where did he score them? Did he score them during garbage time?"

SEC leftovers

In case you missed it, here are a few leftovers from the recent SEC Spring Meeting in Destin:

■ The SEC awarded its 2018 league tournament to St. Louis and the 2022 event to Tampa. The other SEC tournaments, beginning in 2015 and running through 2025, will be in Nashville.

■ The SEC athletic directors voted to continue an 18-game league schedule in men's basketball. However, they altered the format so that each school will have three permanent opponents for home-and-home games rather than the one permanent opponent of the last two seasons (Florida for UK). The league hopes to name each team's two additional permanent opponents by this fall.

■ Cover your ears. The SEC voted to allow music to be played on sound systems during football games except for when the center gets over the ball until the play is whistled dead. The league identified the permissible music as "institutionally controlled noise."

■ It was not part of the SEC Spring Meeting, but Auburn painted a dotted orange line at Jordan-Hare Stadium marking the path of Chris Davis' 109-yard return of a missed field goal against Alabama in last year's Iron Bowl. Auburn painted the line for its Big Cat Weekend, a football recruiting weekend last week.

Top coaches

ESPN began a series naming the top 50 college basketball coaches, as picked by an ESPN panel, last weekend.

Familiar names so far include No. 39 Tubby Smith (Texas Tech), No. 49 Richard Pitino (Minnesota) and No. 21 Larry Brown (SMU).

We'll assume SEC coaches, plus U of L Coach Rick Pitino, are in the top 20.

The series continues over the next few weeks.

Two coaches who did not make ESPN's top 50 were Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt).

Cal contracts

A few tidbits emerged while reading the four contracts John Calipari has had as UK coach:

■ UK must provide him two "late-model, quality cars." He's also entitled to reimbursement for business-related mileage.

■ Calipari has control of 20 "prime, lower level" tickets to home, away and post-season games. He also had the option to buy as many as 20 additional tickets.

■ If he remains UK coach on July 31 of this year, Calipari receives a retention bonus of $1,000,000. That bonus increases to $1,600,000 if Calipari remains coach in July of 2015 and will be more than $2,000,000 in each of the remaining six years of the contract.

'Typical' UK-U of L

In case there were any doubts, last weekend proved that the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry translates to baseball.

Even a start delayed four hours (OK, actually three hours and 55 minutes) failed to dull the spirit in the air once the UK-U of L game got underway. Twice collisions at home plate brought players from both teams charging out of the dugouts.

"Typical Kentucky-Louisville athletic event," UK Coach Gary Henderson said after his team lost 4-1 in a baseball regional. "Lots of emotion."

UK shortstop Matt Reida embraced the passionate competition.

"It is what it is," he said. "As a player, you love those types of games. You love that atmosphere. This is why you come to Kentucky. ...

"The moment, I don't think, ever got too big for us. It just didn't go our way."


The Orlando Magic are offering a $100,000 prize to a fan who can correctly predict the first 14 players selected in the June 26 NBA Draft.

There's a catch: Only persons 18 and older who live within 75 miles of Orlando can enter the contest.

Happy birthday

To Dick Vitale. He turns 75 on Monday. ... To Chuck Hayes. He turns 31 on Wednesday. ... To former UK president David Roselle. He turned 75 on May 30. ... To Florida Coach Billy Donovan. He turned 49 on May 30. ... To referee John Hampton. He turned 46 on Monday. ... To Barry Rohrssen. The new UK assistant turned 54 on Friday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog:

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