With Help of Data Scientist, Coaches, Analytics Dept. Seek to Strengthen Communication

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Of all the things that Brett Brown is, curiosity-seeker ranks right at the top of the list.

It’s a trait that’s been tightly tied to the 56-year old head coach since his arrival in Philadelphia back in August of 2013. He constantly searches for new ways to keep his club ahead of the curve, thinking that doing so will move it closer towards its goal of winning a championship.

Fast forward five years into Brown’s tenure, and the latest embodiment of this dynamic can currently be found wherever the Sixers might be, whether at their training complex in Camden, NJ, or inside an auxiliary gym at the University of Nevada - Las Vegas.

In an effort to strengthen and streamline communication between the Sixers’ coaching staff and the club’s Analytics & Strategy department, Brown gave the go-ahead for Ivana Seric, one of the team’s data scientists, to help out on the court during summer practice sessions.

Ivana Seric, right (in blue), huddles up with fellow coaches, and players.

By having Seric (rhymes with 'Saric,' and pronounced with an 'sh' sound as well) interface directly with coaches and players in the heat of practices and shootarounds, the Sixers hope that she - and, by extension, the team’s Analytics & Strategy group - will be able to gain a sharper, instinctive understanding of the specific type of data and information that can best service and meet the needs of Brown and his assistants.

Both parties - coaches and analysts alike - want the left hand to be more familiar with the right than it already is.

“We’re always looking for ways for our analytics department to understand what we use day-to-day basketball-wise in terms of terminology, principles, teaching methodology, guidelines, and the way we talk to players,” Sixers assistant Billy Lange said in a recent interview. 

“We wanted to have our analytics crew involved in a deeper level - not just a meeting level, but an actual sweat equity level from a basketball coaching standpoint.”

So, towards the end of the 2017-2018 season, the concept of deploying a Sixers data scientist for summer league practices gained internal momentum. Brown signed off.

How was it that Seric in particular was picked for a leading role in this collaborative venture?

“Ivana just happens to be by far the best player on that analytics staff, and quite frankly might be the best player when you combine the coaches with it, too,” said Lange, who’s been on Brown’s bench since the beginning.

Although Lange was laughing, it was hard to tell if he was kidding. Seric, after all, was a record-setting collegian.

“She was just a natural fit for us. She’s awesome.”

Ivana Seric, center, takes in practice with assistants Billy Lange and Chris Babcock.

For as much as the continually evolving, efficient, and productive partnership between the Sixers’ coaching staff and analytics staff is worth highlighting, so too is Seric’s place in all of this, and the path she travelled to reach her current position.

Just a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday, the 6-foot-2 Seric was born in Split, Croatia, a city located along the country’s Adriatic Coast. At the age of seven, she picked up a basketball for the first time.

“We always had a hoop in front of our house,” said Seric. “My father used to play until high school age, so he would always play with us casually and have us shoot and stuff like that.”

When Seric’s brothers started practicing with Split’s local club team, her mom would bring her along to pick them up. The experience left a significant impression.

“I would watch the end of their practice, and thought, ‘Oh wow, this is really cool.’ So I just tried playing with them a little bit to see if I was going to like it or not, and I just loved it. That’s how I started playing basketball.”

Right around the exact same time that Seric’s passion for hoops began to emerge, so too did her keen interest in mathematics. As for which came first?

“It was both around the first grade,” she said. “We had this assignment in the first grade, and it was just adding some numbers - basic seven year old exercises. Somehow, I got them all right, and my teacher was like, ‘You should be a math teacher.’ 

“I told her, ‘I’m going to be a basketball player.’”

And so she was, willing that ambition into existence.  

Seric’s game was good enough to land her a scholarship to New Jersey Institute of Technology - the coach there knew somebody who knew somebody in Croatia who knew Seric’s family. She went on to play forward for the Newark, NJ-based school, and also won a spot in the Croatian women’s junior national program.

Ivana Seric, in action for the NJIT Highlanders.

By the time Seric’s playing career was over, she had etched her name throughout the NJIT women’s hoops record book. She left the team sixth in assists, fifth in blocks, seventh in rebounds, and fifth in field goal percentage.

After graduating from NJIT with a degree in applied mathematics in 2011, Seric jumped right into grad school, completing her studies in the spring of 2017 with a doctorate in mathematical sciences. Her thesis was titled: “Direct Computations of Marangoni Driven Flows Using a Volume of Fluid Method."

It was a some point during the middle of her six-year graduate program that Seric discovered the use of data scientists was proliferating in the NBA. By browsing the league’s career website, and checking out a TED Talk given by Second Spectrum CEO Rajiv Maheswaran, she learned about player tracking technology, and the data it yields.

“I knew that I wanted to do it,” Seric said of finding a career that blended her loves for basketball and math, “but I didn’t know if it would happen.”

In the winter before finishing her PhD, Seric applied for an opening with the Sixers. As it turned out, the hiring process had reached its final stages, with jobs going to Seric’s future colleagues Grant Fiddyment and Michael Lai.

The Sixers had gotten somwhere in the range of 800 applications for the openings.

