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February 13, 2012
Jeremy Lin
What's Next?

by Bradford Doolittle

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This stuff just got real. The Jeremy Lin story moved from buzz to fairytale on Friday with his 38-point, seven-assist performance against the Lakers on Friday. Lin's performance in the first three games after he began playing starter-type minutes was great. Still, you might have dismissed him because of New York's lack of quality opposition this week. You can't quibble with Friday's game though, not when it came at the expense of the vaunted Lakers and their pair of elite seven-foot defensive anchors.

Maybe we should call Lin "The Organic" because "The Natural" is already taken, and he definitely seems like the Roy Hobbs of basketball. What Lin has done is not just unique -- it's unprecedented. According to Elias, Lin's 89 points over his first three starts were the most by a player since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, and the most period since Atlanta's John Drew scored 97 in his first three starts way back in 1974. You can just imagine Peter Vecsey muttering to himself courtside: "Free throws, layups, 3-pointers -- whatever he wants to do, he does. How can somebody be so good who came from nowhere?"

Fans of the Warriors and Rockets, who each owned Lin's rights at some point after the lockout lifted, might be slapping their collective foreheads, but you really can't fault the management of those teams. Who really could have seen this coming? There was plenty of evidence that Lin could play in the league, but there was no way to foresee that he'd explode out of the gate like this.

We have to be careful not to get too carried away. Before Saturday's tepid shooting performance at Minnesota, Lin sported a .625 True Shooting Percentage while using over 30 percent of the Knicks' possessions while he's on the floor. That combination of efficiency and prolificacy is unheard of. If he were to post those numbers over a full season, it would be just the 11th time a player has hit those benchmarks. The other 10 seasons include four by Michael Jordan, two by LeBron James and one each from Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Kevin Durant and Larry Bird. Are we really ready to put Lin in that class?

We've seen players emerge from nowhere before, even if not to Lin's degree. Seattle's Flip Murray made waves by coming out of obscurity to average 23.9 points in the first 11 games of the 2003-04 season in place of injured Ray Allen. Ramon Sessions didn't make his NBA debut until March of his rookie season, but finished the campaign by handing out 13.2 assists per night over Milwaukee's last seven games. Those players were destined for sustained usefulness in the NBA, but not stardom. As well as he's played, it's far more likely that Lin is going to turn into Flip Murray than Larry Bird.

But we really don't know, do we? As my colleague Kevin Pelton points out, it's the strange and unexpected aspects of Lin's tale that make this story so appealing. From an objective standpoint, Lin is exceedingly hard to project.

Before the season, our SCHOENE forecasting system pegged Lin to have a 15.9 percent usage rate and .464 True Shooting Percentage. That projection was based on him playing for Houston this season, but it's not likely he'd have projected that much differently had he been with the Knicks. The system recognized Lin's ability to get to the line and to the rim. In fact, Pelton wrote in Lin's player capsule in our annual that he's, "an And 1 player in the body of an Ivy Leaguer." Still, the package didn't add up to what Lin has been doing over the last week.

However, once you factor in his performance this season, the portrait of a top-flight point guard emerges. After last night, SCHOENE's revised projection has Lin with a 23.8 percentage usage rate, .594 True Shooting Percentage and an 8.7 percent assist rate. The only qualifying players from our database to hit those benchmarks over a full season have been Chauncey Billups, Penny Hardaway, LeBron James, Kevin Johnson, Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Mark Price and Deron Williams. That's an exclusive neighborhood Lin is bidding to move into.

One other bit of interesting evidence in our preseason analysis of Lin can be found the skill ratings from our annual, which measure a player's ability in various categories on a scale +5 (best) to -5 (worst), based on statistical criteria. Lin rated as a +5 athlete (based our ATH rating) because of his broad base of production. Not only has he posted an excellent foul-drawing rate, but he's been a solid rebounder and posted very high rates of steals and blocks for a player his size. ATH is a tool I use to determine how much of a player's non-NBA production is going to translate. (It's not currently part of the SCHOENE system.) In Lin's case, a +5 suggested his minor-league performance would translate very well and he put up a.560 True Shooting Percentage with a 25.7 percent usage rate in 636 D-League minutes last season. That may have been more telling than we could have possibly realized.

