By Steve Lichtenstein
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At one point during Wednesday’s press conference that introduced six of the Nets’ newest team members, I closed my eyes and took a trip back in time.
It’s Feb. 19, 2012 — around the peak of Lin-sanity in New York City. Behind a 28-point, 14-assist, 5-steal effort from point guard sensation Jeremy Lin, the injury-plagued Knicks shocked the defending champion Dallas Mavericks at Madison Square Garden.
With Amar’e Stoudemire ineffective and Carmelo Anthony not even in uniform, the Knicks’ best five that night was a lineup of Lin, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Jared Jeffries.
Lin not only was dominant, but he coaxed maximum performances from some very flawed players.
When I regained focus Wednesday I looked up at Lin, who was surrounded by a similar cast of characters that, as one writer put it, is less of an NBA “Who’s Who” than “Who? Who?”
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks may have landed his top target in Lin during this recent free agency period, but the overall talent upgrade from last season’s 21-61 abomination was not overly significant.
On the stage with Lin at the Nets sparkling practice facility were forwards Trevor Booker and Anthony Bennett, center Justin Hamilton, and guards Joe Harris and Caris LeVert, the Nets’ first-round draft pick obtained in the Thaddeus Young deal who is recovering from his third foot surgery. Veteran free agent pick-ups Greivis Vasquez, Randy Foye and Luis Scola were not present due to other commitments. Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn’s second-round draft choice, was the toast of a separate media event at the end of June near where he grew up on Coney Island.
Of the five returnees (Brook Lopez, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Chris McCullough and Sean Kilpatrick) from a season ago, only Lopez is a sure bet to start on opening night.
Yet there are pundits making the rounds postulating that the Nets will be “sneaky good” in 2016-17. I’m not really sure what that means, but if they have any shot at reaching even 30 wins, they’re going to need Lin to re-create the magic from four seasons ago.
“We’re looking to him (Lin) for leadership,” said Brooklyn’s rookie coach, Kenny Atkinson, who not coincidentally was an assistant under Mike D’Antoni in New York and has been credited by Lin for hastening his development. “I kept an eye on him in Charlotte (last season) and I thought he did a great job. I’m looking forward to big things from him.”
However, cautioned Lin, don’t expect Lin-sanity II.
“I will be myself, but I don’t really draw too many comparisons to the phenomenon,” Lin said. “People are always trying to compare me to that (season), but in a lot of ways — not in a negative way — it kind of dehumanizes me to refer to me as a phenomenon. I’m going to be here, I’m going to keep playing my game, and whatever you guys (the media) want to call it, it’s up to you guys.”
The 27-year-old Lin is just not the same player who took the Big Apple by storm. He signed a free agent contract with Houston the following offseason and has been somewhat humbled after subsequent stints with the Lakers and the Hornets over the past two seasons, starting just 43 of the 152 games he played.
That’s not entirely a bad thing — his 3-point shooting efficiency has improved and his turnover rate has decreased as he’s matured into a legitimate NBA contributor, as opposed to a flash in the pan.
“I think he’s grown, and he’s certainly grown in terms of his basketball IQ,” Marks said of Lin. “Kenny is going to be putting him in opportunities where he’s a facilitator out there. His job is to get other guys shots. It’s not just him shooting the ball.”
Lin won’t be totally without weapons. Lopez is one of the league’s best finishers off pick-and-roll passes, one of Lin’s strengths. The hope is that players like Bogdanovic, Scola and Vasquez can space the floor to give Lin more driving room.
Also working in Brooklyn’s favor are the stats that show how much better Lin has historically performed as a starter versus coming off the bench. According to basketball-reference.com, Lin has shot 22 percentage points better from the field and 39 points better from 3-point range when starting over the course of his career. His assist and turnover rates are also superior as a starter.
Only 25 of those starts came during his tenure with the Knicks. Many forget how fleeting Lin-sanity was.
The trust that was built during Lin’s prior relationship with Atkinson was the foundation that allowed him to quickly come to terms with the Nets on a three-year $36 million deal at the onset of the free agency negotiating period.
“I know that he’s (Atkinson) going to be the guy that gets up the earliest in the morning, and he’s going to watch the most film, and he’s going to be the most attentive to the details,” Lin said. “I felt like coming into this position I know that at least he’s going to do everything he can to grow and to make this team what it needs to be to win.”
That certainly won’t happen overnight. Lin compared signing with Brooklyn to investing in a start-up company.
“You don’t necessarily look at the product right then and there, at that moment, that isn’t perfect,” Lin said. “But you’re kind of betting on the founder. You’re betting on what that person is capable of doing — and that’s kind of how I saw this. I’m betting on certain people. I’m betting on Kenny, I’m betting on Sean, I’m betting on myself, I’m betting on Brook Lopez.”
Not as much as the Nets are betting on Lin.
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