Jeremy Lin is returning to New York, but to a different part of the city.
The Brooklyn Nets struck quickly in the opening days of 2016 free agency, with a commitment from Charlotte point guard Jeremy Lin on a 3-year, $36 million contract. I discussed some of Lin's strengths and weaknesses in my Kings free agency preview (which you can read here if interested), but he will be going to a very different situation in Brooklyn than the one in Sacramento. Lin solidifies the point guard slot for the next three years--a position that was covered by committee last year after the Deron Williams buyout and Jarrett Jack injury. In signing Lin, the Nets obtained a starter at a good price while leaving significant room to chase a power forward. Lin showcased his game well as a 6th man in Charlotte, and the Nets will give him the starting role and lead ball-handling duties for the first time since his Linsanity days.
Lin's greatest strengths are on offense, where he uses his size and incredible speed to sprint to the rim and finish. According to SportVU trackers cited in an article on SLAM Online, Lin had the second-highest top speed in the league in 2012-2013 behind only John Wall. Lin converts well at the rim, shooting a respectable 56.9% around the basket and taking about 34% of his shots in that area. He uses his speed to get past his defender, and once he gets to the basket he is quite good at contorting in the lane and finishing around big men. Lin is also great at drawing contact and getting free throws; his .401 Free Throw Rate was 6th among point guards who played significant minutes. Kyle Lowry and Ricky Rubio were the only starters ahead of Lin on that list. Lin shot 81.5% from the stripe last year, and will likely get more attempts there with a starting role in Brooklyn.
Jeremy Lin works best as an on-the-ball player, a role which he hasn't really filled since his time in New York. He has learned to be an effective off-ball player while playing alongside Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Kemba Walker. When he is allowed to handle the ball, he is still electric; take a look at this highlight reel from the Hornets' playoff series against the Heat:
Source: YouTube, XimoPierto.
Lin's role in Brooklyn should allow him to get back to doing what he did so well during his last stay in New York, namely running the offense and jetting to the rim. Brooklyn does not currently have a ball-dominant guard on the roster besides Lin, which will allow the Nets offense to fully utilize his strongest skills: driving to the rim and creating chaos in the pick-and-roll. The Lin-Lopez pick-and-roll in particular has significant upside; Lopez is an under-rated passer who can pop out for a midrange jumper with ease, and Lin will benefit from the space created by defenses that will have to respect Lopez out to at least 18 feet. If Brook can develop a 3-point shot, that duo may become even more deadly. Either way, Lopez and Lin will certainly enjoy playing together, and each will benefit from the other on offense.
The biggest part of Lin's offensive development since his days in New York is his reduction in turnovers. After averaging 3.6 turnovers per game in his season with the Knicks, Lin has reduced his turnover numbers in every subsequent year. He averaged just 1.9 turnovers per game this season--his lowest since his rookie year, when he played fewer than 10 minutes per game. Furthermore, he turned the ball over 3.7 times per 100 possessions--down from 6.9 turnovers per possession during his lone year in New York. His ability to sprint into the lane used to lead to messy turnovers, but he has cut down on those numbers by being more patient with the ball and more selective with his driving. Lin's absolute turnover numbers may spike this year due to simply handling the ball more, but his lowered turnover per possession rate shows significant progress from his Linsanity days.
Lin's greatest weakness on offense is his average jumpshot. While he often makes up for this with his great scoring at the rim, Lin's 3-point shot has been almost exactly league average over his career, and slightly below-average for a starting point guard. However, he shoots the 3-ball well enough to at least force defenses to respect him. if he can shoot 37% on threes in Brooklyn, as he did in his lone year in Los Angeles, teams will be forced to give him less space, which will open up more opportunities for him to drive to the rim. Lin is still a very effective offensive player without an above-average 3-pointer, but improving in that area will make him even tougher to guard.
In addition to his contributions on offense, Lin is also a pretty good defender. Defensive advanced stats for Lin give mixed reviews--Basketball-Reference shows that he had 2.3 Defensive Win Shares but a negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus. The easiest way to cut through that confusion is to look at the defensive field goal percentage he allowed--according to NBA.com's Player Tracking, opponents shot 1.6% worse than average on shots contested by Lin. He is decent at getting into a good defensive stance, and the speed that helps him get to the rim also helps him to stay in front of opposing guards. He occasionally will have defensive lapses on the perimeter, but he is particularly good at forcing his man into bad shots in the paint; Lin forced his opponents into shooting 4.2% worse than league average from less than six feet from the basket, according to NBA.com's Defensive Player Tracking. Given that Lin played most of his minutes with below-average rim protectors in Al Jefferson and Frank Kaminsky, that number is even more impressive than it looks. Brooklyn will need good perimeter defense this year to improve their defensive numbers; while Lin is not a lockdown defender, he is certainly a useful player on that end of the floor.
Noted NBA columnist Zach Lowe reported on Friday that Lin "could have gotten more [money]" but that he "clearly values reuniting with Kenny Atkinson." Jeremy Lin is clearly a huge fan of Atkinson; in an interview with the New York Times, Lin indicated his clear support for Atkinson's head coaching credentials: "I've kind of been saying it was just a matter of time for him because I know how good he is; I know how much he was there for me in New York...when you're around him, you kind of understand there's something different about him: his energy, his passion...he's always the first one in, and I'm saying the first one in by, like, hours."
Kenny Atkinson will get to reunite with Jeremy Lin next year and try to recapture their New York magic. Source: nba.com
Given some of the contracts that have already been announced in this free agency, combined with the relatively thin point guard market, it seems reasonable to think that Lin could have received more money elsewhere. By committing to Brooklyn shortly after free agency officially began, Lin seemed to signal that Brooklyn was his number one choice in free agency. It would appear that Kenny Atkinson trusts in Lin's abilities going back to their successful run together in a different borough of New York, and that both clearly valued him as a starter that could wreak havoc on the other side of town. Lin will boost the national and international profile of the Nets, but above all else he will boost the play of their team.
It would be difficult for Lin to return to his peak levels that happened during Linsanity; he mostly was able to light up the scoreboard because he did not have to play alongside Carmelo Anthony for most of it. People tend to unfairly judge Lin based on his impossibly high peak, but he is still a valuable contributor on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, he will be playing as the lead ball-handler for his team for the first time since his best days in New York. Given that most of Lin's success derives from his speed and ability to score while running the offense, he will have a better chance to repeat Linsanity next year than he could have with his limited opportunities playing off-ball for most of the last four years. Brooklyn will give him an opportunity to run the offense again in the city that made him a worldwide phenomenon. If Lin were to ever be able to reach his Linsanity peak again, there is no better place for him to do that than on a Brooklyn team bereft of other lead guards and featuring both a solid pick-and-roll center in Brook Lopez and Lin's old friend Kenny Atkinson as the head coach.