Because his Harvard-educated mind is a little different than the rest of ours, George Washington graduate student Patrick Steeves often watches basketball not as sport but a series of expected returns and probabilities.
He gives this example: While a member of the Crimson during an injury-plagued career, he watched a teammate bolt to the basket for an open layup. The team’s best three-point shooter, however, stood alone behind the arc.
Take the easy two points or pass the ball?
“Pass it,” Steeves thought to himself.
The player passed.
“Everyone was yelling, ‘What are you doing? Take the layup!’ ” Steeves recalled.
“Our best three-point shooter wide open in the corner has a better than a two-thirds chance of making that shot,” he said, meaning the expected value of points would be higher for that three attempt than an easy layup. “It’s a different way of seeing things that are sometimes counterintuitive and that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up just playing basketball.
“The math definitely helps.”
The open shooter made the shot, by the way.
Steeves has his own digits worthy of consideration:
● Six, as in six seasons of college basketball.
● 3.75, his grade-point average in earning a Harvard degree in applied mathematics and economics.
● Three, the number of Ivy League seasons he missed with injuries.
● Two, the years of additional eligibility granted by the NCAA.
Instead of entering the workforce after Harvard’s commencement, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in business analytics at GW and continue playing basketball on scholarship.
After starting 10 games and averaging 6.6 points and 2.9 rebounds for the Colonials in 2016-17, the 6-foot-8 Canadian forward will play a greater role with a young squad this season.
GW welcomed nine newcomers and will try to compensate for the graduation of Tyler Cavanaugh (18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds per game) and the departure of Jaren Sina (9.0 points per game), who left a year early to pursue pro opportunities overseas. The only returning regular with more than two years of experience is senior guard Yuta Watanabe (12.2 points per game).
“I’ve seen enough things to communicate and have a strong voice for some of the new guys on the team,” said Steeves, who will turn 23 in January.
The Colonials, who were 20-15 and finished sixth in the Atlantic 10 in 2016-17, were picked for 11th place out of 14 teams in the league’s preseason poll last month. They will open the campaign Friday at home against Howard.
When not at Smith Center this fall, Steeves is handling three graduate courses — optimization methods, stochastic foundations and sports analytics — while conducting an independent study on how machines interact with human language.
His long-term goal is to work in artificial intelligence perhaps in Silicon Valley, New York or Montreal, his home town.
Over the summer, Steeves interned at the Boston branch of Analysis Group, an economic, financial and strategic consulting firm. A year earlier, he turned down a full-time job offer from that company in order to continue his education and basketball. He also passed up work in investment banking in Manhattan.
The thought of staying in school didn’t strike him until his senior season was ending. Ivy League schools do not allow graduate students to play, so if he wanted to stay with basketball, he would have to enroll elsewhere.
“Why not?” he said. “It was always my dream to play Division I basketball, and I thought it had been crushed at Harvard. It would’ve been a waste not to use those extra years and get a free master’s.”
At Harvard, Steeves sat out his freshman year with a stress fracture in his left foot. About a week before the first game of sophomore season, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Complications and additional surgeries shelved his junior campaign.
Until preseason of his senior year, he doubted he would ever play. But the knee began to respond and he was able to play 26 games (four starts) and average 9.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 46 percent on three-pointers.
Maurice Joseph, GW’s second-year head coach, has known Steeves for many years — they’re both from Montreal — and kept tabs on his college career.
“When he finally got a chance to play, I was ecstatic for him but I thought that would be it,” Joseph said. “I thought he would cash in his chips, go on with his Harvard degree and take over the world.”
GW met Steeves’s academic and athletic needs. And before last season the Colonials acquired a player with experience around, if not in, games.
This isn’t the first time an Ivy League graduate has joined the squad. Two years ago, Alex Mitola arrived with a Dartmouth diploma and, as a graduate student in international trade and investment policy with one year of eligibility, provided a spark off the bench.
“He’s a high IQ guy,” Joseph said of Steeves. “Some book-smart students are not as savvy on the court and some students who have trouble in the classroom are savants on the court. With Pat, he’s an intelligent student, but he also has a good feel for the game.”