Q&A With the Only Person Who Predicted Linsanity (Part I)

Jeremy Lin’s recent exploits are very well documented as sports journalists across the country have jumped on this story. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of these writers didn’t even know who Lin was a few weeks ago- which to be honest, is COMPLETELY understandable.

To gain better perspective on Lin’s game and background, I recently chatted with Poor Man’s Commish, a contributor to Warriors blog Golden State of Mind and commissioner of Dream League, a 125-team basketball league and national tournament circuit for adults that once evolved from the Asian-American community, but is now open to all ethnicities. You can follow him on Twitter at: @poormanscommish. He doesn’t know this, but Poor Man’s Commish was one of the first people to introduce me to Jeremy Lin, with his article Bow to the Jeremy Lin Movement written back in December of 2009 (!).

(Part II of the Interview can be found: here)

Lin-sanity.com:

Few people could have predicted the rise of Linsanity in NYC. However, back in December of 2009, you wrote that “Jeremy Lin is a bonafide First Round NBA pick”. Tell us about when you first saw Jeremy play and recap for readers why you felt Lin had the talent and potential to make the NBA back when he wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

@poormanscommish:

Let me preface by saying that I have far exceeded the Malcolm Gladwell minimum of 10,000 hours in a particular area of expertise, which is watching basketball players ranging from some organized experience to good enough to earn a living as a professional. I had no choice because, to save on expenses, I would scorekeep as many games as possible in my league. Sometimes I went from 9am-10pm, maybe with a one-game break in between (maybe not). That’s probably why I can sit and watch like 4-5 straight NBA Summer Leagues games in a row, no problem.

So I’d like to say I know what becomes successful in this game invented by Dr. Naismith. With the exception of above-the-rim theatrics, the formula is virtually the same at all levels for adults, especially the mental part of the game. With Dream League’s Asian-American community roots, we saw the most fundamentally sound below-the-rim players — some who you would say had “pro skills” — and teams, essentially franchises or sponsored organizations that spanned decades and had their own lineage of players and systems. You’d be surprised how passionate Asian-Americans are about basketball. There are literally underground networks.

So I’m very familiar with team chemistry, player psyche, player skill development, raw talent, egos, the whole nine. As far as the NBA level, I typically watch, in person and from up close, every Vegas Summer League game, so I’ve digested what makes or breaks players in their efforts to make an NBA roster. I think this is why no one else who knew Jeremy Lin, was able to translate his game to the NBA level. His coaches and family didn’t pay attention to NBA Summer League. It would have been impossible for them to picture his game in the context of the NBA’s game.

First time I saw him play was the last game of the SF Summer Pro-Am league in Summer ’08. On that night, he guarded the eventual MVP of the league, Jovan Harris, who sort of resembles a young Jason Terry in his ability to make shots. Even though Harris still scored a lot of points that night, I noticed that Jeremy’s one-on-one defense was particularly good in terms of containing Harris and Harris didn’t necessarily have his way — btw you can find these video clips on my YouTube account “dreamleague”.

Since I had been to the NBA’s Vegas Summer League for two straight summers prior, I knew immediately that Jeremy could, at the very least, be the 12th player on one of the Summer League teams. I mean, if Nate Funk can make a roster, so could Jeremy. He had the size and mobility. As I stood next to Jeremy, as with most pro players especially those that make it to the NBA, you kind of go, “Woah, this dude is sort of a freak of nature.” You just don’t see a Chinese person that big in everyday life. On offense that night, you could see some of the same moves he makes today, although of course by now those moves are more refined than before. He’s certainly much stronger and much, much better at finishing at the rim now.

As far as being a player with enough skill and talent to warrant a first round pick based on merit, it was almost exactly a year later when I had invited him to a scrimmage with Blake Griffin’s trainer’s group of players (Griffin had already departed for pre-Draft workouts). University of Kentucky forwards Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton were there, as was Hilton Armstrong, so there was definitely NBA size. I mean, these scrimmages blew away the best possible comp you could find at Pro-Am. The play which planted the seed in my mind that he could be for real was when he drove past Kansas’s Brady Morningstar from the right side towards the right baseline, then Pat-Pat helped out, and he delivered a perfect pass THROUGH PATTERSON’S LEGS to a recipient right underneath the basket. That kind of instinct and creativity is very rare.

At the same time, I analyzed all the point guards that Chad Ford, DraftExpress, and NBADraft.net had put on their boards, so I had some context. Guys like Ben Uzoh, Nic Wise, Ish Smith, Mark Payne, Malcolm Lee, et. al. I still have some old video clips of these guys on my laptop. The following NCAA season at Harvard, Jeremy just continued to do the things that you now know he’s good at, so when I wrote the article, to me, he had a body of work that was enough proof for me to come to that conclusion, as well as knowing the games of his peer draftees. It happened to be a Draft with not a lot of great point guards, but Jeremy’s basketball IQ and unselfishness in comparison to the other available point guards not named John Wall was really no comparison, as you are fully aware of now. I mean, Armon Johnson (Portland’s 2nd round pick)? C’mon.

