Drew Cannon, 23, bringing analytics to Celtics
ORLANDO — There was a time when Drew Cannon might have tended bar in Chicago’s North Side at a place near Wrigley Field named Merkle’s Bar & Grill. That time was about one year ago.
It was partially owned by a family member, and it was looking like a steady gig last summer when Cannon moved to Chicago, partly to get away from North Carolina, where he grew up and went to college at Duke University.
But then Brad Stevens, an admirer of the in-depth basketball analytics articles that Cannon had been writing, reached out and offered the 22-year-old a job at Butler University, ultimately making Cannon the first pure statistics-based hire on a college basketball staff.
A year later, Cannon, now 23, will follow Stevens from Butler to the Celtics, though it’s unclear exactly what his role will be. “I’m anxious to add him to our staff to see what he’s all about,” Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, said Monday at the Orlando Summer League.
Stevens knows full well what Cannon is all about — and the coach is a huge fan.
“He’s really talented because he’s really ambitious,” Stevens, who was hired last week as the 17th head coach in Celtics history, told the Globe.
“He’s really bright, and he’s really naive — and when I say that, it’s that he doesn’t have any preconceived thoughts on what the world should look like. He’s just trying to figure out what he thinks fits.”
At Butler, Cannon fit right into a program that, under Stevens, leaned on advanced statistical metrics, using data to help find any and every edge. His in-depth research —
“What Drew has a great ability to do is not only to analyze but communicate it,” Stevens said. “He can break things down into the simplest terms. He’s got a sense for the basketball side of things and he’s a good communicator to me with it.”
In terms of Cannon’s role with the Celtics, Stevens added, “Again, I like the idea that it’s not really defined. I don’t want that. I don’t want it to be restraining at all.”
Of course, that Cannon will become a member of the Celtics and a front office that believes strongly in analytics marks a new beginning for him and concludes an interesting journey from where he was at around this time last summer.
“It’s been basically one year since he was really kind of up in the air about what he was going to do — to this,” said Jim, his father. “That’s just unimaginable.”
A true passion
It was around Christmas, the break between Cannon’s first and second semesters of his senior year at Duke, that he approached his parents to have a serious sit-down.
Cannon asked, according to Jim, “When do I have to start looking for a real job?”
On one hand, his father thought that Cannon ought to have one pretty soon after graduating from a good (and expensive) private school in Durham.
On the other, Jim realized that Cannon had spent the past several years interning with recruiting analyst Dave Telep, writing about basketball analytics and doing it quite well, too.
And Jim believed that his son had earned the right to see that passion all the way through.
“If it didn’t work out, fine,” Jim said. “He could go do another job. He still had a very useful degree from a very good school.
“And we were fortunate that if he had to live in the basement for a year, we could feed him. He would’ve had to share the basement with the dog, but so be it.”
After graduating, Cannon had moved back in with his family in Raleigh for a short time. But he made it clear that he also wanted to move out, just to get away from the nest, and from North Carolina.
So, he moved to Chicago and lived with family.
“If nothing had worked out,” Jim said, “he was going to get a bartending job and work for College Basketball Prospectus and Kenpom.com and maybe ESPN Insider on the side until something materialized.”
Of course, something materialized — the job at Butler under Stevens, who called Telep one day last summer and said, simply, “I’ve got to take your intern away.”
A year later, Telep said, “The most important thing is, in one year, Brad Stevens had someone to trust and value his opinions in this field — and that’s a big deal.”
For the better part of the past seven years, Cannon interned with Telep.
“Over that time, he went from a guy that just crunched numbers to a guy who developed a feeling for evaluating players, and then eventually was able to blend all those things together with an analytical slant,” Telep said in a phone interview.
“The evolution of Drew, it doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s just one of those guys, he’s an idea guy, and the field that he works in, he has a great zest for testing his theory.”
Telep added, “I think in his own way, he’s almost a basketball savant, because of the way he looks at the game and his approach to breaking it down.”
For the Celtics, and for Stevens, Telep believes that Cannon will be a great asset, in no small part because of his ability to, as Stevens said, explain complex and exhaustively researched information in a simple way. But learning to explain the data in such a way took time.
“When Drew first started working for me, he turned in a report, and it was straight out of a scientific journal,” Telep said. “And the first time he did that, I had to call him over to my house and say, ‘Bud, you’ve got to explain this to me. I have no idea what it means.’
“Since then, he’s worked exceptionally hard on what I call ‘communicating to the common man.’ I think a lot of times people will read analytics and get lost in the numbers.
“Drew has a gift for being able to extrapolate it, break it down and put it into layman’s terms from a basketball perspective. And it’s something he’s worked on a great deal.”
And, Telep said, calling Cannon “thorough” doesn’t quite capture it.
“He’s not thorough. He’s obsessive,” Telep said. “Drew is that guy that, an idea pops into his head, time stops and he just starts cranking out ways to test his theory.”
Telep added with a laugh, “It’s healthily unhealthy.”
During the Celtics’ 93-63 summer league win against the Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center Monday afternoon, Stevens sat on the baseline near several members of the Celtics’ front office.
And a few seats away, in a red polo shirt, hunched over with an intense focus on the game, sat Drew Cannon. They united once before in Indianapolis, the coach and the so-called “secret weapon,” and so they will again in Boston, as members of the Celtics.