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An All-Around Talent, Obscured by His Pedigree
By CHUCK CULPEPPER
Published: September 14, 2010
PALO ALTO, Calif. — For all its feverish recruiting, televised ubiquity and legions of self-proclaimed junkies eyeballing talent, the art of assessing a basketball player somehow retains some mystery, a notion upheld in the offbeat case of Jeremy Lin, a 22-year-old N.B.A. signee.
A little-known 6-foot-3 point guard, Lin wowed an N.B.A. summer league crowd by upstaging the league’s No. 1 draft choice. He signed a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors and is edging toward becoming Harvard’s first N.B.A. player in more than 50 years. Lin has also become a star among Asian-American fans in the Bay Area.
“Very humbling,” he said.
His eight-year route to this place stands out mostly for its obstacles. Even as Lin steered Palo Alto High School to a 2006 state title, he received no N.C.A.A. Division I scholarship offers. Even after he snared national award nominations while playing for Harvard, his name went unspoken on N.B.A. draft night.
Lin was overlooked by talent evaluators, possibly because of scouting methodology, his ethnicity and his Ivy League roots.
Peter Diepenbrock, his high school coach, said Lin’s cumulative talents had long been overlooked, eluding harried college coaches catching only snippets of him on videotape.
Those skills include a rare court sense and a Ph.D.-level reading of screens. Diepenbrock’s compliments included, “He knows exactly what needs to be done at every point in the basketball game,” “He’s able to exert his will on basketball games in ways you would not expect,” and “It’s just hard to quantify his fearlessness.”
Lin’s Palo Alto teammate Kheaton Scott’s recalled, “It was kind of crazy how well he knew the game.”
“He always knew how the defense was set up and where the weak spots were,” Scott added.
Larry Riley, the Warriors’ general manager, eventually came to appreciate Lin’s court presence. “He has that special feel for the game as a point guard,” he said.
In elementary school, Lin said, “I was a punk.” As a 5-3 high school freshman and ace student, he memorably said, “I’m not here for the science department.”
Lin has appealed mostly to the inveterate observer.
There was a time when Lin was on the junior varsity that Diepenbrock marveled that a 13-year-old would implore teammates, “There’s a double screen!” There was the state championship game against powerful Mater Dei when, in the waning seconds, Lin dribbled toward a screen, calmly retreated and restarted a play that ended in his clinching layup. There was the state tournament game when his Palo Alto teammates looked listless, so Lin uncharacteristically scored 35 points.
He flourished for a school across a boulevard from Stanford University, and while Diepenbrock knew Lin as an indifferent practice player, his game would sprout to the size of the moment.
“Everybody saw,” Diepenbrock said. “Everyone knew about him. It was not a case of a hidden guy where we didn’t get the word out.”
Yet videotape could not divulge all of his value. “It wasn’t like we were sitting here in 2006 going, ‘All the coaches are idiots!’ ” Diepenbrock said. He added: “Should somebody have given him a Division I scholarship? No question.”
Rex Walters, the University of San Francisco coach since 2008 and the most recent Asian-American to play in the N.B.A., said N.C.A.A. recruiting rules that limit coaches’ visits to watch players impeded Lin’s discovery.
“So a guy like Jeremy that’s a player, he’s that much harder to watch,” Walters said. “Most colleges start recruiting a guy in the first five minutes they see him because he runs really fast, jumps really high, does the quick, easy thing to evaluate.”
Lin also realized it. “I just think in order for someone to understand my game, they have to watch me more than once, because I’m not going to do anything that’s extra flashy or freakishly athletic,” he said.
At a summer clinic when Lin was in high school, Diepenbrock asked a coach in Harvard gear about Lin and heard, “We’re not interested.”
“Three weeks later, he calls me and says, ‘I may have spoken a little too soon,’ ” Diepenbrock said.
That coach, Bill Holden, then a Harvard assistant, still stirs gratitude in Lin, for studying his game and for ignoring supposed shortcomings: Palo Alto’s modest basketball image and Lin’s Taiwanese-American lineage.
“There’s no question he was prejudged,” said Walters, who played seven N.B.A. seasons after being drafted 16th over all by the Nets out of Kansas in 1993. “You just don’t see a lot of Asian kids playing city basketball, playing A.A.U. basketball.”
Experts continued to overlook Lin even as he became the rare player to grace a conference top 10 in scoring, assists, steals, blocked shots, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage — savvy in all, flashy in none. A seasoned summer league coach took a while to notice his team thriving with Lin playing. By then, Lin had smacked into another barrier, the slighting of Harvard.
“People always said you wouldn’t be able to make it to the N.B.A.,” he said.
Not since Ed Smith wore a Knicks jersey in 1953-54 has a Harvard graduate played in the N.B.A. So Lin, an economics major, said he was startled during his sophomore season when the new assistant Kenny Blakeney said, “You have a shot to play in the N.B.A.” With Blakeney’s tutelage, Lin’s skills improved and his skin thickened against ethnic slurs.
Still, once Lin finished his heady stint at an unaccustomed position, shooting guard, the N.B.A.’s workout system loomed.
“In none of the N.B.A. tryouts do they play five on five,” Diepenbrock said. Eight teams invited him to predraft workouts, then he was overlooked through 2 rounds and 60 players chosen.
Lin understood, saying: “They’re skill work, some shooting, and they’re one on one or two on two or three on three, and that’s not where I excel. I’ve never played basketball like that.”
After the draft, Dallas General Manager Donnie Nelson invited Lin to play for the Mavericks’ summer team. Lin was encouraged because, he said, “You have teams, plays and referees.”
Through five games at 19 minutes a game, he played creditably. Then, in the final game, Dallas was facing Washington and John Wall, the No. 1 draft choice, when another Mavericks guard was injured.
In the fourth quarter, Lin forced a jump ball with Wall, made a steal, tore a rebound from a 7-footer, hit a 3-pointer and made a rousing spin move that drew a charging call, dredging boos from the crowd. In the days that followed, the phones rang. Lin chose Golden State.
“We evaluated him throughout summer league,” the Warriors’ Riley said. “All that had to happen was for him to confirm what we already believed.”
Riley dismissed the notion that Lin’s signing was a tactic to generate more interest in the team among the Bay Area’s large Asian population. But he said he understood that some people would look at it that way.
The Web site JeremyLin.net received 20,000 hits on July 21, the day he signed. And Walters, whose mother is from Japan and whose father is from Illinois, said: “Now we actually have a true Asian-American, because I’m half-Asian. It’s great for the Bay Area. It’s great for the Asian community.”
When Lin’s agent, Roger Montgomery, phoned with news of a contract offer, Lin woke one napping brother, shouted to another and called his parents.
“I just remember saying, ‘I can’t believe this!’ ” Lin said. “I was yelling. I was fist pumping. I was screaming.
“I can’t remember all that I said, but if you were anywhere near my house, you probably would have heard me.”