I don’t remember which twitter account it was, but there was someone who noticed what I noticed. This kid out of Harvard was playing in the NBA Summer League and was trying to actually run an offense. The earmark of summer league are the fantastical, terrible shots players take to impress scouts against the lack of defensive hubris. Yet, this kid was instigating pick-and-rolls, making good entry passes, and getting to the rack with purpose rather than just wildly flailing.
In that same Summer League, though I can’t recall if it was the same year, Anthony Morrow emerged from Georgia Tech to drop 55 in a game. He’s currently under a fairly sizable contract with the New Jersey Nets. He is the standard bearer of a now-defunct idea. During the time Morrow emerged with the Warriors and Nets, Jeremy Lin bounced around the league— from Dallas’ invite to Summer League to Golden State, Houston and New York— on non-guaranteed contracts and garbage time. He was a crowd favorite in Golden State but was buried beneath big contracts and prolific scorers. He never really had a shot in Dallas since they had Kidd, Terry, Beaubois, and Barea on a championship-level team. Houston’s asset-collecting buried him behind trade-chips and high-lottery aspirations for the playoffs. Lin’s future was grim due to the exact reason the NBA is so great right now. The abundance of talent meant nearly everyone had pieces they liked (or higher-paid players that needed time to develop).
Even the Knicks, as has been well-publicized, were about to pass on Lin. He got a shot at PG due to the Carmelo trade, the Billups amnesty, the Baron injury, Bibby’s decline, Toney Douglas’ lack of skill, Shumpert’s struggles and a desperation for production once Stoudemire and Melo were both out of the lineup. The Knicks deserve the bare minimum of credit for playing Lin in the first place, but a wealth of credit for not being shortsighted enough cut him. In fact, I wrote this on a friend’s facebook wall yesterday before the Lakers onslaught:
The Knicks are an absolutely special case with maximum amounts of freedom for a guard like Lin (excellent in the pick and roll, able to get to the rack). Yes, a lot of teams should have been calling, but he would have floundered for longer and maybe gone from the league if he had come up with the Mavs, stayed in GS or even ended up in Sacramento or a comparably terrible team.
D’Antoni’s system, so widely regaled under Nash and so harshly criticized under the dearth of PGs since, gives Lin the chance to use his abilities rather than languor under the idea of a real set offense. D’Antoni trusts his system to a fault. That requires him to trust his players on the court to an even bigger fault. It could have marked his downfall in New York, but if Lin continues to play well, it could be the beginning of meted success. Carmelo’s ball-stopping and necessity to play a muted version of the point negated D’Antoni’s trust in movement and judgement. Now, with a scoring point guard, his system can be safely judged again. Lin is hungry, young, fast, smart and knows the foundation of D’Antoni basketball is decision-making in the pick-and-roll combined with hitting open shots. In short, he knows his role.
Focusing ahead, his role shouldn’t change. Sure, with Melo and Amar’e back, he’ll handle the ball less. In return, Melo won’t have to force nearly as much, right? And if people collapse on Stoudemire, Lin can score. His scoring numbers might decline, but theoretically his assists should increase and his turnovers should decline. In this short and glorious four-game stretch, Lin has shown an absolute: he makes good decisions when they are there to be made. Last night the Lakers began sagging off of the Knicks’ “bigs” (read: Jared Jeffries’ baseline slouch and Tyson Chandler) to clog the lane. Lin responded by giving the ball up early, turning it over or dribbling out of early, failed pick-and-rolls to start a new play. He spaced well and hit stand-still jumpers without the ball. Most importantly: he kept his dribble alive. He can handle, something Shumpert can do in spurts, something Douglas and Bibby can’t do and something Baron Davis is not doing in a suit and tie.
How much does something so simple as “keeping the dribble alive” matter? It matters a lot more when the cast of characters around Lin is this poor. His main option, Tyson Chandler, has never been an offensive player. Steve Novak is a spot-up shooter only. Landry Fields has struggled mightily with his jumper this season (and some of last season too). Shumpert is playing nominally better as a 2 (pointed out by Zach Lowe), but still isn’t much of an option for a team in need of points. Bill Walker is an asset or ally on any given play. The Knicks’ PG freedom allows Lin to attack the basket at will— something for which the Lakers, Jazz, Wizards, and Nets’ various talents and windfalls have had no answer.
There will be answers, though. The league will make adjustments. The question now: what happens when Baron Davis is “ready?” The puns are rolling in droves. Sportscenter can’t trip over itself enough talking about him. Stat-oriented writers are trying to figure it all out. And the common fan is drinking it all in. Some are questioning him in the long-term, some are loving the short-term, but the question remains. Who runs the point when Baron comes back?
This is where the abundance strikes again. I’m not saying Lin will be buried in New York, but he could easily lose minutes if Baron flashes some game. If Lin is a product of necessity, what happens when the necessity shrinks? Lin’s not as expendable as he was last week, but is he beholden to his pattern as of late? When his numbers decline (as all numbers do over time), will he fade into the background like so many other quick-hit phenoms? In New York during D’Antoni’s tenure, there’s been last year’s insistence that the Knicks keep Landry Fields in a trade where they lost Danilo Galinari, Chris Duhon (who set the record for number of assists in an MSG game once… seriously, I was there), Nate Robinson, and a multitude of other MSG favorites with little to no staying power. Being a crowd favorite does not a contract make.
Lin feels different from those other names. Those who recognized it in Summer League, those who knew it at Harvard, those (like me) who loved him in Golden State, those who lost him on the back-ends of rosters and D-League starts, those who corralled him back when they saw the short-term contract in New York, those who are just now hearing about him after his 38-point run last night, we’re all here because his game is so functionally endearing, he’s helping a suffering franchise in need, and he’s interesting. He’s Taiwanese-American, a little small, skinny, an underdog, but most of all, he feels different because he might actually be good. He’s not a trade piece like Galinari, a freak of nature like Nate Robinson, overhyped like Fields (well, he might be). Lin is a product of a surplus and a defecit. He’s right-now brilliance on a shaky foundation.
All that said, his game can supersede the hype surfeit. All the obstacles ahead— Melo is a ballhog, Baron is coming, the inevitable decline from this star-struck run, the system he resides in— show exactly why Lin can succeed. These aren’t beginner questions, they are veteran status questions. He’s surfaced from nothingness exhibiting the strength most players work for years to attain. On the same week LaMarcus Aldridge finally got his All-Star nod, Lin has entirely overshadowed him. In the same calendar year that the biggest Summer League success story to date (the aforementioned Morrow) signed his deal, Lin has become the talking point. Part of that is his background, the teams he’s faced, and who has rejected him. Part of that is the over-saturated media market. The biggest part, though, is Lin’s game; his controlled chaos in the face of overwhelming talent in front and behind him. Now, he gets to finally explore the talent around him. I can’t wait to watch him get comfortable in his new role.