The Redemption of Jeremy Lin
A few years ago, for a stretch of 25 memorable games, Jeremy Lin was unstoppable. Since then, he's become a NBA punchline. Now, in Charlotte, he's playing like himself again.
Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Jeremy Lin, onetime global superstar and current guard for the Charlotte Hornets, gave a short, rueful shake of his head.
"We had a few teams on our list we thought would be good," Lin said of his free agency this past summer. He stood in front of a handful of reporters, down from the scores he faced at every turn a few years ago, during the Hornets shootaround at the New York Athletic Club on the morning before he returned to Madison Square Garden. "Funny how God works things out. Charlotte wasn't on the top six list, but I ended up here. Honestly, that's how it always ends up for me. It's never the way I planned it or imagined going into anything. Ever. So I wasn't surprised. I'll be surprised when things are pretty smooth and clear."
There is a narrative arc for Jeremy Lin's career that would explain his 25-game eruption into superstardom back in 2011-12 as a blip of extraordinary luck in an otherwise middling career; by this telling, he's been overhyped and underperforming ever since. Then there is reality, which is that Lin has performed admirably and capably in the worst of circumstances—that, when given the chance to play his game, he is very much more like the player he appeared to be during Linsanity's heady peak than he had looked in its falling action.
"One of the biggest things, the way the league is going, is that he can play two spots," Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said about Lin Tuesday morning. "So he could both play with [Hornets starting point guard] Kemba [Walker], and then he can play as the point guard.... I've always liked the way that he played, and then, working for Mike d'Antoni, Mike always wanted to find a way to get him on his team again."
It was d'Antoni who gave Lin his shot. The story of how Lin ended up at the far side of the Knicks bench, nearly cut, has been told in broad strokes many times. The guy who goes to Harvard, who isn't drafted, whose skin color is different from virtually anyone who came before him in the league, who looks completely different from what the league pictures as an elite basket-attacking point guard—it makes sense that such a player wouldn't get as many opportunities to succeed, because no one in the NBA has any idea what to do with a player like that.
Lin's Player Efficiency Rating at age 23 for the Knicks was 19.9. Walker, a fine player, checked in at 16.8 at that same age. The 23-year-old Walker signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension. The 23-year-old Lin began his odyssey around the league. There was the nonsense in New York: the Knicks instructed Lin, a restricted free agent, to go sign a deal elsewhere so they could match it. Lin did, with the Houston Rockets, who structured the deal to cause maximum pain to the Knicks. This is how the NBA works, but Jim Dolan took particular exception to it and refused to match, and got busy trashing Lin's reputation on his way out the door.
Players took exception to Lin's deal, too. Carmelo Anthony, part of the same union as Lin, called the contract he signed "ridiculous." (The three years, $25 million, it should be noted, is roughly half the total value of the Walker deal.) J.R. Smith said the contract would be a locker room issue. Plenty of players are considered overpaid by their peers. Somehow, players felt uniquely free to say this about Lin.
Still, the Rockets were built around Lin and ready to put the ball in his hands—until just days before he was to play his first game with them, when they acquired James Harden. It was an understandable trade: James Harden is James Harden, after all.
Lin is a player with evident and obvious strengths—an assist percentage during Linsanity of 41 percent, which was sixth in the NBA that season, just between Chris Paul and Tony Parker; an ability to get to the basket like few others at his position. These things, though, depend on him having the ball in his hands. The Harden deal moved him off the ball, and left him to make up for the lack of basic defensive diligence from Harden on one end and shoot on rare occasions on the other. It didn't work much better than you'd expect, and after two years the Rockets were ready to move on from their Lin plan before it even started. During the team's pursuit of Carmelo Anthony in free agency, the Rockets put up a billboard of Anthony, wearing Lin's Rockets jersey number, near the team's arena. It was time to go, but it got worse when the Rockets spun him to the Lakers.
In Los Angeles, for one year of Kobe Bryant's odd post-victories tour, Lin worked for a coach who seems to live for the chance to undermine young point guards. While Lin's Byron Scott Experience was in many ways his most miserable year yet, it was also the best year he'd had since Linsanity, with a 15.6 PER. His three-year PER of 14.9 meant that, even in the worst possible systems for him, Lin provided league-average production. On the rare occasions when he was given the slightest chance to remind everybody of the sort of point guard he can be, he managed admirably: for instance, on a night when Harden was out due to injuries, Lin scored 38 points against the Spurs. When given the chance to play in Los Angeles, he'd routinely top 20 points in a game, and posted several games with double-digit assists. But then Scott would bury him again.
