NBA teams hire three actuarial science grads

Author: Linda Spice '89

Published Date: 2/14/2019

Categories: Actuarial Science Alumni F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2019 Mathematics Students

Actuarial Science Grads Making Impact in NBA

Numbers Game 

data visualization of NBA analysis

It was the spring of his senior year at Carroll inside of Lowry Room 103 when Mason Yahr ’16 listened to a presentation titled “Mathematics of Geolocation Using Nonstandard Signals.” Dr. John Symms, associate professor of mathematics, hosted a former student, now Dr. Justin Jacobs ’03, as a guest lecturer at this senior capstone class. On the noon hour, Jacobs began to share the intricacies of his work, encouraging the students before him with the future life possibilities that lie ahead for those with an affinity for numbers and data.

Neither could have known on that day in 2016 that within two years they would be connecting again—along with a third Carroll alumnus, Aaron Blackshear ’03—as professional peers through the National Basketball Association. With their numbers knowledge rooted in math and actuarial science classes at Carroll, each followed separate career paths to the same end in analyzing data for professional NBA teams. 

@carrollu is the official analytics feeder school of the NBA,” Yahr tweeted as @yahr-daddy in December 2017 when Jacobs took a job with the Orlando Magic as a senior basketball researcher. Yahr is a sports science data analyst with the Milwaukee Bucks and Blackshear works as an analytics system coordinator for the Detroit Pistons.

From that moment in the classroom, it would be only six months before Yahr would be using his actuarial sciences degree to secure a full-time position with the Milwaukee Bucks. In his role with the Bucks, Yahr focuses on “risk mitigation,” he said, quantifying the physical expenditures of the athletes and working to lower potential injuries to athletes.

And, outside of his work day, just like Jacobs did for him, Yahr has made time to come back to campus to talk with students about the field and to share advice. In the true spirit of Carroll’s mission of service, he said, “You’ll never become fulfilled until you prioritize someone before yourself, not until you help someone to achieve their dreams or establish a legacy. That’s when it becomes fulfilling.”

When Jacobs came to speak to Yahr’s class, he was a research statistician in the data science and cyber analytics division at Sandia National Laboratories in California. He had come to campus to receive the 2016 Distinguished Alumnus Award for Professional Achievement from the university, adding to accolades in his accomplishments that included a 2014 Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE).

Jacobs left the Orlando Magic in September 2018 and returned full time to Sandia National Labs, with the ability to work part-time remotely for a basketball team on coaching strategy and player performance.

Blackshear Aaron Blackshear '03

Jacobs Justin Jacobs '03

Yahr Mason Yahr '16

In a league that is big on connections, who you know often helps fill positions with graduates from the same schools, such as MIT, Stanford and Columbia. And then there is Carroll, where these three alumni all found their way as individuals among hundreds of applicants to claim positions with the NBA, shredding the “who you know” trend and entering the league with persistence and their analytical know-how instead. 

“What made our situation unique is we weren’t hired through the same thread. Each of the ways we were hired were so vastly different,” Jacobs said. “It bucks the trend of how the league works. The league works on relationships and networking opportunities.”

Jacobs and Blackshear took classes together as undergrads at Carroll and later re-connected through a mutual friend via Twitter posts, when Jacobs, @squared2020, realized that @aaronblackshear, AKA “NBA data nerd,” was in fact his former classmate. 

Looking back, Blackshear credits a partnership between Carroll and Assurant Health with helping to launch his career as an actuary. He called himself a guinea pig for an internship program between the two organizations that has become a successful pipeline of Carroll actuarial science students going to work at Assurant. He worked for Assurant for more than nine years and with two additional firms for nearly six more years before joining the Detroit Pistons in 2016. After his time as an insurance actuary, he said life in the NBA is “quite different.”

He analyzes his team’s data to assist the front office and coaches in areas that include identification of strong players, potential draft picks and strategic moves inside the game.  

“There are times when it’s more of a 9-to-5 job, but very much you’re basically almost 24-7. Things can pop up at any time. There could be late nights when there’s a potential trade that’s going to happen so you are called on to do an analysis of potential players,” he said. “We do get input into decisions that are made.”

More Basketball Analytics

Does all this talk about mathematics and basketball have you excited to learn more? Alumnus Justin Jacobs '03 keeps a blog, "Squared Statistics: Understanding Basketball Analytics."

Read the blog

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