When Jeremy Lin hit the three-pointer with half a second left on the clock to beat the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night, you could almost hear the collective sound of NBA coaches and general managers smacking their foreheads once again.
As basketball fans by now, the New York Knicks phenom who has scored more points in his first five starts than any player since the NBA merger—and shocked the basketball world into a state of Linsanity—was an undrafted Harvard economics major with no scholarship offers to play Division 1 basketball. He wasn’t even in rotation two weeks ago for the Knicks, and now he may singlehandedly save this NBA season from complete irrelevance.
I won’t be the first to wonder how so many basketball scouts and gurus with multi-million dollar recruiting budgets missed Jeremy Lin. It’s a question that’s been on everyone’s minds as they’ve watched Lin pile on the points, rack up the assists and score in high-pressure moments. He was a skinny high school kid who didn’t look like a stand-out athlete. Race may have been a factor, with scouts simply looking past an Asian American player. And while some were aware of Lin’s potential, they just weren’t the scouts and managers who mattered.
It’s not like no one knew about him. This is a guy who led his high-school basketball team to a state championship in a gym literally across the street from Stanford University, and who sent video tapes to schools across the country. He was nominated for national awards while at Harvard. And though he went undrafted in the NBA, he wowed in a summer league game against the No. 1 draft pick and even got a news conference when he was signed to the Golden State Warriors.
The biggest reason Lin got no offers to major basketball programs and went undrafted in the NBAs is what Lin himself has acknowledged: He’s simply not a flashy player whom you notice in the first recruiting visit. “I just think in order for someone to understand my game, they have to watch me more than once, because I’m not going to do anything that’s extra flashy or freakishly athletic,” Lin said back in 2010 in a prescient article in the New York Times. As a result, N.C.A.A. recruiting rules, which limit the number of visits to potential players, may have been an obstacle.
But rules can’t be entirely to blame. For one, N.C.A.A. and NBA scouts and general managers are like any leaders looking to identify talent for their teams: They rely too much on metrics and data. They look for people who remind them of people they know, and who they think will fit in with their teams. Having to limit their recruiting pools somehow, they don’t spend time looking for people in unexpected places. And perhaps most important, they get consumed by the idea of recruiting big names with big pedigrees.
The other reason Lin went largely unnoticed at first—other than among his Asian-American fan following—is much simpler: In the NBA, at least, he simply didn’t get much time to play. As a Golden State Warrior, he saw some time on the court, but the ball was dominated by guards Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. He faced similar obstacles during his brief time with the Houston Rockets. And even Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni benched Lin for 13 of his first 22 games this season. When he was called up to play, it seemed more an act of desperation—or a way to check out Lin before sending him packing again.
Coaches have to take chances on people to find out what they’re made of. And with players like Lin who prove themselves over time, they have to take chances repeatedly. Relying on big stars and charts of data won’t give any leader a chance to unearth undiscovered players, nor will it inspire the sort of “coach’s confidence” some players need in order to truly come into their own. Yes, basketball’s decision-makers may have missed out on Jeremy Lin because of his ethnicity, his unflashy play, and because they may have been watching the wrong numbers. But they also missed out because they simply didn’t give him repeated shots to prove his mettle.
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