Jeremy Lin’s first NBA coach was practically gushing as he listed the qualities that have made the former Harvard guard a star in New York.
The same ones, by the way, that would still have him riding Golden State’s bench.
And that couldn’t even get him drafted.
And that got him cut twice and demoted to the minors four times.
In fact, Keith Smart isn’t the only guy who didn’t see what he had with Lin.
”It’s good (the) Monday morning quarterbacks are here now,” Smart said, ”but no one could have predicted this guy being this big.”
Almost no one, anyway. Even Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni had so many questions about Lin’s defense and shooting that he only gave him a chance when the team was desperate. Now Lin’s control of the offense draws comparisons to Phoenix star Steve Nash.
But before picking on all the NBA people who missed on Lin, start with those hundreds of coaches who wouldn’t even give him a scholarship to play in college.
”I couldn’t even get some D-III schools to look at me,” he said Thursday during an ESPN Radio interview.
How can that be? How did so many teams on so many levels pass on a guy who scored more points in his first five NBA starts than any player since the 1976-77 merger with the ABA?
”This is hard to predict,” D’Antoni said. ”It’s like winning the lottery. You buy a ticket, you hope, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to happen.”
It sure didn’t in Golden State or Houston, where the teams liked Lin but had too many guards in front of him. And it wouldn’t have happened in New York if Baron Davis had gotten over his back woes sooner, or if Iman Shumpert didn’t hurt his knee in the season opener, or if any of the three point guards D’Antoni tried first had been able to run his offense properly.
It took all those circumstances to get Lin to New York, then onto the court, which is why Smart and Minnesota director of basketball operations Rob Babcock both called it a ”perfect storm.”
”This one is just an absolutely amazing one,” Babcock said. ”There’s always players that slip through the cracks and we certainly miss on a lot of guys. But I think missing is kind of a little bit of a misnomer there. It’s not that we miss so much as it’s the guy hasn’t had the opportunity or been in the right situation that fits his skill level, the right coach that fits his style and temperament, and the player hasn’t quite developed the confidence to go out and do what he is capable of doing.”
The Warriors liked Lin, a native of Northern California, enough to give him a two-year deal. But Smart had a high-scoring backcourt with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, not to mention backups Reggie Williams and Acie Law. So the Warriors got Lin into only 29 games last season while sending him to Reno for three stints in the NBA Development League.
They cut him in December when they were trying to sign center DeAndre Jordan away from the Clippers, and Lin was discouraged when he was a claimed by a Houston team that he said had six point guards in training camp. The Rockets cut him after two weeks, and though current point guard Kyle Lowry was an All-Star candidate, general manager Daryl Morey recently wrote on Twitter that he regretted giving up Lin.
There’s plenty of similar mea culpas being made around the NBA these days.
”There was a guy we had in Cleveland, Shannon Brown, and he went on with the Lakers and won two or three championships and was a big-time contributor for them,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. ”That’s one of the first guys that comes to mind, but I’m sure there were other guys that we had that you let go and they went and had success other places.”
But what makes Lin so different is that so many teams had multiple chances to grab him.
Instead, many passed on him twice in the 2010 draft. He was on the waiver wire twice in December. But teams simply hadn’t seen him enough, given he played only 284 minutes in the NBA last season.
Perhaps they didn’t know he worked in the offseason with a shooting coach to correct a perimeter game that was a weakness. Or weren’t aware that he asks assistant coaches to have tape available in the morning for extra study before practicing.
Even Smart, now in Sacramento, wouldn’t have pursued Lin in December had he already been in his current role.
”Again, at that time in the season, you had every NBA team could have said this is the guy. No one knew he was going to be the guy,” Smart said. ”Let’s say now, Jeremy Lin is available now. You have everyone knocking on the door. But at that particular time, he was just another released player, free agent, let’s take a chance on him. That’s where he was.”
But there were indicators Lin might be ready for breakthrough in New York.
The Knicks, like Smart’s Warriors, run a pick-and-roll system, so Lin naturally picked up the offense. That’s why, D’Antoni has said, teams ideally draft players suited for their style.
So, if nothing else, Lin’s story provides a lesson to the many scouts lining up to look at all those stars from Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State and the other big programs.
Better not forget about the little guys.
”(Lin’s) on his way toward a lifetime career now because he’s managing to master playing basketball in the Mecca of basketball and playing very well in it,” Smart said.