Not all NBA talent evaluators have ‘Linsanity’
After unleashing my trusty cell phone to carpet bomb a list of NBA talent evaluators, I scored three solid hits.
The premise behind these cold calls was a basketball-specific examination of New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin. Beyond the unanimous admiration for what the undrafted point guard from Harvard has achieved, the three reviews were mixed.
“I’m probably going to come across as sounding like Simon (Cowell) from ‘American Idol,’ but you’re writing for FOX, so I guess that works,” said one league personnel executive we’ll refer to as Expert C. “I look at it as being objective, or maybe I’m just too crabby. But while anyone can see that Lin has had a remarkable run, I’m not sure this level of play is — and here’s a buzzword I usually try to avoid, but nothing else is coming to mind — sustainable.”
Expert C may consider himself Simon, but the other two respondents weren’t with him on a conference call, so our spin-off — “Asian-American Idol” — must roll on without an ensemble equivalent of Randy and Paula.
Before digging through their disparate opinions, please note all three experts agree on at least one issue regarding Lin: Despite a minuscule sample size, they believe he’s established himself as a legitimate NBA player.
The level to which he rises is where our personnel guys part company.
Expert A, for example, believes the biggest surprise regarding Lin’s emergence is his ability to deal with the attendant pressure that manifests in New York City.
“As a Harvard guy, he’s obviously a really intelligent kid,” A said. “But a lot of smart athletes haven’t handled the scrutiny in New York. Lin has been unflappable. Each time he’s had a strong game, the level of expectation grew and his level of production — whether it was scoring or making clutch shots — grew with it.”
For A, a parallel surprise has been Lin’s point-guard assimilation.
“We’re pretty set at point guard,” A said, “but I did see Lin in college while scouting someone else. He mostly played off the ball in their offense. He generally was the one making plays, and he had a really good feel of where everyone was, but we’re talking about running the most point-guard-dependent system in the league. He’s made some mistakes, but aside from some D-League experience, he’s had to figure out the position pretty quick.”
What surprises Expert C is the seemingly stunned reaction fans and reporters have had in regard to how many teams bypassed Lin.
“It’s not that difficult to see why he didn’t have much of a chance at Golden State,” C said. “They had (Steph) Curry and (Monta) Ellis. And with Houston, he was behind one of the best young point guards in the league in (Kyle) Lowry, and they also like (Goran) Dragic.
“He didn’t have the opportunity to show what he could do in those situations, because those teams really didn’t need him to. And it’s hard to find much of a rhythm when you only get a minute here and there. The Knicks were waiting on Baron (Davis), and the other guys they put out there weren’t doing the job.”
For Expert B, Linsanity was all about being prepared when circumstances were optimal.
“It was the perfect storm,” B said. “Think about it. They (Knicks) had been struggling on offense, and Carmelo (Anthony) and Amar’e (Stoudemire) were out at the same time. They had essentially nothing to lose by allowing him to take the ball and make plays. And (Mike) D’Antoni’s system enables Lin to do what he does well. If it was another team and another system, I don’t think this happens.”
To support that philosophy, we offer Chris Duhon and Raymond Felton, who were pretty solid playing point guard for D’Antoni in New York but not so hot in their new, respective zip codes. We also should remind you that while D’Antoni and Steve Nash were the rage in Phoenix, the Suns struggled to find a backup point guard to flourish in that system. They still are.
The aforementioned perfect storm, Expert B believes, had another variable.
“If ‘Melo and Amar’e had been out there with him,” B said, “he probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to go out and basically take over the offense. But the guys out there with him weren’t getting it done before, so nobody was going to say anything. It’s one thing to have the skills to play, but without the confidence, it won’t happen.
“The big thing, however, was that Lin was able to showcase what he could do … and they won.”
So what happens when all of the Knicks’ big-ticket items are in uniform?
“It may work in the short term,” C said, “but there could be a period of adjustment with ‘Melo in the offense, and that could lead to lower efficiency and some losses. And if that happens, the good karma could evaporate quickly.”
Expert B is considerably more optimistic.
