Commentary

Jeremy Lin: From novelty to Knicks star

Unlikely sensation admits he's as surprised with his sudden star turn as everyone else

Updated: February 9, 2012, 1:21 PM ET
By Ian Begley | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

He has been passed over in the NBA draft, cut by two teams in the same preseason and sent to the D-League.

Now, he's the impetus for "MVP" chants at Madison Square Garden, a trending topic on Twitter and the latest toast of the Big Apple.

His name is Jeremy Lin. And for the record, he's just as surprised as you are about his sudden star turn.

"I'm a little bit overwhelmed right now," Lin said late last week.

And who wouldn't be? On Saturday afternoon, Lin was another undrafted player seated on the end of an NBA bench. But three games, 76 points and 25 assists later, he's now the talk of the league.

"I definitely couldn't have imagined this," Lin said late Monday night after scoring a career-high 28 points and handing out eight assists in his first NBA start.

Peter Diepenbrock, Lin's coach at Palo Alto High School, watched all of it unfold at home in California. He was excited, but not surprised, by Lin's breakout performance. Diepenbrock had been around Lin since middle school. He'd seen Lin develop into a star at Harvard despite receiving little interest from colleges coming out of high school. He'd watched as Lin worked tirelessly to latch onto an NBA roster after getting ignored in the 2010 draft. He'd seen Lin persevere after being released twice in a 16-day span earlier this season.

"That's what he's been doing his whole life," Diepenbrock said by phone on Tuesday. "He gets one opportunity, one shot on the big stage and the question is, 'Is he going to make the most of it?' And he does.

"That's really the story of his career."

The funny thing is, Lin almost didn't get a chance with the Knicks.

Head coach Mike D'Antoni said on Tuesday that he was "afraid" to play the 23-year-old guard because the Knicks had fallen seven games under .500 just six weeks into the season, and he didn't know what to expect from Lin.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariJeremy Lin has recorded 76 points and 25 assists over his past three games.

D'Antoni had seen "bits and pieces" of what Lin could do during team scrimmages, "but there were other things I questioned just because I didn't know. And I was afraid to do anything. We're already in a little bit of a crisis and I just couldn't be, you know, pulling straws," the coach said.

Thing is, the Knicks (11-15) were in a crisis in large part because of poor point guard play. Entering the season, they'd hoped Toney Douglas could run the show with Carmelo Anthony filling in as a part-time point forward. But that didn't work. So they were left holding their breath as Baron Davis recovered from a herniated disk in his back. And the result was one mess of an offense.

Before Lin's breakout Saturday night, the Knicks were 24th in offensive efficiency, 24th in field goal percentage and 25th in assist percentage.

But Lin's ability to spread the floor, finish at the rim and run the pick-and-roll made those numbers seem like misprints.

"The biggest thing is, he's got a point guard mentality," D'Antoni said of Lin, who is the first player to have 28 points and eight assists in his first career start since Isiah Thomas did it in 1981.

That "mentality" is something Lin has had since high school. He averaged 15 points and seven assists as a senior, leading Palo Alto to a state title.

At Harvard, he became the first player in Ivy League history to record at least 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (494), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225).

"People would laugh when we would say he was one of the best playmakers in the country," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said by phone on Tuesday. "But that's Jeremy Lin: He's fearless."

That same fearlessness served Lin well early in his NBA career. After being passed over in the draft, he earned an invite to play on the Dallas Mavericks' summer league team. In mid-July in Las Vegas, he found himself matched up against No. 1 pick John Wall and the Washington Wizards.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariLin's fan club was out in force on Wednesday night.

Instead of shrinking, Lin showed up. In a big way.

He more than held his own against Wall, getting to the basket at will and, at times, giving the former Kentucky star fits on the defensive end. He walked off the floor with 13 points -- 11 in the fourth quarter -- and the respect of most everyone in the gym.

"He is taking it at the No. 1 draft pick, right?" Diepenbrock thought to himself as he sat in the stands. "Everybody in the gym was like, 'What is going on here, Who is this guy?'"

Now they know.

Lin faced Wall again on Wednesday under entirely different circumstances.

He was no longer an undrafted free agent; he was the starting point guard for a Knicks team that took the floor without Amare Stoudemire (death in the family) and Carmelo Anthony (groin injury). On Tuesday, his $788,000 contract was guaranteed (Tuesday was the last opportunity for the Knicks to cut him in time to clear waivers) and he now plans to get his own place to stay (he'd been sleeping on the couch in the apartment of his older brother, Josh, who is a graduate student at New York University).

So no, Lin, the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent in NBA history, wasn't a novelty on Wednesday. The Wizards had plenty of time to devise a game plan for him. Still, Lin more than lived up to the "Linsanity" label, scoring 23 points and handing out a career-high 10 assists in a win over Washington.

Even with Wednesday's performance, some observers are waiting for the bloom to come off the rose for Lin, waiting for him to be exposed as a flash in the pan.

"That's what I'm worried about. I think the minute, as athletes, that we get complacent, that's when the trouble comes," Lin said.

After all he's been through a lot to get here -- being overlooked by most college programs, going undrafted, being cut by two teams and sent to the D-League -- it's hard to think Jeremy Lin will become complacent.

"He always said give me a chance and I'll do it," D'Antoni said. "And he's doing it."

Ian Begley

ESPN New York Writer

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