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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.)