UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky's director of analytics: Who he is, why he's here and how he is helping the Cats

Joel Justus, director of analytics for UK basketball.
Joel Justus, director of analytics for UK basketball. Herald-Leader

Scouts from all 30 NBA teams huddled in the University of Kentucky's basketball practice facility in October to be a part of John Calipari's preseason brainchild.

Calipari's "combine" showcased his roster full of future pros for NBA decision-makers and a national television audience alike.

About halfway through that two-hour broadcast, ESPN's Jay Bilas turned the conversation to the increasing use of advanced analytics in the sport.

"That has become one of the biggest buzzwords in basketball," he said before introducing a new UK staff member as one of the "kings" of analytics.

UK director of analytics Joel Justus, who two months earlier was a high school basketball coach in Davidson, N.C., was on camera and telling that national audience about Calipari's next big thing.

It'll be up to him to make it work.

Through the ranks

Calipari's ties to Justus and his family go back nearly 40 years.

The UK coach started his own college career at UNC-Wilmington in 1978. John Justus — Joel's father — was the school's sports information director at the time, and he and Calipari stayed in contact after going their separate ways.

The Justus family moved to Winston-Salem when John got a job as sports information director at Wake Forest. Joel was a toddler at the time. He grew up among the Demon Deacons' basketball family — one of his babysitters was Tim Duncan — became a talented player himself, and earned a scholarship to play at UNC-Wilmington.

After four years there, Justus immediately got a job as an assistant coach at Elon University. That's when he had his first professional contact with Calipari.

Justus introduced himself to the then-Memphis head coach at the 2005 Final Four, and the two stayed in touch long enough for Calipari to grant Justus a job interview for an assistant coaching position the following year.

"It was great for me just because it was a tremendous professional development experience," Justus said. "I was able to ask him questions. And that time, heck, I must have been 24 or 25. So it was great to be able to have that access.

"He basically told me I wasn't ready to work at this level."

One piece of advice Calipari gave Justus was to become a head coach, and two years later he took over the program at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia.

After four years at Woodberry and two seasons at Davidson Day in North Carolina, Justus thought he had the prerequisites for a spot on Calipari's coaching staff.

An opening was created when assistant director of basketball operations Preston Spradlin left over the summer to take a coaching job at Morehead State, and Calipari was interested in filling it with someone who had an interest in analytics.

Finding a balance

Calipari was asked about his newfound interest in the subject during a roundtable discussion with local reporters in the offseason.

He brought up two extremes for approaching the game.

The first was a "guy that's never played, coached or done anything but look at numbers and tell you what your team should look like."

His response to that guy: "Beat it."

The second was "the old-school guy that never looked at a number and doesn't know how to open a computer." That guy was Calipari.

But the UK coach recognized that others were using numbers to their advantage, and he wanted someone who could look at data from a basketball mind-set — not strictly a numbers one — and tell him what it all meant.

That guy, Calipari decided, was the 33-year-old Justus.

"He wanted someone who would be able to talk ball with him," Justus said. "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?'"

UK's analytics director says he wasn't a "stats guy" growing up, but he earned an appreciation for the numbers while running his own high school programs.

It was clear who his best two or three players were, but when parents complained to him about why their son was No. 9 on the depth chart, Justus wanted hard data on his side.

"In high school as a head coach, you look at that and you realize the importance," he said. "I had to have stats. ... When mommy or daddy comes in the office and says, 'Why is my son not playing more?' Well, here you go."

Justus might be UK's resident numbers guy, but he shares his new boss's approach to the subject.

"I'm not going to say, 'Hey Cal, you need to tell your guys no more mid-range jumpers,'" he said. "That's not what we're going to do. It's more or less looking at the data that's out there and collecting it and putting it to use for our coaches."

Parsing the numbers

Justus spoke at length to the Herald-Leader on the eve of last month's regular-season opener.

His position didn't exist at UK before he started in September, and everyone involved was a bit unclear on exactly what he would bring to the program.

"Every day I come in here, it's a little bit of a tryout," he said. "That's the way I look at it. 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."

