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. Guest Speaker says:

    I don’t think analytics will help because it’s psychological.

    I played ball. At first coming off the bench, I tended to overanalyze every shot I took since I didn’t have the chance to take many, so I played conservatively and nervously. The next season I suddenly got the chance to have a lot more playing time, and !bam!, that fear of missing my chance was replaced with more confidence and I had a breakout season.

    Like most things in economics, it probably breaks down to individual psychology in the end. Basketball is a lot about “heart” (confidence, effort, focus etc) rather than stats.

    Lin probably played like a scared little baby in practices until he got the shot of confidence he needed in front of a big crowd, so I’d say the scouts and coaches did their job well (and let’s see how long he can sustain his play).

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  2. Henry says:

    Any basketball player coming from Harvard will be overlooked. There have been more US presidents from Harvard (5) than Nba players (4). The bias here is against Division I-AA players. Lin could be a basketball alien, but if he played at Harvard, it’s quite a gamble for a professional team to assume he can perform similarly against elite competition.

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    • ed says:

      He played at Harvard because Trent Johnson at Stanford didn’t want to waste a scholarship on the Asian kid “from across the street” (as Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob described him).

      Also keep in mind that Scottie Pippen was a lottery pick out of Central Arkansas, an NAIA school. Lin’s Harvard plays in a Division I NCAA conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (there is no such thing as DI-AA in basketball). The difference between them of course is that Pippen was an ideal size, proven track record, good athleticism and black while Lin was an ideal size, proven track record, good athleticism and Chinese.

      How many players from ANY school let alone Harvard put up 30points 9rebounds on 12th ranked UCONN? How many players are up for both the John Wooden and Bob Cousy Awards like Lin? How many of those go undrafted? NBA teams take fliers every year on players from worse schools than Harvard. Even D3 guys have had opportunities. Even kids from high school have been drafted. And no, none of them had to overcome the stigma of being Asian.

      In a way you’re right. Lin was too good for Harvard. That’s because if he had been of any other race he never would have had to play there.

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  3. Rayfil Wong says:

    I have seen Lin play in person in San Francisco Summer League. His appeal is that he truly loves the game and he leaves all the passion on the court.

    While many ballers in his shoes would splurge on girls and the things of the world, Lin has continued to stay focus.

    Freakonomics comes into play if you measure his strong rooted support group from his parents and in terms of economics his wide spectrum of endorsement from

    1. Lin Bible
    2. Lin SAT prep class
    3. Lin dunk training program

    + list goes on and on.

    I am a big fan and even created a Jeremy Lin Simpson character on my blog.

    Founder

    Jeremylinbball.com

    Rayfil Wong

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  4. stevchipmunk says:

    For East Asian American women, he’ll be a mega-hit… in the beginning. Because he is a star in the NBA, because he has great earning potential, and–very important–because he graduated from Harvard.

    But his star will diminish if he keeps on giving interviews. Notwithstanding that he went to Harvard (people will wonder: how did he get in?), he says things like: “Me and my team mates…” and “He’s bigger than me…” And he talks with a funny drawl — funny in that he wasn’t raised in Harlem but in some middle class white neighborhood in California.

    Now, maybe he’s just adapting his spots to his surroundings, and once he’s out of the NBA B-Ball environment, he’ll revert to the speech patterns expected of an East Asian American who graduated from Harvard. And his star will shine brighter again.

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  5. ed says:

    Well the Knicks had a 25+ppg 8 APG guard sitting at the end of the bench and two teams had cut him so no NBA is not “already pretty good” at scouting and evaluation.

    Keep in mind that the Knicks themselves were going to waive Lin at the end of last week in order to save his guaranteed contract. He only got into the game through a series of crazy independent events: Shumpert’s injury, Davis’ injury, the Knick losing streat, D’Antoni’s tenative job security, Melo’s injury etc etc. It’s a 10 to 1 long shot that even on the Knicks Lin would even have had the chance to go out and drop 38 on Kobe.

    The big question is, how many other undervalued players are already sitting ON THE BENCH let alone undervalued in the market. The scouting bias built into Lin’s ethnicity raises the question of what other inefficiencies exist. It also seems to indicate that Moneyball is going to have to come up with an equation for Racism along with win share and assist percentages…

    Keep in mind that Lin was an already DEVELOP ASSET. He was ready to drop into the game. We’re not even talking about a player who could be/would be good in a a few years. He was simply an unappropriated 2+ win share per game just not being used.

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  6. Givadeng says:

    People are missing some obvious connections. Steve Nash played at Santa Clara down the road from Palo Alto.Another overlooked player from up the road – Tom Brady.
    Jason Kidd,Gary Payton,K.C. Jones and Bill Russell. A long list of NBA players. More than any other part of the country. The Van gundy bros. and Scott Brooks – a long list of coaches.

    There’s a long list of famous freaks from his high school . James Franco , Joan Baez and Grace Slick. Some Grateful Dead that were part of Bill Walton’s two NBA championships.

    The person people should be talking to is the local shooting guru that helped him to the top.
    Why aren’t people making the from ” Silicon Valley” story.

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