Lin ended the season in a unique and unenviable spot. It is difficult to think of another young NBA guard who is so routinely demonized on Twitter, his failures as celebrated, his successes derided as flukes. The league's 30 scouting departments, which had failed to identify him as a significant talent, were happy to declare themselves proved right. Hence the whispers, long after Lin's success on the court should have put them to bed, that he was "nothing special" or "still a D-League player" or otherwise a player they'd assessed accurately back when they first wrote him off.
"I do think there's a racial element to it," a league source told me. "I do think that some people thought the Linsanity period was a fluke. I think it's all of the above."
All of it meant that when Lin hit free agency this past summer, his value was artificially depressed. Lin knew, like few of his colleagues, just how important getting a chance to play in a system that maximized his strengths would be.
"I think what we were weighing, what was most important to him, was finding the right fit," Lin's agent, Jim Tanner, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "He and Steve Clifford had some very in-depth conversations about what he saw in Jeremy's game, how he would be used in Charlotte. That was really very compelling and very persuasive to Jeremy."
Right now Clifford is using Lin off the bench, but giving him starters' minutes: 29 minutes in both the game against the Knicks Tuesday and the Nets Wednesday. Lin came in midway through the first quarter in each game, spelled Walker for a time, then played in the backcourt with Walker until halftime. The same pattern repeated midway through the third, with Lin remaining on the court until the final buzzer.
Three years in NBA purgatory have allowed Lin to more fully develop his game. Relentless work on the jump shot has increased his accuracy on the midrange looks, and he's become a more confident three-point shooter; he shot 32 percent during Linsanity, then 33.9, 35.8, and 36.9 in the three seasons that followed. A recent slump has dropped his 2015-16 three-point percentage down to Linsanity levels, but so far this season he's been the most effective he's ever been from both 3-10 and 10-16 feet away.
"I worked a lot on my jumper, and I have total confidence it's going in," Lin said. "And that's a huge change from the past, when you'd hope they go in. Now if you give me a midrange, I'm shooting it every time. If you give me a three, I'm shooting it every time. If you give me a lane, I'm taking it to the basket. So for me, whatever the defense gives me, I'm comfortable attacking in multiple ways."
Lin sounds happy in Charlotte, but many things point to this as being a temporary arrangement. Lin signed a two-year contract last summer for just over $4 million, total; it's an absurd bargain he made on value for the chance to show the league what he's capable of doing, again. It contains a player option for the second year, and with the NBA salary cap set to rise biblically next summer, Lin can hit the market at a moment the entire league will have money to spend. Having Lin on a team that already employs Walker is a luxury—the two had matching 18.3 PER numbers entering Tuesday's game, which means the team effectively lost nothing when its franchise point guard left the floor.
Clifford said he absolutely believes Lin will be a starting point guard in the league. "I watch him play and, I mean, it's not like he's not doing anything that he's not going to be able to do consistently," Clifford said. "It's not like you're saying, 'He's made 19 of his last 20 threes,' or something. No. He's a good player."
Clifford noted that Lin's comfort shooting the ball, his improved mobility to the basket with both hands, and his defensive performances are all at the highest level of his career. He's scoring, too; his per-36-minute production is comparable to his Linsanity numbers.
For now, the gap still exists between the idea of Jeremy Lin as a shooting-star legend and the actual basketball player he's become. This time next year, all it will take is one organization willing to look past the years of backlash to the New York hype—which Lin didn't create and, truthfully, never would have wished for—and giving Lin a chance to play with the ball in his hands. Lin will be 27 next summer, and a team could be getting a very valuable player at an artificially depressed price specifically because of his fame.
In the meantime, Lin is content just to play basketball the way he wants to—the way he did during his career's brief peak and hasn't had the chance to do for three long years.
"It's not so much proving to other people as it is being free, having that happiness on the court again, as opposed to feeling put in a box," Lin said. "It really was a lot more personal—play the way I'm capable of playing, do the things on the court that I could, versus anybody else's perception of me. Getting out on the court, feeling free to do the things I'm capable of doing—that was everything."