Justus attends every practice and receives the daily plan in advance so he can get the most out of those sessions. He sits on the end of the bench during games, watching intently with clipboard in hand, often writing down notes during dead ball situations.

For obvious reasons, Justus declined to share the specifics of exactly what he's watching for, and those areas of focus will change and evolve as more game data becomes available throughout the season.

On a basic level, Justus looks at what certain players do in certain situations.

For instance, the coaching staff can show Devin Booker every good play he's made off a ball screen. What was he doing different on those plays? Here's every turnover Andrew Harrison or Tyler Ulis has made in transition. How is that best prevented?

Justus said he spoke to nearly 20 NBA staffers during his first couple of months in Lexington about how to get the most out of his program. Calipari was talking to NBA coaches and general managers at the same time.

One NBA contact preached patience.

"He said, 'Look, it's just going to take some time, because the numbers can frustrate you,'" Justus recalled. "This position will become harder but better every game. Just because there will be more information out there.

"So, we talk a month from now, it'll be one thing. We talk three months from now, it'll be another thing."

Butler's breakthrough

Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens was an assistant at Butler University when he first became interested in using advanced analytics to gain an advantage on the basketball court.

"He was very much into the numbers right from the get-go," said Butler spokesman Jim McGrath. "He was analyzing the different trends, and he followed websites that would give you statistical information that was not normally available to general stats people."

Stevens kept studying the numbers after he became the Bulldogs' head coach in 2007. A year after leading the program to back-to-back national title game appearances, Stevens took his infatuation with analytics to another level.

He hired Drew Cannon — a recent Duke graduate who had interned for recruiting analyst Dave Telep and written statistics-based research on basketball — in a full-time role centered on analytics.

When Stevens left Butler for the Celtics the following year, he took Cannon with him.

"Drew definitely proved his worth," McGrath said. "He was coming up with stuff on a regular basis that was helping us.

"Coach Stevens used to say on a regular basis, 'This is exactly the information that I need, and Drew is giving it to me.'"

The new coaching staff at Butler still uses analytics, but there's no longer a full-time staff member dedicated to it.

McGrath said he was not aware of any school — other than UK — that currently has such a position.

UK alone

None of the major programs contacted by the Herald-Leader reported a full-time analytics director on staff, though many teams use the practice to some degree.

Duke has a "director of information technology" who works with analytics along with other responsibilities that include editing film, scouting and game preparation.

A Duke spokesman said the program was the first to incorporate SportVU — a player-tracking technology that uses "computer vision cameras" to collect data during games. That program is widely used in the NBA but only by a handful of colleges.

A Florida spokesman said one of the program's assistant video coordinators oversees analytics for the Gators. A coach puts each player's offensive and defensive "efficiency rating" on a whiteboard in the locker room at halftime and after every game.

The "efficiency rating" is one of the hallmarks of analytics, and statistician Ken Pomeroy's website has become the go-to place for such information.

KenPom.com charts every team in college basketball and has been widely used for years by both fans and coaches.

UK entered this week at No. 1 in the KenPom ratings, and the Cats are first nationally in defensive efficiency and fifth nationally in offensive efficiency.

Over the past 10 years, only one team — national champion Kansas in 2008 — has finished in the top three in both categories.

Trickle-down analytics

College basketball programs are still coming to grips with how to use analytics to get ahead, but the NBA has been playing the numbers game for years.

Interest is growing in the high school ranks as well.

Edward Smith is an assistant coach at Orangeville Prep in Canada and the guardian of two of that team's star players: Thon and Matur Maker.

Some recruiting services consider Thon Maker to be the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2016. He has scholarship offers from Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and dozens of others. He also got a recent lesson in analytics.

Smith brought Justin Zormelo to Canada a few weeks ago to work out with Maker.

Zormelo, a former team manager at Georgetown University, sold copiers in the Washington, D.C., area for eight months after graduation before landing an internship in the Miami Heat's video department.

Shortly after that, he started his own company and tried to connect with NBA players to help them improve their games through analytics.

Zormelo has been an avid student of basketball his entire life and used the term "photographic memory" to describe his ability with numbers. He merged the two before the analytics trend took off.