“We were literally at the last stage when she applied,” recalled Alex Rucker, the Sixers’ Vice President of Analytics & Strategy. “We were so far down the road of having finalists and job offers, but we sort of flagged her because she’s super interesting. When we got to the second hiring process, we popped open her resume.”

What Rucker saw were exceedingly valuable qualifications.

“The ideal candidates for us have advanced technical degrees, that’s the hurdle that all applicants have to get over initially,” said Rucker. “The huge bonus is basketball experience, basketball knowledge.

"In Ivana, we had someone who had international level competition with Croatia. She played four years of college basketball at NJIT. The combination of incredible technical skills with just this deep, rich experience in basketball, it’s literally the dream candidate.”

Currently, Seric’s everyday responsibilities revolve around providing data and information that support Brown, Lange, and the rest of the Sixers coaching staff. She works closely with Director of Analytics & Strategy Sergi Oliva, who travels with the team throughout the year, serving as Brown’s statistical right-hand man in meetings and practices.

[Each of the Sixers’ data scientists services a different area of the basketball operations department, i.e. coaches, scouts, sports science, etc.]

Ivana Seric helps simulate a drill during summer league mini-camp practice.

Ten years ago, Seric have very well had a shot at reaching the pros as a player. Instead, she opted to pursue her education.

But here she is now, getting a kick out of being back on the court again, in an official capacity in the NBA.

“It’s insane,” Seric said of the plot twist.

At practices and shootarounds, Seric will sometimes be used as an extra body to simulate certain actions. Other times, she’ll be helping out with individual drills.

“Her enthusiasm is great,” said Billy Lange. “She’s so eager to learn. She’s a humble learner. She’s not afraid to offer her opinion, but she’ll do it after she’s heard a few things.”

“It’s amazing,” Seric said of contributing to the Sixers’ summer league practices. “I feel really grateful that the coaching staff gave me the opportunity, because I’m learning so much on the court. Just seeing how they plan practices and teach teach things, I think it’s really going to help me later on when I do analysis to know what the coaches are thinking, and what they want players to do.”

Which is precisely what Brown, and the Analytics & Strategy department, aimed to accomplish by having her on the floor, and putting herself in the coaches’ and players’ shoes.

“At a fundamental level, what we do is take a lot of complex data, and translate that to basketball, then collaborate closely with coaches, sports science, and scouts,” Rucker said. “Working in that ‘coach support’ space, along with Sergi, for Ivana to get this hands-on experience with the staff, go to all the meetings, be a part of practice, is probably incredibly enriching for her, and not just her understanding of basketball, which I think is already at an elite level, but her understanding of how our staff functions. To be able to build those relationships I think will be invaluable next year as she continues to grow into that kind of coach support role.”

On the court this summer, Seric is attempting to assist in streamlining communication between the coaching staff, and Analytics & Strategy department.

Seric’s on-court work this summer should be looked at through one lens and one lens only: she earned such a highly-valued assignment based on merit, and nothing else.

Not lost on her, though, is the surface-level view. She knows there’s an important sidebar to this story.  

“I hope this can inspire girls who are playing sports, and don’t think they have a future in it, or even girls in some professional fields who think there’s no space for them.”

With the Sixers, the space carved out for Seric this summer ties back, in part, to a curiosity-seeking coach staff, and an open-minded basketball operations department determined to make the most of its resources.

Regardless of who’s come and gone while Brett Brown’s been here, his MO hasn’t changed.

“From Day One, Coach has been curious about finding the right answers to blend with his basketball experience,” Lange said, “and the analytics crew has just grown.

“We’ve added so many smart people, and our ownership group believes in it, too. I don’t know any other way. If you’ve been here since Day One, this is just what we do.”

In Seric this summer, the Sixers have added another layer to the approach.

“It helps us have so much more influence than we normally would,” Seric said, when talking about the support Analytics & Strategy has gotten from Brown and his coaches. “As an analytics team, we are lucky. It helps us on the court, because they’re using the data to make decisions.”

A quick aside:

During her interview for this piece, Ivana was talking about professional basketball players who influenced her. She had a great story about her favorite, Tamika Catchings, the former WNBA 10-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, five-time Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, Finals MVP, and champion.

While Seric was working on her graduate degree at NJIT, Catchings, the daughter of former 76er Harvey Catchings, was entering the latter stages of an illustrious career. As has been the case for only the most select superstar athletes (in recent years, think Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant), Catchings’ final campaign became a farewell tour, of sorts.

Specifically, a portion of the season was dubbed the Tamika Catchings Legacy Tour.

Nike, one of Catchings’ sponsors, decided to get into the spirit by holding a shoe design contest. The hook was that Catchings would wear a winning design at each stop along the tour.

With NJIT’s Newark campus just a PATH or NJ Transit ride away from Manhattan, Seric submitted a design for Catchings’ last road appearance against the New York Liberty. A huge Catchings fan, Seric was going to the game anyway, so why not send something in?

Good thing she did. Catchings picked ended up picking Seric’s design for her Big Apple finale.

“I didn’t know until the day before that she was going to wear them at that game,” said Seric.

Here’s Seric’s winning design, with a caption detailing the inspiration for it.

Seric would meet Catchings at the game:

Photographs taken by Kurt Gies.