By Steve Lichtenstein
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With literally every expert forecasting a miserable season ahead for the Nets, the players were unanimous in telling the media day attendees on Monday that they don’t mind flying below the radar.
However, thanks to Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks making point guard Jeremy Lin his signature free agent signing over the summer, that might just prove impossible.
For as much as Lin would prefer that the 2012 New York City phenomenon known as “Linsanity” recede into legend, there will still be hordes of interested parties that will continue to chronicle his every move on and off the basketball court.
Lin was surrounded by cameras and recorders inside the Nets’ practice facility on Monday, which figures to be a common occurrence throughout the season no matter the lousiness of Brooklyn’s record, so long as he’s healthy enough to play.
After a 16-minute Q&A, Lin headed over to a separate media contingent for another 15 minutes to do a press conference in Chinese. The crowds around the other Nets players being interviewed were noticeably smaller following Lin’s departure from the scene.
Lin insisted his decision to return to the city spotlight had nothing to do with reaffirming his celebrity status.
“In no way am I trying to recreate anything (in Brooklyn) or trying to redo (Linsanity),” Lin said. “I’m very big on always pushing forward and what’s next. That’s just how I’m wired. I don’t really dwell on the past, whether it’s regrets or accomplishments.”
The 28-year-old is the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the league. His popularity exploded when he was thrust from obscurity into the Knicks’ lineup in February 2012 and instantly revived the team’s playoff hopes in a highly entertaining manner.
The league gained legions of fans devoted to Lin, but his ethnicity also contributed to a polarization regarding his actual ability.
“(My story) has been a double-edged sword,” Lin said. “Anything I do is hyper-magnified in a good way and a bad way. People are quicker to discount me or say certain things because of my race and then when I do well, people are quicker to say, ‘Oh, my god, he’s so amazing, he’s the truth,’ because of my race or because of the way I look.”
Lin continued, “Even coming out of college, it was, ‘Oh, he’s deceptively athletic.’ I don’t really understand why I can’t just be athletic or unathletic. I’m not sure what’s deceptive about it. We all know it’s just perception. So in some ways Linsanity wouldn’t have been Linsanity if I was a different skin color most likely. It wouldn’t have been as big of a deal, so that went to my advantage. But if you look at prior to that, there were definitely obstacles or barriers or stereotypes that I had to fight along the way.”
The reality is that Lin has developed into a pretty decent NBA player since that one magical season in the Big Apple.
With Charlotte last season, Lin was instrumental in the Hornets’ rise from mediocrity to their best record since the team was re-franchised as the expansion Bobcats in 2004. He averaged 11.7 points in 26.3 minutes per game, mostly coming off the bench.
His defense, once derisively mocked by many around the league, has improved to the point that the Hornets were about three points per 100 possessions better when Lin was on the court versus when he was sitting, and his defensive rating was almost two points better than starter Kemba Walker’s.
Now Lin will get his first opportunity to pilot a team from training camp forward since 2013, when he left New York for Houston in free agency.
“I definitely feel a much stronger responsibility for a leadership role than I did in my last two to three teams,” Lin said. “A lot of it is going to fall on me and Brook (Lopez) setting the tone every day in workouts and even how we live and take care of our bodies. I really enjoy being back in that position.”
If there was one spot where the Nets’ talent deficit during last season’s 21-61 nightmare hurt the most, it was at point guard. Even before starter Jarrett Jack tore his ACL on Jan. 2 at Boston, the Nets’ offense was often stagnant.
With Lin, who agreed to a three-year, $36 million contract on the first day of free agency, the Nets should see an immediate improvement in their ball movement. Lin’s superior vision should be a boost to a pure shooter like wing Bojan Bogdanovic and similar to how Lin helped a journeyman named Steve Novak secure a four-year guaranteed contract for $15 million after a small sample of them playing together in New York.
A big part of Lin’s job will be finding chemistry with Lopez, the Nets 28-year-old 7-foot center who is one of the best finishers in the league — provided someone can get him the ball.
“(Lopez) is just talented,” Lin said. “There’s no way that he can’t score. We’re talking jump shots from the outside, dunking on you, jump hooks, off foot, right-hand, left-hand, fadeaway, back to the basket, face up, pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll — every which way — he has it all. He’s going to make my life a lot easier, I can tell you that.”
Training camp officially begins on Tuesday, but Lin and Lopez have already gotten a head start.
“(Lin) has been in here, working in drills,” Lopez said.
“Obviously in the pick-and-roll, getting to figure out each other’s spots. Where we like the ball, where he likes his picks, stuff like that.”
Lin’s perimeter shot is still a work in progress, and he knows it must improve to gain opponents’ respect so they don’t overload on Lopez.
“I continue to change my shot so it’s lower and more fluid,” Lin said. “I feel like last season I tried to change it, but for me it takes a little bit more than just one summer. Continuing on that path, I feel way more confident in it the second year around.”
Lin is most confident that he will continue to develop because he is back at work with Kenny Atkinson, the Nets new coach who was an assistant during Lin’s ascension with the Knicks.
In what way was Atkinson helpful?
“Everything,” Lin said. “Because for me a big part of my game is mental, so I have to be in the right frame of mind. (Atkinson) pushing me and bringing that energy — that alone was therapy in a lot of ways. So for him just to be there, let alone teaching me everything — we were watching film of all our Knicks games when I wasn’t even playing. We were watching film from everywhere. We were working on things — all different types of skills and techniques that I never really thought of before.”
Atkinson’s record of development will be tested in Brooklyn given the utter dearth of prime talent on the roster. Outside of Lin, Lopez, Bogdanovic and forward Trevor Booker, Atkinson’s options will be either a few veterans on their last legs (Luis Scola, Randy Foye and Greivis Vasquez) or relative newbies in their first or second year of professional basketball (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and rookies Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead).
Rounding out the projected roster are players such as Anthony Bennett, Justin Hamilton and Sean Kilpatrick, who though still young have bounced around a bit and are hoping they can finally call Brooklyn home.
While the progress of those players will be appropriately measured over the course of this season, it will be relegated to side stories.
Whether he likes it or not, the banner headlines will belong to Jeremy Lin.
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