For the third season in a row, Jeremy Lin will be forced to learn how to play with a new star teammate as he tries to develop his own game. Following the highs of Linsanity in 2012, he struggled to adjust to being a secondary option, both with Carmelo Anthony and then last season with James Harden.
Now with Dwight Howard joining the fold in Houston, let’s take a look at how Lin’s game stacks up, and whether he will be able to contribute around a Harden-Howard core..
A strong pick and roll scorer, especially going to his right, Lin loves to get free off his screen heading into the middle of the floor. From here he can dart into the lane for a layup or a quick floater, and if the defense doesn’t have a big walling off the paint he can be very difficult to stop. If open in the middle of the floor he is also able to utilize his crisp passing to find shooters on the perimeter or backdoor cutters for easy layups, although more often than not he is looking to score himself.
Now for the bad news. First, he almost always looks to score or kick the ball out to the three-point line, not hit the roll man. This turns one of the best options on the floor into a glorified folding chair. If the opposing big guarding the roll man is parked in the middle of the floor forcing Lin to the baseline (which many of the best defenses make a point of doing), he struggles mightily to adjust and either finish in traffic from the side of the floor or to make a pass that knocks the defense off balance.
Lin relies heavily on his straight line speed to get buckets, both in the half court and in transition, and when he is stopped things can get interesting quickly. Several times he was stripped by double teams 25 feet from the basket, locked up inside when surrounded by opposing bigs, or bottled up on the baseline, inspiring him to launch a risky pass all because he was forced to come to a stop and reevaluate the situation.
Lin’s passing is a hit or miss proposition: while some players are good shooters that need to improve their shot selection, he is a good passer who needs to improve his pass selection. Often he will fire a sharp pass past the defense to a cutter who gets an easy layup, only to over dribble and try to force a pass inside or across the floor which usually winding up in the other team’s hands on the next possession. He would do well to watch old tape of Steve Nash darting under the basket and looking to pass out to the perimeter.
One positive for Lin is his solid midrange shooting when stopped higher on the floor. If he is walled off by the defense near the free throw line he will often pull up for a midrange jumper. While he generally isn’t a very good shooter, he hit 41.1% of his shots from 16-23 feet last season, and the numbers were even higher when looking at just the right side of the floor, where he is more likely to pull up. Houston stays away from long 2-pointers almost entirely as a team, but in certain scenarios they can be the best shot available, and hitting over 40% is a big plus. These numbers, especially from the right side, were present from his time in New York as well, so this likely isn’t a fluke.
Often Lin isn’t able to run the pick and roll due to the presence of Harden, who is also at his best when handling the ball. Occasionally Harden was used as the screener for him, but these plays usually failed to result in much because of Harden’s inability to create space with his picks. This leaves Lin spotting up on the perimeter, a position in which he isn’t particularly comfortable. He isn’t a bad shooter necessarily, knocking down 33.9% of threes last season, but he is still below average and will need to improve in order to provide spacing around Howard.
Currently a lot of his spot up chances come from “around the horn” ball movement, when a kickout to another player results in passing around the perimeter until he is left wide open. On these looks (and others) he often takes an extra dribble or makes an unnecessary fake before firing away. This needs to be eliminated from his spot up motion, which should be the same on every shot. Improving his accuracy on these opportunities is the biggest improvement he can make, and would allow him to share the floor constantly with Harden and Howard.
Lin rates out as very middle of the road defensively. He doesn’t really seem like he’s getting torched on tape, but guys consistently hit their averages going against him.
There are definitely some positives, solid quickness and good length being at the top of the list. Lin will use these to stick with most point guards, even the lightning fast ones, when they try to penetrate in isolation. Even when he does get beat, he usually manages to recover enough to get near the ballhandler. Unfortunately with the quickest point guards he is often just quick enough to be there when a layup is going in, but everyone struggles defending those guys.
Facing pick and rolls Lin will get tangled up in the screen, occasionally comically so, but again faces the problem of being able to fight through just enough to be at the hip of the ballhandler coming off the pick. Against some players this is enough to disrupt their shot or rhythm, while others forget he’s even there at that point as they are too focused on making their move at the rim. Off the ball is the same mixed bag – decent quickness combined with ok, not great, instincts.
All told this side of the ball is very “meh” for Lin. The Rockets defended about as well with him on the court as with him on the bench. The only interesting thing that comes from his efforts on this end is a solid steals rate, which allows him to get out and run in transition where he can make use of his athleticism.
That’s really the rub on Lin at this point: average. The highs of Linsanity and the (falsely perceived) lows of the past season all end at that point, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s fairly obvious that his current game would benefit from a move to a 6th man role where he could log 25 minutes a night as a first option, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. So any improvements that help him fit around the Harden-Howard duo are going to be key to his success in the coming season, and may determine whether he finishes the season in Houston or donning a different team’s jersey.