“He’s a smart guy,” B said of Lin, “and he’ll figure out what it takes to play with those guys. Having the opportunity to score and score big while they were winning will make it easier for him to be a facilitator now. Defenses will be geared to keeping him under control, and that’ll create more openings and clean looks for ‘Melo, Amar’e and the rest of ’em. And when the defense tries to squeeze ‘Melo and Amar’e, they’ll have confidence in kicking it back to him to take the shots, because he’s proven he can do that.”
While the D’Antoni system certainly is a boon to any point guard with vision, balance, a sense of timing and reasonable scoring ability, Expert A doesn’t think Lin’s success is totally dependent on it.
“Look at how many teams use ball screens now,” A said. “It may not be quite the same way the Knicks or Suns do it, but the basic idea is spread the floor with shooters and play a two-man game in the lane. If he (Lin) had been given huge minutes and given the green light for another desperate team, something similar could have happened.”
With the opportunity cashed in and secured for at least the near future, what could opposing teams do to mitigate Lin’s long-term potential?
“Really overplay on ball screens and push them left,” Expert C said. “He’s able to use an escape dribble with his left hand and set up dribble moves starting with the left, but he rarely finishes left-handed and is not as good pulling up from mid-range after going left.”
What about the frequent turnovers?
“Yeah, that’s an obvious concern,” Expert A said. “But that should smooth out as he gains more experience and learns what he can and can’t do in the offense and where everyone is or should be on the floor. The number also has been high because I think he’s third behind Kobe (Bryant) and (Russell) Westbrook in usage. That will go down with ‘Melo back.
“But it’s also interesting to note that Nash has a higher turnover percentage than Lin. Of course, Nash’s greater assist percentage offsets that to a big extent.”
Another issue brought up by the experts is shooting.
He’s been great from mid-range,” Expert A said. “I think it’s something like 59 percent. That has to go down. He made the big 3 against Toronto, but he needs to get more consistent from behind the arc if teams push the screener out high and go under. And he’s only in the 70s at the free-throw line.”
In mechanical terms, Lin loads the shot at his shoulder, making it somewhat simple to keep his elbow under the ball and generate necessary loft. But that technique also brings part of his off arm through the field of vision; some players have no problem locating the target late in the shot process, but changing these mechanics after doing the same thing for years can be tricky.
As a defender, Experts A and B aren’t surprised that Lin’s decent explosiveness and lateral movement — combined with focus, anticipation and toughness — have allowed him to perform at a reasonable level.
“Look at the Knicks’ efficiency metrics before and after Lin joined the lineup,” A said. “Quite an improvement.”
Expert C looks at it another way.
“I’m not saying he’s not been OK on defense,” C said. “But any team’s defensive stats figure to go up when Lin is on the floor and Anthony and Stoudemire aren’t. I mean … c’mon.”
Expert B believes Lin may have enough savvy and commitment to stay a step ahead of opponents attempting to exploit any perceived cracks in his game.
“I saw him one time in college. It was against UConn, and he was very good,” B said, referring to Lin’s 30-point outburst against the Huskies. “He was a really active player for Harvard — he defended, rebounded and made plays for teammates, even playing off the ball to start. But he’s really improved in all facets since then.
“Instead of this being a story about how so many teams missed on him, I think it just shows a kid with some nice ability who refused to give up on himself and was smart enough to figure out what it takes to make it. Now that he’s shown what he can do, now that he’s seized his opportunity and made the most of it, I think he’s going to be fine. I think he’s secured himself as the starting point guard for the rest of this season and going into next year.”
Expert A concurs.
Expert C, on the other hand, wants to see a larger sample size.
“I know I’ve sounded negative,” C said, “but he can play. Despite certain things working in his favor the last 10 days or so, you can’t put up those numbers without having talent. But things change fast in this league. Remember how Orlando couldn’t score a few weeks ago? I’m not rooting for him to fail … depending on how you define failure, I think he’s too good to do that. But in New York, with the expectation he’s created — which isn’t fair, but it’s there — it’ll be interesting to see just how good he’ll be in the long term.”
The basketball world is waiting to text its votes.