Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin is a player with a handful of flaws, but a lack of self-awareness is not one of them. And it's that quality—perhaps more than any other—that could lead to a banner year for Lin.
See, he knows better than anyone that his 2013-14 season will go a long way toward defining his NBA career, and he also knows what he has to do to ensure that he performs better than he did in his first year with the Rockets.
There may not be a more divisive NBA figure than Lin. But whether you love him, hate him or, as is the case with a rapidly increasing majority, are flat-out sick of talking about him, everyone can agree that last season was one in which Lin failed to reach his full potential.
Part of that failure was attributable to his inexperience, while some of it owed to the weaknesses in his game. So in some sense, he's the one who has to answer for his underwhelming year. At the same time, there were a couple of negative factors that were totally beyond Lin's control.
He wasn't the one who decided it'd be a good idea to play alongside another ball-dominant guard in James Harden. Nor was he responsible for an offensive role that featured far too many spot-up looks. The Rockets didn't use Lin in a way that maximized his talents last year, but don't expect the guard to pin the blame on his franchise's misguided decisions.
Lin is focusing on himself this offseason, and he knows what has to happen for him to have a bounce back year.
According to Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld, Lin acknowledged that he has to improve his left hand, his three-point shot and his defense. Considering that those are the areas of his game that need the most work, It's clear that Lin is taking the right steps to get better.
See? There's that self-awareness.
Rockets player development specialist Hakeem Olajuwon is extremely optimistic about Lin's potential, telling Mark Berman of Fox 26 in Houston that he saw real progress this past summer:
So I went to him and I said 'I thought you can't shoot,' because the way he was shooting, I was very impressed. He was working on his shot. He was shooting tough shots and was making them..He really has been working on his shot and I love his work ethic.
Preseason hype is nothing new, though. Especially for someone with a profile as high as Lin's.
But the fact is that there really are reasons to believe Lin could be in for a much better year in 2013-14.
Out of the Spotlight
It's been about 18 months since Lin could take a breath without blinding camera flashes and scoop-hungry reporters swarming him. Bursting onto the scene the way he did two seasons ago was an unequivocal hindrance on Lin's development.
There was no way he could have maintained the level of play he showed during his stint with the New York Knicks, but Linsanity unfairly became his baseline. That meant anything falling short of that impossible standard was somehow disappointing. And with so much media attention glued to him, it became even harder for Lin to focus on his game.
Now that a certain marquee free agent—one who actually creates and welcomes his own media circuses—is in Houston alongside Lin, it should be much easier for him to avoid the glare of the spotlight. Dwight Howard is going to be a nice complement to Lin on the court, but he might be even more valuable as a media magnet.
Per Kennedy, Lin is over the moon about Howard's arrival:
“I think it’s going to help because there’s going to be less focus on me,” Lin said. “I think that’s going to give me some space to grow and develop as a player.”
Lin was at his best when he played like he had nothing to lose. And while his hefty contract and international stardom will make it impossible for him to rediscover that carefree style, it'll certainly make things easier with Howard willingly absorbing all of the attention that would have otherwise spilled onto him.
For the first time in a while, Lin is going to be able to breathe.
Comfort and Consistency
Sometimes, a little unpredictability can help make the workplace more bearable. After all, monotony is the enemy of productivity...or something like that.
At the same time, it's also really hard to do good work when you're getting acclimated to new surroundings, new workplace rules, new colleagues and new bosses. That's been Lin's plight in each year of his professional career, and the constant uncertainty has made it difficult for him to settle down.
That all changes this season.
Lin told Kennedy: “For the first time in my career, I’m going back to the same team that I was on the year before,” Lin said. “To be able to have that consistency and continuity, that can only help."
The Rockets believe in Lin, as general manager Daryl Morey's impassioned, Reddit.com defense of his point guard indicated last month. The Knicks certainly never gave such genuine backing to Lin, especially toward the end of his tenure with the team.
Morey is a savvy executive, and maybe he's pumping Lin up in an effort to eventually trade him. Whatever his ultimate motivations, though, the immediate effect of his support is a good thing for Lin's comfort level.
Finally feeling wanted and playing in the same place for two years in a row, Lin should be able to parlay his newfound comfort into more consistent on-court production.
A New Role?
The chatter about Lin being better suited as a bench player has been around for a few months now, and I'll admit that I'm as guilty of trying to bring Lin off the pine as anyone.
But that's mostly because it's so obvious that the Rockets would be a more dangerous team if they used him as a weapon in reserve. And it's not just about what's good for the team, either. Individually, Lin is simply a better player when he's not on the floor with Harden.
Check out Lin's numbers with and without Harden on the court:
Granted, there's a sample-size bone to pick here. But it makes perfect sense that Lin performs at a higher level without Harden on the court. As the primary ball-handler, he gets to do what he does best: probe the defense, penetrate, run pick-and-rolls and attack the rim.
Maybe Lin's counting numbers would suffer a bit if the Rockets used him as a bench option. But all of the evidence shows that his rate statistics would increase. Essentially, he could be much more efficient if he were allowed to run the offense himself.
Casual fans might lament declines in things like per-game scoring averages, but efficiency is what matters. In that sense, it'd be possible for Lin to enjoy a bounce-back year even if he actually played fewer minutes.
Nobody knows whether Houston will actually take the controversial step of starting Patrick Beverley over Lin. At present, it seems unlikely.
But if it happens, Lin will be in a much better position to succeed.
Room to Grow
Perhaps the biggest reason to expect bigger things out of Lin this year is the fact that he's still such a young player. Yes, he's already 25. But last season was his first full campaign as a pro.
If we rule out his brief stint with the Golden State Warriors in 2010-11—when he played almost exclusively in garbage time—it's easy to see that Lin was essentially a rookie up until the All-Star break last season.
And as everyone remembers, he was a much more efficient player after the break a year ago.
Looking at those improvements, it seems as though Lin's bounce back might have actually begun last season. And now that he's had a full summer to focus on his weaknesses, it's reasonable to expect him to perform at least as well as he did during Houston's stretch run in 2012-13.
On the whole, Lin was almost perfectly average last year, as his PER of 14.94 attests. And frankly, that's not too bad for a player struggling to find a role in his first full season.
Realistically, he's never going to be on an All-NBA team, and he probably won't ever deserve to be an All-Star—though it's possible that voters will someday stuff the ballot boxes so egregiously that he'll wind up on the team.
But he's better than he showed last year, and there's a good chance he'll prove it in 2013-14.