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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jeremy Lin and Conventional Wisdom

Recently I wrote about how the so-called sports experts sometimes get so hung up on a particular skill set that they can't see a great player when he or she is staring them in the face ("Moneyball and Conventional Wisdom: Or, Why Mitch Ravizza Deserves to Play College Football").

This post happened to coincide with the meteoric rise of New York Knick basketball player, Jeremy Lin, who in spite of a stellar high school career, was not recruited by a major college basketball program. As some readers probably already know, Lin played high school basketball at Palo Alto High where he led his team to a 32-1 record and the Division II state championship. He dreamed of playing basketball at UCLA but attended Harvard because Harvard was the only school that guaranteed him a spot on the roster; the rest, including UCLA, Cal, and Stanford (which is literally right across the street from where Lin played high school basketball) invited him to try out as a walk-on. Evidently, scouts didn't think he was tall or fast enough to play college ball. It appears that they were wrong.

Lin is not the only high school star who talent was missed by the experts. Take Aaron Rogers, for example.  He dreamed of playing for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, but Bowden wasn't interested. Rogers almost "retired" after high school to pursue a career in Law, but he decided to give it one more shot, and went to play at the local junior college where, as he did in high school, he set a number of records. This time the Cal Bears noticed and recruited him to play there where he became a star. He, of course, was drafted by the Green Bay Packers where played behind Bret Farve for a few years (lucky for him he didn't have to play for Mike Nolan in San Francisco) and then became the team's starting quarterback. And just in case you missed it, the Packers won the Super Bowl in February 2011, and this past season he was selected as the NFL's MVP. I bet he's glad he didn't become a lawyer (not to mention Packer fans).

And then there's Golden State Warrior guard Stephen Curry. In high school he led his team to three conference titles and three state playoff appearances and was named all-state, all-conference, and the team's MVP. He wanted to play basketball at Virginia Tech, which is where his Dad had played and starred, but he was only 6'1"at the time and the Hokies weren't interested and only offered him a chance to make the team as a walk-on. In fact, Curry didn't receive an offer from any major college program. Consequently, he ended up at Davidson College, which before he arrived, hadn't won a NCAA tournament game since 1969. While there he led Davidson to the NCAA tournament and was a first-team All-America selection. Not bad for a guy who wasn't good enough to play for the Hokies.

Are these stories merely anecdotal or are they representative of what often occurs in the world of sports? A recent Freakonomics blog post (not podcast) takes on this subject ("Football Freakonomics: What Can Linsanity Teach Us About the Upcoming NFL Draft?") and looks that the NFL draft. It finds that great players are often overlooked, suggesting that perhaps the metrics that many assume to be indicators of future greatness may be flawed. That, of course, is what the book Moneyball is all about, so perhaps what the NFL needs is its version of Billy Beane. Perhaps college sports could benefit from a reevaluation of which metrics really matter and which ones don't as well.

1 comment:

  1. The Lin story is bigger than sports evaluation metrics on many levels. The first and foremost level, as several male members of my family (all Asian) will tell you is the racial story. Lin was clearly overlooked because of racial stereotyping first and foremost. After the first euphoria, Asian men around me (and read an Asian male columnist)expressed the fear that the Lin story will be spun to support the model minority stereotype. Down with stereotypes!

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