Raleigh math guru Cannon is Butler basketball’s secret weapon

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2013 

Last spring, Dave Telep received a call from his friend Brad Stevens, the Butler basketball coach. Telep, the ESPN senior college basketball recruiting analyst, remembers the conversation well.

“Don’t be mad at me, man,” Stevens said, according to Telep. “But I want to take your intern.”

And that’s how Drew Cannon, who’d never coached basketball or played beyond his middle school church league, became a part of Stevens’ staff at Butler. Cannon, 22, graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High in Raleigh in 2008. He went to Duke, where he majored in statistics and graduated in May 2012.

And Thursday, when Butler plays against Bucknell in the NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky., Cannon will be a key part of the madness, a Butler graduate manager whose skill with numbers, and analytics, rewarded him with a coveted position on the staff of a major college basketball program.

“You hear people talk about living the dream,” Jim Cannon, Drew’s father, said Wednesday before beginning the drive to Lexington. “And he is totally living the dream.”

Drew Cannon’s journey to Butler began long ago. It began, in general terms, with his fascination with numbers and statistics, and his skill for applying them. More specifically, the journey began in 2004 with a casual lunch his father shared with some friends. Telep was there.

Telep, who lives in Wake Forest, had recently read the book “Moneyball,” in which Michael Lewis chronicled the Oakland A’s use of statistical analysis in scouting. The conversation at lunch turned to basketball. “Moneyball” was fresh in Telep’s mind.

“My mind (was) wide open about how we can apply this to basketball,” he said.

After lunch, Drew’s father pulled Telep aside.

“And he says, this is a little crazy, but my son is huge into statistics,” Telep said. “He’s got these unique ways of looking at the ACC. At the time, Drew was ranking the ACC players based on this formula that he had made.”

Telep met with Drew Cannon, then a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons. Telep’s first impression: “He has a mind for this that I’ve never seen before.”

A new use for numbers

For the next eight years, Cannon was Telep’s intern. Filing papers and fetching coffee weren’t a part of the job. Analyzing the game in new ways, discovering trends, using statistics to better understand whether a high school player would excel in college – those were.

One summer, Cannon analyzed geographical recruiting trends. A line from that report reads: “We tried to determine which areas are being over-recruited and which are being under-recruited by running a multiple regression.”

In another study, Cannon helped Telep analyze the success rate of top-100 recruits over a span of five years. Some of the findings:

“The four schools who signed the most top-10 players won national titles … elite programs generally convert 70 percent of top 100 (prospects) into productive players … elite players with academic risks were worth signing … failure rate for African-born top-100 players was nearly 80 percent.”

In another study, Cannon examined what makes a good mid-major player. The New York Times called Cannon for an interview, and a story about his research ran on the front page of the sports section.

“For eight years this guy was my secret weapon, because of the studies he was able to do,” Telep said. “I had one year – we studied the characteristics of a late bloomer. I was so disappointed in myself with (misevaluating Stephen) Curry, that we just broke it down – what makes a late bloomer …

“And I now have a profile of late-bloomers that I’ll use for the rest of my life.”

A shared vision

During the summers, the height of college basketball recruiting season, Cannon traveled with Telep to all-star camps and tournaments. Telep introduced Cannon to Stevens.

Stevens, in his sixth season as Butler’s head coach, believes in advanced analytics. Some coaches don’t. UNC coach Roy Williams said he doesn’t pay attention to many advanced metrics – effective field goal percentage, rebounding percentage, individual plus-minus ratings, to name a few.

Duke doesn’t use advanced stats either, a team spokesman said. Neither does N.C. State.

Stevens believes in numbers, and in the importance of understanding them and using them to his advantage.

“It’s just the way I’m wired,” he said. “Every coach is trying to figure out how to give their team the best opportunity to win, and part of that is assessing what the other team does well, and part of the way you can do that is through the use of statistics and numbers.”

During his senior year at Duke, Cannon was writing for Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider, and thinking about his future. On graduation day, Cannon and his classmates presented their senior projects in statistics. Topics included advanced economic models, monetary policy and health care management.

Cannon’s was about high school basketball recruiting. His parents remember wondering what others had to be thinking.

“Who are the slipshod parents who led him down this path?” Jim Cannon said with a laugh.

After graduation, Cannon was leaning toward writing. Stevens called Telep and said he wanted to hire Cannon.

“I thought Drew’s stuff was right up my alley with the way that I think about things,” Stevens said.

One-man stats machine

Cannon spent last summer breaking down every Atlantic 10 team, the conference that Butler joined this season. During practices, Cannon keeps statistics on shot selection, among other things, and produces a daily report for coaches. During games he analyzes, among other things, the success of different player combinations.

“I do a lot of lineup analysis,” Cannon said. “How the team performs with different subsets of players. Like who prevents transition, who gets out in transition.”

The use of advanced stats is a way of life in the NBA. In the college game, though, it’s still catching on.

“There’s more to do,” Cannon said. “The NBA is far, far ahead of college. Most of what we’re doing in college is just moving toward that.”

In the NBA, some teams have installed high-tech camera systems that allow each play to be charted and measured. Some teams have their own statistics department.

For years, Stevens wanted his own statistics department. Now he does, in a sense.

“I go to these NBA places, and they’ve got four or five people just doing analytics all the time,” Stevens said. “And (with Cannon) it’s like having your own guy that can just break it down at a big-time, in-depth level. And he’s given me different things to think about. After every practice, I’ve got a very detailed printout of what the practice looked like from a statistical point of view.”

A rare talent

Telep, meanwhile, is retiring his intern position. He’s not hopeful that he will find another Cannon. But he appreciates where Cannon landed, because, Telep said, “Not everybody has an open enough mind to think that you can be assisted in these areas.”

“In order for Drew to work for somebody, they have to value what he brings,” Telep said. “And there are maybe three or four guys I’ve seen in college basketball that truly value what Drew would have.”

A statistical revolution changed Major League Baseball, and it’s starting to change the NBA, too. In those leagues, there are already places for people like Cannon. In college basketball, though, he’s a rarity. Opportunities are few.

“I know there’s a place on one (staff),” Stevens said. “And to be candid, I’m OK if the other 346 (teams) don’t do it.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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