Let’s face it, race did have a factor in the rise of Jeremy Lin last season. You can argue it was the numbers, or it was the story of an undrafted kid out of Harvard who went from being cut twice, to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Or it was Lin becoming the first NBA player to score at least 20 points and have seven assists in each of his first five starts, scoring over 136 points over those five starts, which was the most by any player since the NBA/ABA merger. But the elephant in the room was always the fact that somehow, someway, an Asian player is suddenly getting all the attention in the NBA?
Earlier this week, in an interview with Yahoo! Sports expert Adrian Wojnarowski, the Houston Rockets point guard said that he has felt criticism due to the fact of not only his new lucrative contract, but also his heritage.
Lin stated, “I was a little surprised, but I wasn’t shocked. I honestly feel it’s part of the underlying issue of race in American society … of being an Asian-American. I haven’t figured it out. I haven’t wrapped my head around it. But it’s something I’m thinking about.”
But the question is: Is the criticism really an issue of race? Or is it an issue of performance? Let’s point out some of the obvious before I get to my point. Through eight games this season, Lin is averaging 10.9 PPG, 6.1 APG, while shooting 35% from the field, and a dismal 27% from three. That ranks him 19th in the league in PPG for point guards, and 17th in the league in APG for point guards. Some of the names that rank ahead of him? Brandon Jennings of the Bucks, (who is making $3.1 million this year) Damian Lillard of the Blazers, ($3 million this year) Ty Lawson of the Nuggets, ($2.5 million) and Kemba Walker of the Bobcats ($2.4 million), compared to Lin’s $8.3 million. While Lin does rank 3rd in the league in steals per game for point guards, Jennings and Walker both rank ahead of him, not to mention that Jennings has Milwaukee in first place in the Central Division, and Walker has the Bobcats above .500 after the team set the record for lowest winning % in NBA history last season.
So then why should point guards like Jennings, Lillard, Lawson, or Walker not treat Jeremy Lin like a target when they play him? Why should they NOT feel unappreciated or under-valued when they play against Lin by their respective franchises, and the NBA? How is a player who is clearly outperforming Lin, while getting paid significantly less, and receiving way less attention and endorsements than him, not want to absolutely embarrass or dominate him whenever they get a chance?
Let’s be clear: I am not dismissing race in all of this, it clearly has a part. When you are the first in anything, or clearly a minority in a field, as Lin is really the first well-known Asian American NBA player, you automatically become a target. Just ask Jackie Robinson, James Harris, or even recently, Yao Ming.
“I’ve always been a target,” Lin says. “Everyone looks me and says, ‘I’m not going to let that Asian kid embarrass me. I’m going to go at him.’ That’s how it’s been my whole life. This has been different, though. Now, I was on the scouting report. People started to pay attention to what I could and couldn’t do. But a target? I was used to that. I’m not saying I get everyone’s best shot, but I would say people don’t want to be embarrassed by me because of my skin color.”
As an Asian American man, I completely understand with where Lin is coming from as I too, grew up around the game of basketball, and went through some of the same statements. But in the NBA in 2012, most players will not think that way. There are other incentives of why players do not want to be embarrassed by another player, with race being at the bottom of the list, if at all. If Jeremy Lin was a backup point guard making the salary minimum this year, would he still be a target? Absolutely not.
The real target lies in Jeremy Lin’s paycheck, and if Lin’s sub-par production continues, much more criticism will continue throughout the season.