For the love of maps and hoops: Geography alumnus excels in basketball analytics

Angela M. Rogers
October 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a geography student, Kirk Goldsberry never needed an excuse to make maps. The trick was finding ways to combine cartography with his other love — basketball.

The Penn State geography alumnus found professional success combining his passions. He is a leader in basketball analytics, having worked as an NBA front office executive and as a writer for ESPN.

In his most recent work, The New York Times best-selling book “SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA,” Goldsberry examines how the proliferation of the 3-point shot, and other trends, have helped transform the league, perhaps in unexpected ways. 

“My book is just another example of a geographer noticing a change, searching for its essential causes, and trying to explain them via the mighty combination of maps, stats and prose,” Goldsberry said.

"I have always believed that the skills we learn via geographic education are extremely potent outside of traditional geographic applications, and if my career in basketball is instructive of anything, it’s just that — we need more maps and more spatial analytics in more and more domains.”

— Kirk Goldsberry, 1999 Penn State geography alumnus and author of “SprawBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA”

After graduating from Penn State, Goldsberry embarked down a unique career path. He served as a visiting professor at Harvard, where he designed and co-taught the first geography course offered at the university since the 1940s. After Harvard, Goldsberry went to work at Grantland, formerly a sports and pop-culture website run by ESPN. From there he was the head analyst for Team USA Basketball and vice president of strategic research for the San Antonio Spurs. Those connections gave him insider access to the game he loves and enabled him to write “SprawlBall,” Goldsberry said.

Although he had been putting geography and basketball together in his mind since graduate school, Goldsberry said he started seriously studying and writing about the NBA in 2012.

“I obsessed over shooting data probably more than any other person in the world,” Goldsberry said. “Simultaneously, the NBA was in the midst of a major strategic revolution, and I felt that I had the expertise to capture and explain this metamorphosis.”

Kirk Goldsberry

Kirk Goldsberry, a 1999 Penn State geography alumnus, is currently teaching sports analytics in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

IMAGE: Kirk Goldsberry

Goldsberry said he hopes his readers gets a better understanding of the dominant trends in the NBA, and why professional basketball is changing so much.

“I wrote the book for basketball fans,” he said, “especially those interested in how and why the game is changing. People love maps and hoops, and I had an opportunity to make a book for them.”

Goldsberry’s spatial and visual analyses of basketball reveal a game that has changed over the last decade, from where players choose to shoot the ball to the skills necessary to play at different positions.

“My theory is that the game is in great shape right now, but the trends are so drastic right now that it’s unclear if that will be the case in a decade or two,” he said. “Make no mistake, the 3-point shot has made the sport much better, but as the shot becomes increasingly prominent, the question becomes how much is too much? There is such a thing as too many 3s. Where is the tipping point?”

In "Sprawlball," Goldsberry makes the case for a variety of changes to the game, including revising the location of the 3-point line, allowing goaltending on 3-point shots, fixing the 2-point area, and being consistent about calling fouls. But he demurs when asked if he has a favorite.

“It’s not up to me to decide,” he said. “My favorite is the one that other people believe helps basketball steer itself to a better place in the future. I’m very careful not to advocate for any of these specific ideas, but rather to suggest it’s time for NBA stakeholders to consider some of them as means to improve their product going forward.”

Goldsberry tells geography students to be unafraid of pushing the boundaries of mapmaking beyond the traditional applications — like he has done in the NBA.

“I love to tell students that mapmaking is one of the most powerful skills in the world, and it has been for centuries,” he said. “Learners who find a passion for cartography and spatial analysis are setting themselves up for success. I have always believed that the skills we learn via geographic education are extremely potent outside of traditional geographic applications, and if my career in basketball is instructive of anything, it’s just that — we need more maps and more spatial analytics in more and more domains.”

Goldsberry said he thinks back to his own time as a student at Penn State, and to lessons taught by Cindy Brewer, now head of the geography department, and Terry Slocum, professor emeritus of geography.

“Of all the things I learned at Penn State, maybe the thing I think about the most is the bridges between worldly phenomena, data and representations of the data” Goldsberry said. “I think people get lost in the data and often forget we’re not analyzing or visualizing data —  we’re analyzing and visualizing worldly phenomena.  I’m not visualizing data, I’m visualizing the shooting performances of NBA players. The best data analytics projects begin with an important research question about a worldly thing and end with a smart answer to that question.”

Goldsberry left the Spurs in September 2018 to return to writing and teaching and is currently teaching sports analytics in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 11, 2019