“When I played against Jeremy Lin”

Last week I went on vacation with my family, and apparently some guy named Jeremy Lin became fairly popular in my absence. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of the guy. Back before his name was more (or less?) than the principal element of a headline pun, or a part of any headlines at all, Lin was rumored to be an NBA prospect after four strong if unspectacular seasons at Harvard. He was never the Ivy League MVP, but his quickness, efficiency, and yes, his race, was turning heads nationally.

Around that same time, I had just started HoopSpeak and did an interview with Cornell’s Chris Wroblewski and Aaron Osgood, two rotation players on Cornell’s 2010 Sweet 16 team. As a toss-in question that went unprinted, I asked about Jeremy Lin. The two players clearly saw Lin as a rival and enemy, and though they respected his game, they didn’t think he was an NBA player.

Almost two years later, Jeremy Lin is on top of the NBA following a blistering five game stretch. Aside from the underdog story, what I’ve found so compelling is that before this moment, Lin gave little evidence that he was “undiscovered.” He just wasn’t that good. Some combination of very hard work and enough royal jelly to drown Shamoo and we’ve got ourselves a starting point guard playing All-Star caliber ball.

I circled back to Wroblewski, who is finishing his senior campaign with the Big Red, to get his impression on Lin’s fantastic rise.

I’m the first to say that I am not the quickest of foot or even that long or athletic enough to disrupt anything defensively. I was given the task along with a couple other of my teammates to shadow Lin all over the court, and my sophomore year when we played Harvard at home we held him to 16 points on an awful shooting night and 8 turnovers in a 30 point rout. Judging the kid based on that game and our other encounters, which to be honest he didn’t have a ton of success against us, I did not think he was going to be able to compete at the sport’s highest level.

The concerns I had were that he wouldn’t be able to take the best athletes in the world in the NBA off the bounce and get to the basket like he did in the Ivy League. I mean he could barely shake me or the other Cornell defenders, and we’re nowhere near NBA athletes. The other concerns I had included his inconsistent shooting and the fear that he wasn’t a true point guard and couldn’t guard NBA 2 guards.

These criticisms mirror the outlook of scouts around draft time; Lin doesn’t even merit a scouting profile at Draft Express. What’s so impressive is that Lin has come to embody the proto-point guard of coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, one the thrives on multiple closeouts created by a crafty distributor. But like Iman Shumpert, Lin emerged from college a “guard”– not necessarily a point guard, and certainly not the type of player we’ve seen in the last week or so.

Like everyone else, Wroblewski is blown away by Lin’s emergence:

He has clearly made the transition into a point guard role and has excelled. He noticeably makes the Knicks a better team, and it is obvious the team moves the ball a lot better and all of that is because of Lin’s impact on the game. Any concern of mine about his ability to get to the hoop was erased quite quickly, as he is making a lot of NBA guards look bad.

Clearly, Lin put in work. As Wroblewski notes, Lin has shored up his shooting a bit and has been able to wind his way to the basket (almost always going right) at will. Lin has developed valuable skills and instincts through dozens of D-League games and his own relentless training.

If Lin was this good last year with the Warriors, he failed to show it in ample opportunities. Had he played one game as well as his last five with the Knicks, there’s no doubt he could have avoided couch-crashing with his brother.

So along side all the smart discussion over mainstream perceptions of Asian-Americans, there’s also a lesson to be learned here about opportunity in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni’s system combined with an improved Lin on a hot streak at the perfect time to rescue the Knicks season and make Lin a household name. But one suspects that Lin is hardly exceptional in this sense, and that there may be something to all those stories about very good players who never made the big time because they just never got the right opportunity.

Just look at some of Wroblewski’s Cornell lauded teammates from his Sweet 16 season, who Wroblewski says he “would take on my team 7 days a week over Lin,” though none of whom are in the NBA today: Louis Dale (Ivy MVP 2008) is averaging 13 points and over 30 minutes a game in Germany, Ryan Wittman (Ivy MVP 2010) has bounced around the Italy, Poland and the D-League, and seven footer Jeff Foote almost made the Blazers in December and now averages 15 and 8 for the Springfield Armor.

Says Wroblewski, “I guess this is just a testament to the fact that a lot of players have this kind of potential, they just need the right situation and environment to thrive.”

That may be selling Lin’s acheivement a little short. If–after his moment as a flaming, catapult-flung stone smashing through Asian-American stereotypes–Lin doesn’t amount to much more than an average NBA starter, he’ll still be considered one of the best 30 point guards in the world. And it won’t be because he was just in the right place at the right time, but because he became the right player at the right time.

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