Sammy Gelfand was born in Chicago and raised a sports fan. He attended George Washington University right out of high school gaining a degree in political science and history. Shortly thereafter, interested in pursuing a career in sports, he got a masters degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University in addition to working in marketing and promotions for the school’s athletic department. After college, Sammy bounced around for a few years working various jobs in the industry. When he figured out that he wanted to work in analytics, Sammy got his start working for the D-League (Now G-League) affiliate of the Sacramento Kings. He then got his big breakthrough when he joined the staff of the Golden State Warriors in 2013, where he would be well-known in the analytics community for his work. According to this New York times profile, Gelfand has been called an “analytics guru” and was labeled the “left side of Steve Kerr’s brain”. In his time there, the team would go on to win three NBA finals. Now in his current role, Sammy is the Director of Coaching Analytics for the Detroit Pistons.
Q & A:
Thoughts on starting out with less than superior/unpaid positions in sports?
Sammy said that gaining those experiences earlier on in sports helped him narrow his focus of what he wanted to do and find out what his true passion was. Considering all the different and odd jobs he had, he says he was able to do some self reflection on what jobs he would be happy doing. Now in his current role, he has more compassion towards the business side because he has had experience there and understands where they are coming from.
When did you decide you wanted to do analytics full-time?
Sammy stated that he always liked analyzing and translating numbers into things that were actionable. Also, he had success doing it and enjoyed it thoroughly. In his first year with the Warriors, he had a lot of freedom to explore and have fun with the data considering the circumstances.
Story or moment from the Warriors success that you know they were gonna be special?
Sammy said that the defining moment when you could tell the team was special was the 2015 second round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies. They were down 2-1 and at that point Steve Kerr made a wacky adjustment with the match-ups, specifically shifting to a smaller lineup. This signaled that they had the coaches creative enough to try new things and players with a willingness to implement it. The Warriors would go on to win the series against a Memphis squad that they could not seem to defeat previously in the playoffs. After that, the players had shifted their mentalities.
Thoughts on his Graduate School experience for Sports Management?
Sammy said that the main goal in going to graduate school for himself was to get more internships and experience. He did not think the classroom work was anything special in terms of what he gained. For instance, he said he took a statistics course and compared it to high school level work. Nevertheless, he was glad he went to graduate school because of the experience and the people he was able to meet.
Analysis of 2016 NBA finals (Warriors Vs. Cavaliers)?
Sammy said at the end of the day, the team was burnt out. A good chunk of the team had lingering injury issues and the team really did not have enough left in the tank. In addition, Lebron and Kyrie were incredible in that series.
How is your Job different during the playoffs?
Sammy said that it is less busy as there aren’t as many games to do. Nevertheless, it is the most important time of the year because the data is very clear and succinct at that point. So when you can make something out of the data, it can give the team a real advantage.
Advice for students to get into player operations/scouting?
Sammy answered this question by stating that the main thing is to start gaining experience now if there is something you're passionate about and want to do. For example, if you want to be a scout, start developing scouting reports right now. The reports may not be all that good, but it shows effort and a willingness to learn. He also suggested to take advantage of the resources you have available as a student. Finally, the last thing that Sammy said was that when he is looking to hire someone, he looks for someone that is gonna work hard and learn without trying to become a superstar within a short period of time.
Thank you to Sammy Gelfand for taking the time to share his invaluable insight with our club about the ins and outs of working for in analytics in the NBA, as well as his advice on how to succeed in such a competitive industry.
Reach out and connect with Sammy Gelfand