Kwame Fynn ’13 (Accra, Ghana) and Morgan Sonnenschein ’12 (Overland Park, Kansas) weren’t looking for national attention when they set out to study the career longevity of professional basketball players. They were just two guys looking for an interesting topic for their Modern Statistics course project on survival analysis research. ESPN, however, knew valuable information when they saw it. 

Survival analysis is often used in medicine, says Fynn, who is majoring in economics as well as applied mathematics and statistics: “Survival analysis looks at what factors shape people’s length of survival.” Although many students in math professor Victor Addona’s Modern Statistics course chose a medical topic, Fynn and Sonnenschein successfully spun their basketball idea. 

Addona was enthusiastic about the idea, says Sonnerschein—another applied math and statisitics major—and “really helpful with the questions that came up,” adding, “The small class environment we have at Mac was also beneficial.” 

Soon the two classmates were pulling late nights downloading massive data sets from and developing their analysis methods. “Fynn and Morgan did an incredible job learning the survival analytic models and building a dataset that would allow them to answer their questions,” says Addona, himself a big sports fan. “Sporting contexts provide a setting for many of the same sorts of questions one may want to answer in other fields.” 

Fynn’s and Sonnenschein’s research paper, “An Analysis of the Career Length of Professional Basketball Players,” is available online, which may be how ESPN found it. Previous research predicting NBA career length focused on factors such as race, size, and game performance, according to the two researchers. They chose to instead analyze awards won, positions played, and physical variables such as height. They found that that, statistically speaking, players who are taller, win a greater number of awards, and are more versatile in positions played tend to have longer NBA careers. 

Fynn’s and Sonnenschein’s research has gone from a class project to, at this writing, the top result of a Google search of “NBA survival analysis”—pretty heady stuff for young statisticians.

Sonnenschein, who graduated last December, is a test analyst in healthcare information technology for Cerner Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri. Fynn, set to graduate in May, will join Goldman Sachs Asset Management in New York as an analyst.

January 28 2013

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