Monday, February 27, 2012

The Evolution of a Point Guard

This article reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's definition of talent: “Talent is the desire to practice. Right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to make an enormous sacrifice and an enormous commitment to that, whatever it is -- task, game, sport, what have you.”

The most captivating strand of the Jeremy Lin mystique is that he came from nowhere, emerging overnight to become a star, after being underestimated and overlooked, disregarded by college coaches, ignored in the N.B.A. draft and waived twice in two weeks.

The narrative is well-established, factual in its broadest strokes and altogether flawed, or at least woefully incomplete.

Jeremy Lin’s rise did not begin, as the world perceived it, with a 25-point explosion at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 4. It began with lonely 9 a.m. workouts in downtown Oakland in the fall of 2010; with shooting drills last summer on a backyard court in Burlingame, Calif.; and with muscle-building sessions at a Menlo Park fitness center.

It began with a reworked jump shot, a thicker frame, stronger legs, a sharper view of the court — enhancements that came gradually, subtly, through study and practice and hundreds of hours spent with assistant coaches, trainers and shooting instructors over 18 months.

Quite simply, the Jeremy Lin who revived the Knicks, stunned the N.B.A. and charmed the world — the one who is averaging 22.4 points and 8.8 assists as a starter — is not the Jeremy Lin who went undrafted out of Harvard in June 2010. He is not even the same Jeremy Lin who was cut by the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 9.

Beyond the mystique and the mania lies a more basic story — of perseverance, hard work and self-belief.

“He’s in a miracle moment, where everything has come together,” said Keith Smart, the Sacramento Kings coach, who was Lin’s coach with the Warriors last season.

Smart can hardly recognize his former pupil these days. Nor can Eric Musselman, who coached Lin in the N.B.A. Development League for 20 games. Nor can Lamar Reddicks, a former Harvard assistant coach, who fondly remembers a freshman-year Lin as “the weakest guy on the team.”

“I look at him on TV now,” Reddicks said, “and I’m like, I can’t imagine that he’s this big!”

What scouts saw in the spring of 2010 was a smart passer with a flawed jump shot and a thin frame, who might not have the strength and athleticism to defend, create his own shot or finish at the rim in the N.B.A. The evolution began from there.

Eager Learner

Lin earned a free-agent contract with the Warriors after a strong showing in the 2010 summer league, where he surprisingly outplayed John Wall, the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Smart, then an assistant under Don Nelson, noticed something in Lin’s first pickup game against the Warriors’ young stars, Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.

“He’s getting to the paint,” Smart recalled. “You say, ‘Man, that’s a unique skill.’ Now he needs to pass the ball, as opposed to trying to get to the rim all the time.”

Soon, Smart noticed something else. Lin was the first player at the Warriors’ training center every day, eating breakfast by 8:30 a.m. “Then, all of sudden, you’d hear a ball bouncing on the floor,” Smart said. Practice typically began at noon.

Another assistant, Stephen Silas, began working daily with Lin, and provided him with a catalog of tapes showing elite point guards in the pick-and-roll: how they got into the lane, how they kept the defender on their hip, how they drew in the opposing big man to free up their pick-and-roll partner. Phoenix’s Steve Nash figured prominently. Silas and Lin worked on drills to give Lin other options, like a floater in the lane.

Then Lin would get into a game and try to use what he had learned. But he would over-penetrate and miss the open man.

“It wasn’t there yet,” Smart said.

As for his perimeter game, Smart said, “Jeremy couldn’t shoot at all.”

Lin had a habit then of pulling the ball behind his head and tucking his feet up under him — “like he was springing up off a trampoline,” Smart said.

Still, Lin kept arriving early, leaving late, devouring film and working studiously with Silas and later Lloyd Pierce. But what Lin really needed was game repetition. The Warriors sent him to Reno, their D-League affiliate, on three occasions. That is where the lessons started to take hold.


Related previous post: What it takes to be great