Jeremy Lin and Moneyball: The Problem of Identifying Talent

After watching Jeremy Lin (Knicks) score 38 points against the Lakers tonight, I’m now on the Lin bandwagon.  I don’t really even follow basketball that closely, but this seems like an intriguing story.

How on earth did someone like this go unnoticed?   Seriously.  He happened to get an opportunity to show his stuff as Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are injured – and boy has he delivered.

Here’s a kid who didn’t get recruited for college ball, despite a tremendous record in high school.  He was a superstar at Harvard but went undrafted by the NBA after graduating from Harvard (in economics) in 2010.  He played a few games for Golden State and Houston, but was cut by both.  He has played D-league basketball this year, until a few weeks ago.  As of last week, he did not have a contract.

But come on: is basketball truly this inefficient at identifying and sorting talent?  The comparisons and transfer of ability across “levels” (high school-college-professional) of course is tricky, though you would think that with time there would be increased sophistication.

Now, four games of course doesn’t make anyone a star.  But even if Lin proves to “just” be a solid bencher, it seems that talent scouts clearly undervalued Lin (who lived in his brother’s apartment until recently).  How much latent talent is out there?  (I think that at the quarterback position in professional football – there are significant problems in identifying talent, but that’s another story.)

There are of course also some very interesting player-context/team-fit, interaction-type issues here, and I’m not sure that this really gets carefully factored beyond just individual contribution (thus not recognizing emergent positive, or negative, player*player effects).  It’ll be interesting to see what happens, for example, when Carmelo Anthony is added back into the mix.

Well, it’ll be interesting to see how all this plays out.  There is in fact a sabermetrics-type, stats-heavy, Moneyball-like thing in basketball as well – called ABPRmetrics.  I would be curious to know whether there are ways to statistically identify Lin-type undervaluation and potential, and whether phenoms like this lead to better metrics for identifying talent.

UPDATE: Here’s ONE analyst/statistician who saw Lin’s potential in 2010.

7 Comments on “Jeremy Lin and Moneyball: The Problem of Identifying Talent”

  1. teppo says:

    Some goodies related to the post (from ESPN TV coverage):

    Kobe yesterday (in reference to Lin): “I have no idea what you guys are talking about” –

    Jalen Rose (on twitter): BTW…ANYONE that says “I knew” or “predicted” that Lin could perform at this level is clearly not being honest.

    Lin was almost released by Knicks, before linsanity began:

  2. Pat H says:

    Since we’re making Moneyball comparisons, the basketball team in the same city as the baseball team of Moneyball has a history of struggling to recognize talent, as documented by this piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

    This struggle is obviously more than just a Warriors’ problem, but they seem to have had more than their share of regret.

  3. Brian Saxton says:

    I think we have pretty good reason to think that the player//team/context fit issues Teppo raises are pretty important in this setting, and probably represent a big part of why Linsanity has been such a surprise. The interdependent nature of the task in basketball puts a premium on tacit knowledge between teammates and coaches.

    To put some numbers on the importance of this, (shameless plug alert!) Ben Campbell and I have a working paper suggesting that employee mobility substantially effects the performance of both those who change organizations, and the existing employees on the team the new person joins. We investigate this using NBA data, as it happens, and we find that, depending on circumstances, it can take 40 games to restore previous performance after a mid-season move. We interpret this to mean that even individual performance depends tremendously on the existence and development of tacit knowledge on the team.

    With respect to the particular case of Jeremy Lin, I have a working paper positing that the critical thinking and communication skills that (allegedly) come from college education make this adjustment process easier. I haven’t gotten the empirics quite right on this yet, but I wonder if the education that Jeremy Lin got makes him more adaptable in a way that facilitated his meteoric rise.

    (Of course, I say all this in the hope that small sample size doesn’t make me look stupid at the end of the season)

  4. The link to the analyst/statistician is down. Maybe others have found it as well?

  5. teppo says:

    via Omar – The New York Times today picks up on Hoops Analyst, Ed Welland (a FedEx truck driver, adding to the unlikelihood of all this) –

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