Jason W. Rosenfeld is the Director of Basketball Analytics for the Charlotte Bobcats. He leads the team’s considerable analytic and technology efforts and works to enhance decision making around the draft, free agency, trades, and game strategy.
Prior to joining the Bobcats, Jason was the Assistant GM, basketball operations, for the Shanghai Sharks; a basketball operations intern for the Houston Rockets; a student manager at Harvard; a consultant for the Ukrainian national team; and a basketball operations assistant for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in Beijing.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in statistics, a minor in East Asian Studies, and a foreign language citation in Mandarin Chinese from Harvard College, where he was Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC). Jason reads, writes, and speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.
GSABR: When did you know you wanted to work in sports and in basketball specifically? What were some of the first opportunities you got and how did you make the most of them?
JR: Before I went to Harvard I took a gap year and was working in investment management in New York City. During that time, I was intrigued by the possibility of breaking into the sports world, reached out to Daryl Morey (this was the first year of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference) and linked up with the Rockets. I began doing remote internship work for them, which ended up lasting through my undergraduate years, and knew quite quickly that this was something I was serious about.
I’m very detail-oriented by nature, and I think that, coupled with my hunger to learn a lot and make an impact, helped me stick.
GSABR: As a Harvard statistics major, what were some of the most helpful classes you took for working in basketball analytics? What education and skills should students have to break into the field today and in the next few years?
JR: I think the most important thing I learned was how to think like a statistician. It’s of course important to be able to know how to run a regression, or what model to use when, but I think the biggest asset one can gain from studying statistics is the ability to see the world in terms of probabilities and to be able to better understand and assess risk.
At the end of the day, many decisions we make, both inside and outside of sports, come down to being able to understand risk and probability; the more limited one’s understanding is, the more suboptimal choices one will make.
To break into the field, I think the ability to think in terms of statistics and probability is important, along with the technical skills (programming and statistical analysis).
GSABR: You took a gap year to live and work (for a basketball team) in China. What were the biggest adjustments you had to make and how has that experience helped you reach where you are today?
JR: I was already conversational in Mandarin before I arrived but I still had a lot to learn, especially basketball terminology, before I could become comfortable and fluent. Fortunately, because I was so engrossed in the job and because I was using the language so frequently, this was a pretty painless process. And it was so rewarding to get significantly better at a language that just twenty two months earlier I didn’t know a single word in.
I also had to learn a lot about the Chinese Basketball Association: how it worked, the rules, and the players. Again though, because I enjoyed it so much, a lot of the learning happened pretty naturally and smoothly, even if it was a process.
The experience was excellent for a variety of reasons: I enjoyed it very much, my Mandarin improved tremendously, I learned a lot about Chinese basketball and international basketball in general, I learned a lot about what it means to be around coaches and a team and to work with a basketball team, I gained hiring and management experience, I made some great friends, and I gained a newfound appreciation for the game.
GSABR: Without going into the details, what do people working in basketball operations and analytics do? How do people recognize good analytical work?
JR: What basketball analytics people do specifically probably varies by team, but I think the main function is to help improve basketball decision making by providing more information and another viewpoint to complement the rest of the staff.
As for recognizing good work, it depends on the audience, and the onus is on the analyst to perform and ensure the work is correctly understood by everyone in the basketball decision making process.
GSABR: What would you recommend for students interested in basketball analytics? How should they set themselves up for being successful in the field?
JR: I think a strong technical background is important, especially in programming and statistical analysis. Being able to keep the big picture in mind is crucial, too. And, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s extremely important to be able to approach decisions from a probabilistic standpoint. It is important to understand probabilistic questions such as, “What are the risks involved?” “What is the expected outcome?” “What are the probabilities associated with each choice?” Thinking like a statistician and embracing making decisions with imperfect information, under uncertainty, is not easy or natural, but I think it is a tremendously powerful and useful skill—in life, and especially in sports.
Image courtesy of gocrimson.com
Special thanks to Jason Rosenfeld for his time and insight.
Interview by Nik Oza.