Though USC Viterbi School of Engineering assistant research professors Yu-Han Chang and Rajiv Maheswaran won’t be seen scoring slam dunks on national television, their experience in computer science could make them more knowledgeable about basketball than players in the National Basketball Association.
Starting this season, NBA teams will have access to mountains of analytical data thanks to motion-tracking cameras developed by STATS LLC. Chang and Maheswaran have developed a software program that will help teams make sense of these numbers.
“The data from the NBA will give teams the numbers,” Maheswaran said. “But we can turn the numbers into insight and helpful information that non-experts and non-technical people can understand.”
The software system, called Eagle, will give teams information about where rebounds are most likely to fall, how to best defend pick-and-rolls, how to create the most efficient lineups and more. Chang and Maheswaran have licensed Eagle to the Los Angeles Clippers and three other NBA teams through their startup company, Second Spectrum.
Chang and Maheswaran each have more than a decade’s worth of experience working in pattern recognition and motion data technology. The duo’s previous experience includes projects for the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.
“I like to say it was great to transition from tracking military targets to tracking our favorite players on the court,” Chang said.
The developments for Eagle began in the Viterbi Startup Garage, a resource for Viterbi students to learn how to turn their research into successful business ventures. The team’s first work won the Best Research Paper Award at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
“The conference gave us a lot of publicity and we realized there was a clear need in the marketplace for someone to turn these numbers into something insightful and understandable. We wanted to create a product to address that,” Chang said.
Major League Baseball has been using similar motion-tracking data for roughly a decade, but only recently has technology allowed for this information to be used for faster-paced sports such as basketball. Chang, Maheswaran and their students have become pioneers in utilizing this information for basketball.
“We’re hoping this is going to be a Moneyball moment,” said Tal Levy, a junior majoring in computer engineering and computer science. “This will be a time when teams can make more informed decisions instead of solely rely on preconceived ideas, and I’m excited to see where it will go.” Levy became involved with the Second Spectrum team when Eagle was still in the research stages last fall.
Currently, only professional teams have access to the STATS data that the Eagle system utilizes. Maheswaran anticipates, however, that motion-tracking data will become common at the college level soon. Second Spectrum would welcome the opportunity to bring Eagle to the collegiate level and especially to USC, said Chang.
“We would certainly be interested in helping our home team out when that chance comes around,” he said.
Chass Bryan, a sophomore guard on the USC men’s basketball team, recognized some potential benefits of utilizing Eagle at USC, but was conflicted about how much of an impact it could make.
“A lot of basketball is numerical values, seeing who is most efficient and where strengths and weaknesses are, so in that respect the software would be useful,” he said. “But when you’re on the court you’re not thinking mathematically, and at a point you have to let the talent speak for itself.”
Despite any doubt from athletes, Apratim Ghosh, an MBA student at Marshall, has been working at Second Spectrum for two months and is optimistic about the success of Second Spectrum in any field.
“This data gives you the ability to bring out efficiencies in sports but also in any business,” he said. “It’s very exciting when you can apply quantitative methods to do that.”
Maheswaran said the analytical data Eagle provides can be transformative in how professional basketball operates. Though the software is currently only in use for basketball, Maheswaran said Second Spectrum will consider researching the use of Eagle in other sports such as soccer or football.
“We’re at the cutting edge of research and industry capabilities,” he said. “We can transform how everyone interacts with sports for the future.”
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