Bucks using “facial coding expert” to help judge mental make up of draft picks, players

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We’re big fans of on-the-court analytics here at PBT — from the moment Dean Oliver wrote “Basketball on Paper” through today there has been a statistical revolution that has swept through the NBA. It provides a window into the game and helped efficiency become valued over volume (among many other steps). The best coaches and GMs blend numbers — for an easy example, which lineups work and which ones don’t — with the eye test based on years of watching and analyzing players and games, to come to their conclusions on everything from in-game minutes to draft picks.

But the dated, missing-the-point comeback of the non-analytics crowd — “numbers can’t measure heart” — has some truth to it. Analytics won’t tell you how a personality fits in a locker room, or which guy has the drive to put in the minutes off the court to improve his game.

The Milwaukee Bucks are trying to change that.

They have brought in a “facial coding expert” and his analysis was part of the reason the Bucks drafted Jabari Parker No. 2 last draft over the tempting Dante Exum. It’s all detailed in a fascinating piece in the New York Times.

So in May, the team hired Dan Hill, a facial coding expert who reads the faces of college prospects and N.B.A. players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks.

The approach may sound like palm reading to some, but the Bucks were so impressed with Hill’s work before the 2014 draft that they retained him to analyze their players and team chemistry throughout this season…

Hill measures the players on the seven emotions and categorizes smiles, for example, four ways: true, robust, weak and micro. Consider Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. According to Hill, Westbrook shows a high number of weak smiles or “satisfaction,” and enough “true” smiles, which equate to “joy” and contribute to what has been a highly effective season — averages of 28.6 points and 7.4 assists per game.

Before you mock Hill and this idea completely, you should know the NFL and major corporations have used this for years (much of Hill’s work is on focus groups for companies putting out a new product).

Does it work? My psychology minor in college does not exactly qualify me as an expert. I have no idea. Maybe it’s the NBA version of former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt paying a Russian psychic big money to channel “V Energy” to help the team. The Times interviews people who are skeptical and the issue for them is a legitimate one — there is a lot of noise in the results. Coaches read body language/facial expressions too and that can change how a player is used or developed, and that’s just one example.

I do know most teams thought Parker should go in the top two spots in the last draft and was considered the most NBA-ready player of the high picks in the last draft no matter what his face was saying. His play before the knee injury proved that scoring 12.3 points and grabbing 5.5 rebounds a game, while running away with the Rookie of the Year crown. (That race is now wide open.)

In the ultra-competitive NBA arena teams are going to look for any edge. Maybe this is an edge. The hardest thing to read about any 19 or 20 year old is their mental makeup and how driven they really are — they all have been coached to say the right things, but what are their real intentions? Especially since once they get to the NBA they are going to have a different level of money and attention then they are used to, can they be professional and work through that?

Maybe Hill and his face reading metrics can help with that.

You can bet on this much: After this article the Bucks are not going to be the only team calling him before the next draft.