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Knicks’ ‘Linsanity’ Has Stats Geeks Saying We Told You So

What makes New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin so exciting -- aside from the weaving drives to the basket, the perfect passes, the dead-eye jump shots -- is that no one saw it coming.

The best basketball talent evaluators in the world looked at Lin, 23, and didn’t see much at all. The statistics geeks did, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on its website.

Lin was a high school star in Palo Alto, California, who went unrecruited by big-time college programs. At Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was All-Ivy League twice, then went undrafted by the National Basketball Association. He latched on with the Golden State Warriors last season and appeared in 29 games. He was cut in December, signed with the Houston Rockets, released again and picked up by the Knicks. He didn’t play much until last week, and New York has won six straight games with him in the lineup.

Before his rise from obscurity, a few argued that Lin might be something special. They weren’t the NBA scouts or general managers who make player decisions, though. They were statistics geeks, sports junkies with day jobs. Now they are enjoying a good, long told-you-so moment.

Arturo Galletti, a General Electric Co. engineer and blogger who follows the NBA draft, has a metric he developed with sports economist David Berri of Southern Utah University to judge the value of prospects. Running it in 2010, Galletti says he found Lin to be the 12th-best player in that year’s draft.

Ed Weiland, another blogger, in May 2010 for the website Hoops Analyst, surveyed the draft and found it notably thin in the point guard department after the University of Kentucky’s John Wall.

“That doesn’t mean there won’t be a player or two who surprise the experts though,” he wrote. “The best candidate to pull off such a surprise might be Harvard’s Jeremy Lin.”

Basketball Math

Weiland based his calculation on two numbers in particular: Lin’s 2-point shooting percentage and his “RSB40,” a combined score of rebounds, steals, and blocks per 40 minutes -- a particularly good measure, basketball statisticians argue, of dominance at both ends of the court. Lin’s scores on those two stats during his college career at Harvard put him in the company of Steve Francis, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo.

Lin put up some of his best numbers when Harvard played its toughest teams: the University of Connecticut, Boston College and Georgetown University.

Weiland concluded in the spring of 2010 that Lin “is a good enough player to start in the NBA and possibly star.”

After excelling in the NBA’s summer league in 2010, the Mavericks, Lakers, and Warriors all pursued him. But after the Warriors signed him, they played him rarely, then cut him after a season.

First Chance

For the Knicks, he got his first real chance on Feb. 4 when he had 25 points and seven assists off the bench against the New Jersey Nets. Two days later, he had 28 points and eight assists against the Utah Jazz. Then he had 23 points and 10 assists against Wall and the Washington Wizards and 38 points and seven assists against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Last night he hit a 3-pointer in the final second to give the Knicks a 90-87 win over the Toronto Raptors, New York’s sixth straight victory. The team is marketing “Linsanity” T-shirts, and replicas of his jersey are the NBA’s best-seller online since Feb. 4. The Knicks host the Sacramento Kings tonight.

So what’s the lesson of Lin? Even the most fanatical basketball empiricists wouldn’t argue that their predictions are airtight. Berri, the economist (and co-author of “The Wages of Wins”) is a critic of NBA general managers. To him, the lesson isn’t that NBA general managers ignore data and go with their guts. NBA teams do look at numbers. The problem, Berri argues, is they’re focusing on the wrong numbers.

“They’re looking at how well [players] can bench press, and I’m not really sure that’s relevant,” he says.

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