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“When a player is playing that well, he doesn’t come out of nowhere. It seems like he comes out of nowhere. Go back and take a look and the skill level was probably there from the beginning. It’s just that we didn’t notice it.” —Kobe Bryant on Jeremy Lin
Aside from everything that happens on the court—the weaving drives to the basket, the perfect passes in traffic, the dead-eye jumpers—what’s exciting about the Jeremy Lin story is how no one saw it coming. Time and again, the best basketball talent evaluators in the world looked at Jeremy Lin and didn’t see much at all. He was a high school star who went unrecruited by big-time college programs, then was a college star who went undrafted by the NBA.
There were, however, a few voices arguing that Lin might be something special. They weren’t the NBA scouts or managers who make player decisions, though. They were stats geeks, sports junkies with day jobs. And they’re enjoying a good, long moment of told-you-so.
Arturo Galletti, a GE (GE) engineer and blogger obsessed with the NBA draft, has a metric he developed with the sports economist David Berri to judge the value of prospects. Running it in 2010, Galletti says he found Lin to be the 12th-best player in that year’s draft. After the Golden State Warriors signed Lin—and faced rumors that they were just pulling off a publicity stunt for the Bay Area’s large Asian-American population—Kyle Cholakian, writing in August 2010 at Golden State of Mind, took a look at something called the Position Adjusted Win Score per 40 minutes and found that Lin’s so-called PAWS40 predicted he’d be an above-average NBA player.
A third blogger, Ed Weiland, went further. Writing in May 2010 for the website Hoops Analyst, he surveyed the 2010 draft and found it notably thin in the point guard department (after Kentucky phenom John Wall). “That doesn’t mean there won’t be a player or two who surprise the experts though,” he wrote. “The best candidate to pull off such a surprise might be Harvard’s Jeremy Lin.”
Weiland based his calculation on two numbers in particular: Lin’s high 2-point shooting percentage and his RSB40, a combined score of rebounds, steals, and blocks per 40 minutes—a particularly good measure, basketball nerds argue, of dominance at both ends of the court. Lin’s scores on those two stats during his college career at Harvard put him in elite company, up there with Steve Francis, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and Rajon Rondo. Not only that. Lin put up some of this best numbers when Harvard played its toughest teams: UConn, BC, and Georgetown. Lin, concluded Weiland in spring 2010, “is a good enough player to start in the NBA and possibly star.”
Lin wasn’t totally ignored by the pros. After he excelled in the NBA’s summer league in 2010, the Mavericks, Lakers, and Warriors all pursued him. But after the Warriors signed him, they played him rarely, then cut him after a season. The Knicks were said to be close to cutting Lin before his magical run.
So what’s the lesson of Lin? Even the most fanatical basketball empiricists wouldn’t argue that their predictions are airtight. Berri, the economist (and co-author of the influential book The Wages of Wins) is a notorious critic of NBA managers. To him, the lesson isn’t that NBA managers ignore data and go with their guts like the old-coot baseball scouts in Moneyball. NBA teams do look at numbers. The problem, Berri argues, is they’re focusing on the wrong numbers. “They’re looking at how well [players] can bench press, and I’m not really sure that’s relevant,” he says.