Sports

The Rise of HerHoopStats

Women’s basketball is just now getting advanced statistics. They’re already changing the game.

Gonzaga forward Jill Barta, bottom, battles for a loose ball against Stanford guard Brittany McPhee.
Gonzaga forward Jill Barta, bottom, battles for a loose ball against Stanford guard Brittany McPhee.
Tony Avelar/AP

As soon as the bracket for the women’s NCAA Tournament was announced last Monday, Stanford associate coach Kate Paye started worrying about the Cardinal’s first-round opponent. No. 13 seed Gonzaga had beaten Stanford last season, and the Bulldogs still had Jill Barta, a 6-foot-3 forward who scored 26 points in that November 2016 upset. In scouting Gonzaga, Paye discovered that when Barta is left unguarded, her effective field goal percentage—which weighs the importance of 3-point field goals—is nearly 100 percent. “She is Gonzaga’s best player, and we had to figure out a way to stop her,” Paye told me.

In recent years, the Stanford coaching staff, led by head coach Tara VanDerveer, had relied on an unofficial consultant to compile scouting reports that blended traditional statistics with advanced analytics. The majority of the stats included in those reports were culled from Synergy Sports, but the video-tagging repository was an imperfect tool. The coaches felt the detail Synergy provided was often too granular and didn’t include certain statistics they found useful, like individual players’ assist rates.

Midway through the season, Paye found the solution she’d been looking for. HerHoopStats, founded in late 2017, offers an analytical breakdown of each of the 349 teams in Division I and compiles standard and advanced stats for every individual player. On Paye’s advice, Stanford’s consultant began to pepper the team’s scouting reports with HerHoopStats data. It was that data, Paye says, that showed that while Barta was an offensive maestro, attempting nearly one-third of Gonzaga’s shots while posting a true shooting percentage that ranked just outside the nation’s top 100, her assist rate was extremely low. During Stanford’s 82–68 win on Saturday night, Barta scored 21 points but had to deal with a swarming array of double- and triple-teams as the Cardinal forced her to distribute rather than look for her own shot.

“Once we are able to put more data to the problem, it helps make the issue easier to grasp,” says Paye, whose Stanford team beat Florida Gulf Coast on Monday to make the Sweet 16. “When we can deliver it all to our players, it motivates their behavior.”

In just three months, HerHoopStats has become a beacon in what had previously been a statistical desert. “HerHoopStats is a tipping point,” says Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. “It represents a movement towards greater interest in women’s sports. When you have the sort of knowledge that analytics provides, the level of conversation intensifies.”

It’s been 16 years since Roland Beech debuted 82games.com, which launched the NBA’s grass-roots statistical revolution, and more than a decade since a Utah-based meteorologist named Ken Pomeroy published his eponymous college basketball site, kenpom.com. And yet, with the exception of WBB State—which went offline days before the 2016 NCAA Tournament—HerHoopStats is the first of its kind.

The site, which costs $20 per year for subscribers, is the brainchild of Aaron Barzilai, who spent seven years working in various NBA front offices, including a stint as the former director of analytics for the Philadelphia 76ers. Before launching HerHoopStats, the 45-year-old listened more than he talked, consulting upward of 50 people within and around the women’s game before going live in December. “This seemed like an important thing to work on, as both a business idea and a public service,” he told me. “Rather than create the 2000th NBA website, why not be a leader and build the very first database for women’s basketball?”

Even the WNBA is behind the curve. The Lynx are the league’s only franchise with an in-house statistician, and this past season was the first in which the WNBA began to track and list advanced statistics on its website. Nicki Collen, the recently named head coach of the Atlanta Dream, says, “In a lot of areas, we’re still playing catch-up. When I was hired, I prioritized buying the computer hardware and putting software in place to immediately lay the groundwork because I believe having that analytical breakdown is so important to finding an edge.” She adds, “I hope [HerHoopStats] takes off, because our game could use it.”

Because women’s college basketball is better funded than the pro game—says Collen, “Our staff is two-thirds the size of a college staff, so you wear a lot of hats in the WNBA”—it’s likely that the most immediate analytical progress will be made at the amateur level. During its 2017 title run, South Carolina relied heavily on input from its director of offensive analytics, Melanie Balcomb. “[Coach] Dawn [Staley] understood if creating this position worked for us, it’d work for the rest of women’s college basketball,” says Balcomb.

But South Carolina remains an exception in having a statistical analyst on staff. Some college teams, like Stanford, have unofficial statistical consultants, but even those are few and far between. According to ESPN announcer Debbie Antonelli, emphasizing statistical literacy within the women’s college game will both improve the level of play and help develop smarter players. “You can watch film all you want, but until you see the raw data, and understand teams are forcing you right or left based on your shooting percentages, you’re not going to improve,” she says.

Saint Mary’s coach Paul Thomas signed up for HerHoopStats because his team couldn’t stop turning the ball over. When Thomas would point out the Gaels’ ballhandling woes during film study, he says, his players would scoff. The coaching staff had tried to iron out the sloppiness in practice. Thomas even devised a penalty box—what he called “a correction point”—where players would go upon committing a turnover, completing a set of burpees or a ballhandling drill before returning to action.

When Thomas turned to HerHoopStats, he was blown away by his team’s statistical CV. “We were turning the ball over on 25 percent, 30 percent of our possessions,” he says. Thomas promptly unveiled HerHoopStats to his squad at their next film study. It worked: By using it “as a data point to back up what we’re seeing on video, and the team finally understood my concerns.” Although the Gaels lost in the first round of the NIT, he hopes a full season of using HerHoopStats will help improve his squad’s fortunes.

“Teams are missing out on plenty of easy wins by not making a simple tweak to their gameplans,” Barzilai says. “It’s not revolutionary, but it’s something that just didn’t exist before.”

Why has it taken so long to establish a site like HerHoopStats? ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, who has consulted on occasion for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, says “the Venn diagram of people with the technical ability to put together a site like this overlapping with an interest in women’s hoops is small.” There’s also the fact that both men and women who possess the requisite knowledge tend to aspire to work for an NBA franchise. Collen mentions former WNBA star Becky Hammon, who’s now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. Hammon “had a chance to be a head coach in the college game [at Colorado State, her alma mater],” she says, but “If you have a chance to break that glass ceiling, you have to do it the highest level.” (Hammon ultimately withdrew from consideration for the Colorado State opening.)

HerHoopStats is not a statistical panacea. The data, which is displayed horizontally across the page, can be clunky to read, and the numbers for teams and their upcoming opponents aren’t presented side by side to offer a more complete breakdown. And yet, it is unequivocally the best option in a sport that the analytics revolution long bypassed. “The quality of data is better than anything we’ve had access to before,” says Paye. Hopefully it’ll keep on getting better.