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Ask the Cougar

Outside the Box

Ryan Parker

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When it comes to Ryan Parker ’10, the storyline is familiar. Kid loves basketball, kid dreams of going pro, kid skips college and has hopes of putting up big stats for a championship NBA team. But there’s a twist: In Parker’s dreams, which are still playing out, he’ll never set foot on the court.

Parker is a statistician, and he analyzes the most minute details of professional basketball players’ performances to try to discern competitive advantages. Forget the number of steals, rebounds, blocks and even points a player obtains each game. Much of that, he says, can be misleading. Parker is interested in the invisible, the intangible, what eludes even the most devoted basketball fans. Parker wants to know things only numbers can tell him. Parker wants to find out, for example, which combination of players produces the highest-scoring offense.

He wants to know exactly where on court the opposing team’s best shooter is weakest.

Parker is part of a movement in professional sports that urges the re-evaluation of traditional statistics, with analysts going beyond box scores to determine a player’s worth. For instance, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball detailed how the management of the Oakland Athletics baseball team utilized more obscure baseball statistics to field a top team of players despite paying relatively modest salaries.

After graduating from high school in Hanahan, S.C., Parker wrote software for seven years. Always a basketball fan, he became more interested in the statistical side of the game after reading Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, which debunks much of basketball’s conventional wisdom on performance and statistics. He enrolled at the College to study statistics and ultimately hopes to land a job consulting for one of the NBA’s 30 teams. Such a career won’t be easy to obtain, though. Basketball teams are secretive about how many statisticians they have on their payrolls, unwilling to disclose their strategies and how much of a value they place on their analyses. With that in mind, Parker has been trying to raise his profile as a statistician while still pursuing his degree.

In November, Parker presented some of his basketball research at the three-day Cha-Cha Days applied mathematics conference at the University of Central Florida. His research, which can be seen at www.basketballgeek.com, predicted how many points the Orlando Magic will score on each possession based on the coach’s decision to play or substitute star player Dwight Howard. More recently, Parker has explored how the age of basketball players correlates to their chances of making a three-point shot.

All this research, says Parker, begins with a single question: “How do we always maximize our team’s chances of winning?”

Before jumping to the NBA, Parker plans to obtain a Ph.D. in statistics.

Given his passion for basketball statistics, he can rest easy that he’ll never be without research topics during his continued schooling.

“For me,” he says, “this is a lot of fun.”