CMU in Sports: Max Horowitz’s Sports Analytics Journey

By: Reid Yesson

Max Horowitz’s job could be considered one of the most exciting in the NBA. The NBA is becoming constantly more data-driven, with more 3-point attempts per season than ever before. The Atlanta Hawks attempted an impressive 37 threes per game in 2018-19: third-most in the entire league. Max currently works as Data Scientist for the Hawks, a team with tremendous upside and three future stars in Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins.

For many technical professions, there are general routes to follow to land a role in the industry or profession they desire. Many students arrive on campus with set career goals and then proceed take the classes and get the necessary internship experience to arrive at that point. Future web designers apply to web design internships, future electrical engineers take circuits classes, but what about future sports analysts? For undergraduates, it can be difficult to break into the professional leagues because there is no set course schedule to guarantee a career in a professional sports league. Max was able to provide insight and advice on how to break into the profession.

Not so long ago, Max was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon who had an interest in sports and statistics, but without a specified path to follow. While at Carnegie Mellon, Max became enamored with sports data: “Whether it was poring over professional box scores on a daily basis, diving into the NFL and NBA combine measurement/agility metrics, reading articles and reports on how numbers were being used in sports, or breaking down my own analyses, I wanted to consume everything.”

So, consume everything he did. The next logical steps were founding the Sports Analytics Club with a few of his peers and assembling a network of professionals in the sports industry. Max was able to get the necessary technical skills like SQL, R, and Python in his classes, but much of his success stemmed from his personal drive and motivation to analyze sports data on his own time. During his time at Carnegie Mellon, he worked on nflscrapR, a tool that helps people analyze NFL data. Max suggested that personal projects were the one of the best ways to get exposure in the sports analytics industry, and the club was the perfect platform for that work.

In any technical major, it is easy to assume that high-level technical work speaks for itself, but Max learned that this was not the case early on in his college career. As Max said, “So much about real life is about communication; you can’t only be building models and looking at data”. He advised that students should utilize the CMU Career Office to its full potential so they can build contacts and relationships rather than roll the dice at crowded career fairs. Through his contacts, Max was able to receive invaluable career advice from professionals and used that to his advantage to land a job at the NBA League Office immediately after graduation. And through his contacts at the League Office, he was able to find his current position at the Atlanta Hawks.

I asked Max to share his experience thus far. Here is what he had to say:

Q: Had you always known you were interested in sports analytics?

A: “For me, I had some idea, but I really figured out it was the path I wanted to pursue while at CMU. I came into Carnegie Mellon as knowing that I wanted to study economics, and then I took an introductory statistics course and was immediately hooked. Playing organized sports had always been a big part of my life and once I stopped, figuring out how to continue engaging with that sports passion was a huge priority of mine. From different articles I read and from the sports analytics Twitter community, I noticed a budding trend in the formation of student run sports analytics clubs. I thought, “CMU has so many smart students and professors and Pittsburgh has such a strong sports culture, why can’t we form a club here?” After teaming up with a few classmates and two professors form the stats department, we made it happen.

Q: What is it like working for the Hawks?

A: “Working for the Atlanta Hawks has been a dream come true. I like to equate my experience with the Hawks to working for a small tech/data science start-up within a front office. My group is responsible for everything from data ingestion to player and in-game analysis. We are responsible for cleaning, analyzing, and visualizing/presenting the data. The diversity of skills that we are required to use on a daily basis makes the job very challenging and interesting.”

Q: Where do your statistical recommendations fit in with the team as a whole?

A: “I would say across the sports community, there are some statisticians that focus more on coaching tactics while others focus more on front office strategy. Our recommendations are made available to the coaches, the front office.”

Q: Do you ever see your recommendations in the way the Hawks play?

A: “Definitely. It’s really cool when we can convince people of what the data shows and communicate any insights you find.”

Max ended the interview by providing insight for students who want to pursue a sports analytics career by highlighting the importance of self-driven projects. “People understand that Carnegie Mellon is a very technical school, and so they trust your skills, but when you have the chance to show them what you are capable of, it is very powerful.”

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