How to make your mark in professional basketball at 5′ 9″

Growing up in India, Vasu Kulkarni was the self-proclaimed “biggest basketball fan in the world.” He watched a lot and he played a lot. He dreamed, like so many kids around the world, of playing professional basketball.
When he headed off to college at the University of Pennsylvania, Kulkarni tried out for the team. He was 5-feet, 9-inches and weighed 130 pounds. He didn’t make it.
But Kulkarni would find another path to basketball success. He never got to don a Dallas Mavericks or Houston Rockets hat on draft day, but he did get a shot to hobnob — and impress — Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Kulkarni technically studied computer engineering and entrepreneurship but, he joked when I asked the question, “I like to say basketball.” Even though it doesn’t appear on his transcripts, there’s no denying he did his hardcourt homework.

No budget, no problem

Although he didn’t make the varsity basketball team, Kulkarni did play junior varisty ball at Penn — and in doing so spotted a golden opportunity. Penn is the ninth-winningest college basketball program of all time, but it’s no longer a powerhouse and, Kulkarni noted, Ivy League schools simply do not fund athletic programs like some other Division I universities do.¬†There wasn’t a whole video department dedicated solely to processing and analyzing game film. Kulkarni watched the head coach prep for games largely by himself, poring over film to find a few shining examples of good or bad plays that could serve as teaching points.
And then a lightbulb went off for Kulkarni: There must be a whole lot of small colleges and high schools suffering from the same problem. So, in 2008, he launched Krossover.
The company’s flagship service is pretty self-explanatory. Coaches upload their game film after each game. Krossover’s team of hundreds of college students gets to work breaking it down. When the coach wakes up, the last night’s game is online and he can examine just about anything he wants — statistics, individuals plays, where on the field or court most of the action took place. It quite literally analyzes everything that’s quantifiable, and in some cases visualizable, by studying game film. (You can experiment with it yourself here.)

Krossover's shot chart.

Krossover’s shot chart.

That’s really cool if you’re a high-school or lower-level college coach — and Kulkarni said more than 1,000 of them currently use Krossover — but it’s probably not going to impress too many professional or big-time college coaches. It’s certainly not going to impress the sports-stats superstars that flock to the MIT conference every year. To reach this audience, Krossover needed something new.

Are you smarter than Kevin Durant? (Hint: No)

Hence the startup’s latest idea, an iOS (s aapl) app for testing people’s on-the-court sports knowledge, called sIQ (or sports IQ). Kulkarni said the inspiration for sIQ came while watching Krossover board member and then-head of analytics for the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA franchise Ben Alamar talk about the differences in brain activity between weekend warriors and professional athletes. The biggest is that while wannabe pros make conscious decisions about what to do next, professional athletes just react — they see and they do without hesitation.

Can Kevin Durant do this? Source: Krossover

Can Kevin Durant do this? Source: Krossover

When you’re measuring someone’s sports IQ, the faster and more-accurately they react, the smarter — in theory — they are. Kulkarni’s first question to Alamar upon hearing this: “Can I take this test and if I do better than Kevin Durant can I get a 10-day contract?”
Funny, yes, but also telling about the mentality of guys who watch a lot of sports — and, like Kulkarni, might still play a lot — and hold out hope in the back of their minds they’re in some way on par with professional athletes. Kulkarni had a hunch the app would go over well at the MIT Sloan event, which is full of, as he described them (and, by proxy, himself and me) “a bunch of sports nerds who probably can’t play worth a damn but know everything about sports.” They could settle a lot of bets over who’s a smarter athlete by watching plays unfold on an iPhone, then when video pauses, predicting the outcome.
So, he told one his developers to take two weeks earlier this year and get something ready for the conference, which took place the first week of March. While there, the Krossover team met Daryl Morey, a former Wall Street quant turned Houston Rockets general manager — an extreme version of Moneyball inspiration Billy Beane in that Morey has no basketball experience and relies almost solely on numbers to make his decisions. He loved the app and quickly dragged over Dallas Mavericks owner (and entrepreneur and investor and blogger) Mark Cuban to play with it. At NBA All-Star Weekend in February, ESPN basketball columnist Bill Simmons played sIQ. Poorly.
By contrast, when Kulkarni gave sIQ to a 15-year-old basketball phenom at the gym where they both play, the kid got the highest scores Kulkarni had ever seen. And not only did he answer correctly, his average response time was about 1 second — about 4 times faster than the guys at Sloan were able to respond.
The fact that it works, as evidenced by the teenage natural’s performance, has some NBA and NFL executives already spotting an opportunity in sIQ. Professional teams — including Alamar’s new employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers — are testing it out as a method to gauge college players’ sports IQs as part of the draft preparation and to train players to react better by using with the app as a way to predict what will happen next in any given situation.
Maybe, Kulkarni suggested, sIQ could become part of the highly publicized NFL Combine and replace the controversial Wonderlick test for gauging draft prospects’ intelligence. It should almost certainly provide a more-compelling platform for high-school coaches trying to get their athletes to study game film.
The positive feedback has Krossover building sIQ as a platform rather than as a just an app. Yes, sports fans will be able to download it and test their IQs, but the company also hopes to build versions specifically for applications like testing and training real athletes. It will start off in basketball, but sports like football, volleyball, soccer, wrestling, boxing and maybe even mixed martial arts are on the horizon.

Taking analytics from the front office to the field

And whether or not sIQ turns out to be the game-changer Krossover hopes it will be, the company seems to be on the right path. Sports analytics is becoming a huge business, but primarily in the front office where executives are trying to figure out who they want on their teams and how much they’re willing to pay. Handicapping the annual NCAA March Madness basketball tournament is a popular pastime, too. (As evidence of how hot the space is right now, Kulkarni said Krossover has raised $4.5 million primarily through angel investors — including some professional athletes — who want to get in on what they see as a sexy business.)

Statwing breaks down the NFL.

Statwing breaks down the NFL.

However, as I noted when profiling Statwing recently (its full-time-statistician and part-time-sports-geek founders recently uploaded a trove of NFL data for people to play around with), the analytic mindset has yet to trickle down to the coach’s office in most situations and affect decisions such as what type of play to call in what situations. Aside from golf, perhaps, it certainly hasn’t made its way onto the field of play to actually improve players’ performance.
And that was Kulkarni’s major takeaway from the MIT Sloan conference this year: while teams and companies like his are collecting “an obscene amount” of data on every single aspect of nearly every single sport, they’re struggling to find ways to make sense of it.
“The thing everyone’s trying to figure out is: Is there a way for you to find the two or three or four things that will guarantee you a win or at least tip the scale in your favor at any given time,” he said.¬† “I don’t think anyone has cracked the code.”