Why Was Jeremy Lin Overlooked, and Should He Get Married?

A reader named Xavier Fan writes:

Would love to see some commentary on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon in the NBA. Is this not a classic Moneyball-style “undervalued player”? Indeed, one of the best parts of the whole feel-good story (and there are many) is how consistently teams and coaches at the college and NBA level overlooked him before his breakout week. Even the Knicks were ready to release him a few days before his first big game against the Nets. Was he overlooked because he didn’t “look the part”? Will this impact how scouts and coaches evaluate players? What is the current status of sabermetrics for basketball?

(Photo: Jay Santiago)

The phenomenon is indeed phenomenal, and there has already been a lot of interesting stuff written about it (including his overseas marketing potential and an anti-Asian joke-gone-wrong). I agree with XF that “not looking the part” is probably an important piece of this. This of course would lead to a larger discussion about racial/ethnic expectations and stereotypes. But I was also shocked to read a few days ago that Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni admitted to being shocked by Lin’s performance because D’Antoni and the Knicks simply hadn’t known much about Lin.

Why was I shocked? The NBA only has two draft rounds; a total of 60 players are taken. I had always assumed this meant that teams would consider at least the middle of the talent pyramid, if not the bottom of the pyramid, in their pre-draft assessments. Compare this to Major League Baseball, which has had up to 50 rounds of drafting. Does this mean that NBA teams devote only 1/25th of their scouting resources to the draft as MLB teams? I sincerely doubt it. So why would someone like Lin have totally not registered on the radar? Plus he’d been on a couple of NBA rosters; where is the intel?

It could be argued that college prowess in basketball translates much better into pro prowess in the NBA as opposed to the NFL. Which might make NBA teams even more risk-averse than the average corporate institution, knowing that it’s risky to take a chance on a guy who wasn’t a stud at a big-time basketball school (and, um, who’s Asian-American to boot).

As for XF’s question about “the current status of sabermetrics for basketball” — we wrote a column a few years back about Mike Zarren of the Celtics as an example of the new breed of executive who’s bringing analytics to the game. Maybe we can get Mike or someone else to address the Lin question here directly.

There is so much to look forward to in the Lin story. Can he continue to perform at such a high level? How will Carmelo Anthony‘s and Amare Stoudemire‘s returns change the shape of Lin’s play? Can opposing teams adjust to his style and stifle him. And, perhaps most important, what will the future hold for him personally? A recent Times article about Lin’s appeal to Asian-Americans provided this priceless quote from a female graphic designer caught up in Linsanity:

“All the Asian-American guys want to be Jeremy Lin,” she said. “And all the Asian-American girls want to marry him.”

I couldn’t help but channel some of my economist friends when I read that, and think about Lin’s marriage prospects (along with his salary prospects, which are not unrelated). If you were Lin, or maybe Lin’s mom, would you perhaps consider that his marriage opportunities are perhaps at their peak right now, given the excitement and potential that’s attached to him? And if so, what would be the optimal means of sifting through his options? (Maybe he could hire Al Roth as his matchmaker.)


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  1. Johnny says:

    This is of interest, a “Moneyball” statistician predicted Jeremy Lin’s success almost 2 years ago. http://hoopsanalyst.com/blog/?p=487

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  2. Erik - Dallas says:

    Just hear a Brad Pitt Money Ball interview on NPR this morning talking about the scene with the scouts commenting on prospective players facial features as though this provided valid analysis of baseball performance potential. I think your sentence has the wrong punctuation and should use an exclamation point not a question mark. He was overlooked because he didn’t “look the part”!

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  3. kilroy says:

    I doubt Lin will effect future talent scouting/evaluation much, because the NBA is already pretty good at it (probably the best of all the sports). If you look at the truly elite players, most of them are taken very high in the 1st round of the draft–especially in the last decade or so once teams figured out how to evaluate high school and foreign players better.

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  4. James Curran says:

    I believe part of this is the fact that, unless other professional sports, a winning basketball team needs one superstar player and four guys who can dribble. (Football needs at least someone to throw and someone to catch; In baseball, a great pitcher is needed, but unless he’s named “Babe Ruth”, he isn’t scoring any runs — and if everyone else flys-out, the best batter in the league at best could score three runs a game.)

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  5. Chen says:

    “I’ve cried watching Tiger Woods win a major golf championship.” – Jason Whitlock

    Tiger Woods is more Asian than he is Black!

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    • Erik - Dallas says:

      I don’t think Jason Whitlock even knows that Tiger is half Thai or that to many Asians Tiger is their Asian break out star athlete. If you took Whitlock’s comments and just reversed them to be said about Whitlock, the racism in his off color comment is crystal clear.

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  6. assumo says:

    Being that he is the first american-born NBA player of chinese ethnic lineage, the empirical data appear to show that there is a scouting bias against people who look like him. Everyone seems to be tiptoeing around this (www.sportspickle.com/news/9887/knicks-guard-jeremy-lin-surprisingly-good-at-basketball-for-someone-named-jeremy), unless you live in China (http://news.yahoo.com/lin-sanity-spreads-china-072822683.html).

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  7. Josh P. says:

    I think the guy you want to talk to is Daryl Morey, the GM of the Rockets, who signed Lin and traded him before he played a game with the Rockets. Morey is at the forefront of the sabermetrics movement in the NBA. Interesting that he, of all people, wouldn’t have recognized Lin’s potential.

    Morey recently tweeted: “We should have kept (Jeremy Lin). Did not know he was this good. Anyone who says they knew misleading U.” and “Finally, really happy for (Lin). Very hard working, nice, & humble. He has a great, great future.”

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