Ironically, one of the other prospects named by Ford was Iman Shumpert. As Knicks fans know now, all athleticism and no thinking — Shumpert’s game is entirely based on instinct. He should not be running the point for any team. Other than the superstar picks like Evan Turner and John Wall, the Draft tends to skew heavily towards athleticism with little regard to basketball IQ. Also, NBA teams can’t talk to NCAA players and get to know them over time, so that makes the IQ side harder to evaluate. That’s just the way it is. So, while I said that Jeremy was a bonafide first-round pick, I said that going against the grain of the Draft. I would’ve picked him because he was a playmaker and at least the second-best point guard at the time behind John Wall, but I most likely would’ve been met with roadblocks from any NBA front office. Also, as I’m sure Donnie Nelson probably felt, why pick him and commit dollars when you know no one else is going to draft him? Jeremy’s game is obviously different. So while a vanilla GM is almost required to pick someone like Grievis Vasquez, he’d probably lose his job if he picked a non-flashy player like Jeremy.

Incidentally, there was only one Draft pundit who wrote similar praises about Jeremy, but I can’t recall his name. Relatively unknown scout who’s deep into the stats. I’ve probably written about him in my old blog at PoorMansCommish.com.

Lin-sanity: 

What was your immediate reaction to Jeremy’s 25-point, breakout performance against Deron Williams and the Nets? Just how far has he come from his first days at Harvard?

@poormanscommish:  

Well, over the past year, I had been highly disappointed with his play so I actually stopped following him (as explained more later), but one of his unwavering fans emailed me about it. Then I got an email from his mom saying, “I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but thank you for your support.” It was if she knew Jeremy had reached a summit while climbing a mountain. I wasn’t so sure, because he had had great performances with Reno, then gone back and not produced for the Warriors.

To me, it was just one game and everyone who knows Jeremy knows that he can have a game like that (as evidenced by the Boston College and UConn games, as well as certain NBDL games). So it was like she knew Jeremy had turned the corner. Maybe she had talked to him after the game. Again, it’s all about confidence and believing in your abilities. That’s just basketball. If it weren’t for her email, I wouldn’t have watched the game against Utah, but it just felt like she had a feeling Jeremy had conquered a major obstacle with just that Nets performance. When I watched the Utah game, I said to myself, “Good to see that he’s finally come around.”

So yeah, even I’ve been a doubter of Jeremy at times and been proving wrong by him. Welcome to the club.

Lin-sanity:

Lin himself will credit D’Antoni’s system as a key reason why he’s enjoying success in New York right now. Certainly, D’Antoni’s “seven second or less” and pick-and-roll heavy half court sets are different than what Keith Smart ran with the Warriors. So, is Lin’s new found success just a product of the system?

@poormanscommish:

I’ve always said Jeremy’s game is best suited in the NBA (and worst-suited for the Ivy League). Look, we here in the Bay Area don’t know what the hell the Warriors are doing, but in the rest of the NBA, pick and roll is pretty much a staple. ‘Nuff said.

Lin-sanity:

Say you are coaching against Lin tonight. What do you tell your team in order to stop him and the Knicks offense?

@poormanscommish:

If I were an ego-less coach who didn’t care what the media or public thought of me, which is very very hard to do, I would just go zone. What is Jeremy going to do against a zone? Cornell used to have Jeremy’s number and they would throw a lot of different zone sets at him.

In fact, Cornell used to have a player named Lou Dale who has a similar build as Derek Fisher. He was very tenacious and just a solid non-flashy player, offensively and defensively. Although Fisher is slow, he is very physical and tenacious, a veteran, a smart player, and has Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum behind him, not to mention Kobe covering a wing and World Peace guarding another. Cornell had a 7-footer to lock down the paint, too. The Lakers have pretty solid team defensive chemistry. They are definitely a test for Jeremy.

But really, the key lies in your big man on the defense of the pick-and-roll. First, you tell your guard toback up and just contain him. Go under every screen. You are giving him the open trey. But as everyone first saw against UConn, Jeremy’s a sly offensive player. He’ll use your own big man against you. So you have to instruct your big man to drop, and drop back to the paint as soon as possible. Jeremy’s range isn’t that good and he doesn’t really have a stop-and-pop in his game. Meanwhile, your guard and small forward must not leave any shooters to help. The only guy who can help is the guy guarding the worst offensive player (well, I suppose he might be guarding a Knicks shooter). But if your point guard and big man defending the screen do their job, nobody should be helping.

And if Jeremy hits the open shots, then okay, he won the chess match. But it’d be my duty as an NBA coach to force Jeremy to make an adjustment and change his game. I wouldn’t change that initial approach unless Jeremy made three shots in a row.

Here is Part II of the interview.

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