Meanwhile, Mike D'Antoni's system fits Lin like a glove. He excels in the pick-and-roll with the floor spread. As he showed against the Lakers, he's quick enough to get into the lane with or without the screen and once he's in the paint, he generally makes the right decision. There are bound to be comparisons between Lin and D'Antoni's old point guard in Phoenix, Steve Nash. Lin has excellent court vision, like Nash. But whereas Lin is more of a finisher at the rim, Nash leverages court vision and preternatural shot-making ability to pick apart scrambling defenses. Lin's court vision hasn't quite been Nashesque, but it's been very impressive.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Lin's breakout has been his continued ability to cause havoc in the lane even as defenses become increasingly aware of his driving ability. Plus, while he shot well against L.A. on Friday, Lin had hit just 7 of 24 from outside of five feet before that game, so you'd think all those defenders going under against screens would help choke off the lane. No so far. Further, he's actually playing with limited offensive options. Tyson Chandler, long a defense-first center, has been one of Lin's go-to targets so far with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire sitting out. That's going to change when New York's star duo returns. As much as anything, that make's guessing Lin's future production a dicey proposition.

We've seen Stoudemire thrive playing alongside a good point guard in D'Antoni's system. There is little doubt he's going to benefit from Lin's playmaking ability. He can roll as well as Chandler and finish off ballscreens, but unlike the center, he can pop out and knock down jumpers that are going to be much more open than they were before Lin was inserted into the lineup. As much as anything, Stoudemire has struggled this season because with Anthony initiating in the offense, he's too often in a standstill position. With Lin running the show, Stoudemire will be more of an attacker, moving towards the rim, which rekindles pretty much every highlight you've seen of Stat since he came into the league.

The million dollar question is how Anthony fits into all of this. Love him or not, Anthony is the Knicks' best player and for New York to reach whatever ceiling this roster may have, he's going to be a major part of the proceedings. If D'Antoni is sold that Lin is his full-time point guard and offensive orchestrator, than Anthony is going to have to be more of a finisher than initiator. He's going to have to run the floor, catch-and-shoot and even set a few screens. He has the talent to do all of that and much more. It's more question of willingness. He can easily average 23-25 points playing alongside Lin and Stoudemire, but the Knicks aren't going to be as efficient if Anthony reverts to his ball-stopping ways. Is, say, 24 points per game enough for 'Melo?

Shawn Marion became an All-Star small forward playing alongside Nash and Stoudemire in Phoenix. He's a different kind of three than Anthony, one that plays better off the ball. He was one of the league's best floor runners in that system, became a solid spot-shooter from the corners and crashed the boards. Again, Anthony can do all of those things and offers much more than Marion ever could. He's just got to trust that if he gives up the ball, he's going to get it back if he puts himself in a good position to score. Lin may not be able to maintain a 28.5 points per game pace, but his ability to sort out an offense may prove to the answer to the awkward marriage between Anthony and Stoudemire.

It's been a good year for pure point guards, thought to be a dying breed in this era of big-time scoring point guards like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. Like Ricky Rubio, Lin's opponent on Saturday in Minnesota, he's a traditional lead guard playing in a system ideally suited to his unique talent. Rubio is a pure playmaker, who thrives in the Princeton-influenced offense of Rick Adelman. Lin is perfect for the pick-and-roll schemes of D'Antoni. Both point guards are also similar in that they struggle with the consistency of their outside shots, though they seem to have a Jason Kidd-like knack for knocking down key jumpers when left open.

Given the way the Knicks were playing before Lin emerged, who could have imagined that they would suddenly be so fun to watch? Sure, it seems like Lin can only go down from here. Sure, we don't know how things are going to change when Anthony and Stoudemire return. We don't know how he's going to fare against elite defensive teams like Miami and Chicago. Really, though, who cares? Let's just enjoy it while it lasts.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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