About three years ago, Zormelo started breaking down game film for Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. During the league's work stoppage, Durant asked Zormelo if he could come and work him out in person.

The workout was a success, and the two trained together regularly from then on.

Zormelo has received credit for Durant making the jump from NBA star to NBA most valuable player, the award he earned for the first time last season.

The trainer's website — BestBallAnalytics.com — prominently features a video of Durant extolling the benefits of using numbers to improve on the court.

"He's helped me out a lot," Durant says in the video. "Making me see things at a different level. ... It's just a blessing to have someone around like that."

Zormelo has worked with former UK players John Wall, Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Nazr Mohammed. Wall is one of his primary clients this season.

Smith wanted him to work with Maker because he sees a changing landscape where NBA teams will be looking at a player's "efficiency" on the court when deciding who to draft out of college.

Smith provides Zormelo with video and other information, and Zormelo breaks down Maker's game and finds areas that need emphasis and improvement.

"We're going to try to bring analytics to him without making him overthink it," Smith said. "It's a fine line. But he's an NBA guy and he's worked with NBA players — he's not just a math guy out of MIT.

"He's been working with NBA players and helping them get better."

Zormelo says he often gets calls from college coaches and parents of high school players, but most of his clients are in the pros.

For that reason, he doesn't watch much college basketball. Still, he did sneak a peek at UK when the Cats dismantled Kansas early in the season.

Zormelo has never received a call from UK, but he said he'd be interested if Calipari or Justus wanted to talk.

"I could give him a lot of advice and information that could change his program," he said. "He has the right kids over there, there's no doubt about it. When I watch them play, things just go off. I can tell you all about Kentucky.

"They could do a lot of different things, man. They could change basketball."

Players first

Calipari is well known for his attempts to change the game, or at least go beyond what others have done.

Since coming to UK in 2009, he's become synonymous with the "one-and-done" mentality and earlier this year created a national conversation about his "platoon" system. Going all in on analytics is just another example of that approach.

All of it — Calipari would say — falls under the umbrella of running his "players-first" program.

Justus has picked up on that philosophy in a short time.

"Everybody that comes here — whether you're a player or you're a coach — we all want the same thing," he said. "And that's to help our players become the best that they can be. And there's never any conflict over that. Because everybody wants to be the best."

Using analytics to help make these Wildcats "the best" is a work in progress.

Justus took solace from his conversations with NBA personnel who told him every franchise runs its analytics department differently.

Zormelo echoed that notion, saying that every one of his sessions is "totally different" depending on the player he's working with.

UK's use of analytics will continue to evolve as the season goes on and Calipari decides what he wants out of the program.

"I think anyone that is in touch with basketball and the trends — you see the importance of this," Justus said. "And anyone who has any interest in becoming better understands how this can help. You might not need to understand what it is, but you need to understand how it can help you.

"I think that's what we are about here is finding the value that Cal places in certain aspects of the game and then diving into it."

Justus is excited about the upcoming portion of the schedule. With so many days off between each game heading into conference play, UK's coaches have more time to implement some of his findings and the players have more time to soak it in.

"These dudes, they want to get better, and they want to get better now," he said. "They want to get better yesterday."

Justus suggested checking back at the end of the season to see how successful UK's venture into analytics was in year one.

In the meantime, he'll continue to study the court, crunch the numbers and try to find new ways to improve a team that is already considered the best in the game.

"This is going to be something that if you talk to me a year from now, it's going to be pretty cool," he said. "Right now, I think it's more about saying this is what we're doing and figuring it out."

Simply saying they're doing it goes far beyond what other programs are attempting.

And, while they figure out how to help the current Cats, it's yet another vehicle for Calipari to push his "players-first" message on the next wave of talent.

"They're ahead of the curve," Smith said. "The combine, the analytics — they're running it almost like an NBA franchise. When you have that many pros, you have to service them. You have to take care of them, because they're in there for such a short stay.

"I don't think it's a gimmick. It is in the game right now. If you're behind in doing that, you're behind the race in servicing your pros."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments