Phenoms who come in under the sports radar are almost exclusively confined to baseball. There are so many examples of this that they almost defy counting — a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden matures early, just a year out of high school and can suddenly throw a 97 mph fastball past experienced major league hitters.
Another example? Twenty-year-old Fernando Valenzuela develops an almost un-hittable screwball playing baseball in Mexico, where he is unseen by most American scouts. Even in baseball, it’s getting difficult to sneak in the door unnoticed. Two years ago, 20-year-old Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg was perhaps the most publicized pitcher of the season — before he threw a single major league game.
But in football and basketball, phenoms who get by the numerous layers of the scouting process are even rarer. In recent years, great pros like LeBron James became practically household names while still in high school.
So far, there might be not be a more intriguing question about the Knicks’ point guard Jeremy Lin than how he got onto the team without really being noticed. When he graduated from Palo Alto High School, Lin sent his resume and a DVD of highlights to several Ivy League schools, to a University of California branch, and to his own first choices, UCLA and Stanford, which were almost across the street from his high school.
By all accounts, his DVD pretty much featured the same moves that are thrilling Knicks fans now. Here’s the best sampling we’ve seen, from last Friday’s Lakers game.
But no college would bite — or at least none offered him a scholarship (only Harvard and Brown would even guarantee him a roster spot).
So, Lin must have been an obscure high school player, right? Nope. He was a star at Palo Alto, leading his team to a 32-1 season and a state title. His basketball coach, Peter Diepenbrock, said, “I have no idea why Jeremy didn’t attract attention from major colleges. You could see that he had everything it takes. You could see what he had done for us. ”
Instead, back in 2005, Bill Holden, then an assistant basketball coach at Harvard, saw Lin play and told Diepenbrock that Lin was “a Division III player.” Holden changed his mind after seeing Lin play at a more competitive level a week or so later. Again, why did it take everyone so long to latch on to Lin? Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors and a Stanford grad and booster, said that Stanford’s failure to recruit Lin was “really stupid .. [If] you can’t recognize that, you’ve got a problem.”
Well, Stanford did have a real problem: The school never gave Jeremy Lin a serious look.
UCLA assistant coach Kerry Keating did offer Lin an opportunity to walk on; now he admits that Lin would probably have ended up starting for the Bruins at point guard. What Keating doesn’t say is why he didn’t recognize Lin’s talent much earlier.
Now, cut to Harvard, which was slow to move on Lin even though (A) it was obvious he would be the best player on the team and (B) he had a 4.2 GPA, which made him ideal for the Crimson. So all Lin did in his sophomore season of 2007-2008 was average 12.6 points and a spot on the all-time Ivy League second team.
Okay, but as far as the NBA goes, he was invisible at Harvard, right? Except that by his junior year, he was the only NCAA Division I men’s player to rank in the top ten in his conference for scoring, rebounding, assistants, steals, blocked shots, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three-point shot percentage. How many other talents is it possible for a player to display?
Lin was a consensus selection for All-Ivy League first team. How invisible can that be?
And then Lin did it again. In his senior year he was an All-Ivy League All-Star. ESPN rated him “one of the 12 most versatile players in college basketball.” He became the first player in the history of the Ivy league to score more than 1450 points, get at least 450 rebounds, and exceed 400 assists.
Okay, you say, but this was against Ivy League opponents. How good was he really? I wonder if someone asked the same question about Bill Bradley?
Anyway, Lin did not become the first player from Harvard chosen in the NBA draft in 56 years because, incredibly, he wasn’t drafted. (Ed Smith was the last in 1954.) Eight NBA teams did invite him to pre-draft workouts. How could he have not shone under these circumstances? When asked by ESPN, Lin shrugged and said, “NBA tryouts don’t play five on five. The workouts were 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.”
We know most of the story from there, which, essentially, is that after receiving a few offers from NBA teams, Lin signed with his hometown team, the Golden State Warriors. He didn’t do badly, but the Warriors waived him in December 2011; the Houston Rockets picked him up but almost immediately dropped him for roster space. Finally, as desperate as any team in professional sports can be, the Knicks took him on for a 3rd-string point guard on Dec. 27.
The rest, so far, is, if not history, at least hysteria. (See Stephen Colbert get on board around 1:28 into the video).
As Colbert astutely summed it up, “This kid has single-handedly done the unthinkable: make people want to watch the New York Knicks.”
The thing is, though, that reviewing Lin’s incredible record in high school and college doesn’t begin to answer the question as to how he could have passed virtually unnoticed by the basketball establishment. Is it all an illusion, a creation of the New York sports media? I’d like to offer one possibility that I’ve not yet seen: his versatility. Players who have won flashy marketable skill sometimes grab attention quicker than players who do everything well. The amount of time scouts and coaches can spend evaluating players is finite, and when a player has five or six skills — or if his greatest skill is simply that difficult-to-define quality which makes a team gel — then he is often passed up.
It might simply be that nobody expected a an Asian-American Harvard graduate basketball player to even exist — Lin almost sounds like a creation of a boy’s sports book like Johnny Chung, the All-America Halfback of the 1940s novels.
It’s hard to discount the Asian factor in the basketball hierarchy’s failure to recognize Lin earlier. Ironically, what is now making him a superstar might have been what initially kept him from being noticed in the first place. Welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather, Jr. recently tweeted that “Jeremy Lin is a good player, but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.”
Not in New York, Floyd.