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What to make of Jeremy Lin

Posted by Andrew Mooney  February 13, 2012 11:40 PM

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On Feb. 9, John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Ratings on espn.com displayed one very curious entry. There, sandwiched at number two between Lebron James and Kevin Durant was…Jeremy Lin?

It’s been 12 days since the basketball world was first caught up in the throes of “Linsanity,” as Jeremy came off the bench to torch the Nets for 25 points and seven assists. In his next four games, starting for the first time, Lin scored 109 points and effectively revitalized the floundering, injury-ridden Knicks’ season. Predictably, a host of terrible puns, nicknames, and general Internet absurdity soon followed. For a moment, I almost missed Tebow.

For my part, I’ve regarded Linsanity with a more tempered eye (despite his excellent choice of undergraduate institution). This sports year has already seen one Harvard grad burst suddenly into prominence after an otherwise nondescript career, and as we’re now aware, Mr. Ryan Fitzpatrick found it quite difficult to sustain his lightning start. Will Lin have a similar regression? Let’s dig into his past to find any clues that might tip us off to his true ability.

Lin’s first NBA experience came with the Golden State Warriors, signing as an undrafted free agent after a stellar senior year with the Crimson. At Golden State, Lin was an entirely unremarkable bench player. His primary problem was getting on the court; he appeared in only 29 contests, averaging just 9.8 minutes per game. Yet even that number was inflated by extended spells of garbage time. Lin played more than 10 minutes in only 13 games, and the average margin of victory in those games was 15.9 points. As such, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from this period. He rarely played, and when he did, it was often when the game’s result was no longer in doubt and, thus, not really representative of true NBA competition.

Lin spent the remainder of 2010-11 with the NBDL’s Reno Bighorns, and it was here that he showed flashes of the skills we’ve seen over the past week. Over 20 games for the Bighorns, Lin averaged 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals, while playing 31.8 minutes per game. As Matt Kamalsky of Draft Express noted at the time, Lin was “extremely tough around the basket and show[ed] a very good understanding of … how to use screens and subtle changes of direction to turn the corner off the dribble. Lin won't land on a highlight reel any time soon, but he gets the job done in the D-League.”

While a generally positive assessment, it certainly doesn’t scream of potential NBA stardom. So what changed?

First, the toughness around the rim alluded to by Kamalsky has only increased. Lin has consistently displayed an ability to finish at the basket throughout his career. With the Warriors, Lin converted 58.1 percent of his attempts around the rim. This year, with the Knicks, he has boosted that number to 63.3 percent.

The main weakness in Lin’s game was his inability to knock down midrange jumpers. This was something about which Kamalsky expressed concern in his assessment of Lin’s D-League stint: “he'll need to become a reliable set shooter to give himself more staying power in the NBA.” And for good reason; in Golden State, he shot just 25 percent from 10-15 feet and 27 percent from 16-23 feet. As anyone who is familiar with Rajon Rondo’s career can tell you, this is particularly damaging for a pick-and-roll point guard who prefers to get into the lane. Defenses are perfectly content to allow those shot attempts if the guard can’t knock them down.

Yet, with the Knicks, knock them down he has. From 10-15 feet, Lin’s field goal percentage has improved to 55.6 percent, and from 16-23 feet, it’s all the way up to 63 percent.

What accounts for this improvement? Maybe, to quote Glenda the Good Witch, he’s “had it all along.” For one, he simply didn’t (and still doesn’t, really) have enough shot attempts in his first NBA go-around from which to draw any firm conclusions about his game. His poor shooting with Golden State could have been a fluke, and the improved numbers we’ve seen from Lin this season might be more indicative of his true ability.

Or perhaps he worked tirelessly on his game during the offseason and lockout, priming himself for one more shot at the pros. Personally, I’m more inclined toward this second explanation. In responding to his recent success, the one sentiment expressed universally by his former teammates at Harvard has been his extraordinary commitment to hard work. The unconventional form on his jumper also suggests that he’s never been a natural shooter, but with enough practice, he may have found a method that’s effective, if not pretty.

For now, Linsanity continues unchecked. But this week promises a couple new wrinkles in the Lin saga: notably, the reinsertion of Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony into the lineup. How will Lin coexist with the Knicks’ two biggest stars? Can he prevent the offense from devolving into the dual black hole attack it was a few weeks ago, with Anthony and Stoudemire jacking up shot after shot? I’ll be interested to see what happens to Lin’s own production. He won’t remain the focus of the offense, but he’ll get his looks. Can he continue to knock down open shots, as defenses rotate toward the Knicks’ two elite offensive players? Stay tuned; or, if you'd rather not, steer clear of the Internet for the next few days.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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