Any doubts James Fox had about his eventual career path were put to rest last July.
The UW-Whitewater junior spent a week in Las Vegas rubbing elbows with NBA executives, coaches and analysts.
He learned the ins and outs of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with computer scientist Larry Coon. He spent several days in classes with Mike D’Antoni, Steve Kerr, Nate Duncan and Zach Lowe, among other well-known basketball figures, and gained a valuable glimpse into the world of NBA analytics, scouting and broadcasting.
Plus, he played a game of ping-pong against Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho.
“We were able to connect with some pretty big names,” Fox said. “That was eye-opening.”
The 2015 Edgerton High graduate has been playing basketball most of his life. Before high school, he remembers biking to his grandparents’ farm to put up shots on the hoops inside their barn.
Fox scored 715 points during a three-year varsity career for the Crimson Tide. He averaged 11.1 points per game in 2013-14 to help Edgerton win the Rock Valley North Conference championship. He played a season of college ball at Augustana (Ill.) before transferring to Whitewater.
After attending the Sports Business Classroom event in Las Vegas, he approached Whitewater men’s coach Pat Miller about contributing to the team. At first, Fox helped break down film. His role expanded to include scouting and stat tracking.
Miller describes Fox as a “basketball junkie.”
“He’s a very smart kid and he’s very serious about basketball,” Miller said. “He loves all the analytics. Everything is numbers.”
The numbers are becoming a larger part of the game. Nowadays, the usage of heat maps, efficiency ratings and APBRmetrics—basketball’s version of sabermetrics—is commonplace at the NBA level. Colleges and high schools are catching on, too. Fox is particularly fond of rebound analyses, such as rebounding percentage, and ball-movement stats.
Fox began the season as a student assistant coach, but he’s worked his way into the playing rotation after recovering from a leg injury. He made his season debut Jan. 13 during Whitewater’s WIAC game against UW-Stout.
On the court, Fox plays with the mind of an analyst or general manager. He's especially valuable on Whitewater's scout team.
“I see the game in a different way than I used to when I was in high school,” Fox said. “It helps to know where certain guys are going to be on the floor and who to get the ball to.
“(I’m) just really thinking my way through the game instead of just playing.”
Miller said it’s like having another coach on the floor during practices.
“If I see something one possession I’ll try to key on it next possession,” Fox said. “Knowing who’s best in their specific areas. Knowing where to draw guys in. Trying to know the spatial aspect and knowing the next read before it happens.”
Numbers can’t tell the entire story, though. Players still need to play and coaches still need to coach. Miller, a Janesville native, draws upon a wealth of experience in his 17th season as Whitewater’s head coach.
“You can have all the analytical data in the world, but a game can go in a completely different direction,” Miller said. “Numbers can only help you so much.”
Still, Miller hasn’t been afraid of adopting new technology if it can give his team an advantage. The impact of analytics is only going to grow.
“It used to be VHS tapes and then we went to digital editing systems,” Miller said. “Information is a lot more accessible now.”
Fox, a general management major, plans on graduating fall 2019 and hopes to work in an NBA front office someday.
He said one of the highlights of his week in Vegas was listening to Ben Alamar, ESPN’s current director of analytics, tell the story of how the Seattle SuperSonics settled on drafting Russell Westbrook in 2008. Alamar, hired by the team as a consultant, argued that data showed Westbrook, a college shooting guard, had the passing ability to make the switch to the point. The SuperSonics ultimately agreed and took Westbrook at No. 4 overall, much higher than other teams had the future superstar graded.
When teams are combing through prospects in the months leading up to a future draft, maybe 2030, maybe sooner, it could be Fox that finds the next diamond in the rough.
Bryan Wegter is a sports copy editor at The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com