There are no should’ves, would’ves and could’ves. There are no what ifs. All you’ll get is a an impression of pride from the Sacramento Kings head coach about his former protege.
“He got his chance with a team in New York,” said Smart of Lin before last night’s match-up against the guard’s new team, the Houston Rockets. “And things took off for him and I was so happy for him.”
You know the story by now. Right around this time last year, Linsanity swept the Knicks and the world by storm. Coming out of relative obscurity, Lin took on basketball’s biggest stage and seized the moment.
But before his journey took him to the big apple, Lin started his career in Golden State with Smart, his first NBA head coach. He didn’t play much with the Warriors. Lin appeared in just 29 games his rookie season, averaging just 2.6 points on 38.9 percent shooting from the field. Lin also spent a significant portion of that first year in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns.
When Lin broke out last season, the obvious questions arose. How was a player that good so overlooked? And who deserved the blame? The Warriors and Lin’s current team in Houston drew the ire of those with opinions. They both cut the Ivy League guard before the start of the lockout-shortened season.
The blame also extended indirectly to Sacramento. Smart took heat from fans, who noted Lin’s limited minutes in the bay area under his watch. They compared Lin’s lack of opportunity to Jimmer Fredette’s, who experienced sporadic playing time himself last year.
But don’t expect Lin to drum up any support for that theory. There is a sense of accountability that comes from the 24-year-old point guard about his first NBA season.
“It was definitely a rough year for me and just trying to find my game, find my identity,” Lin said as he recalled that season after yesterday’s loss in Sacramento. “And I didn’t do a good job of just being effective on the court.”
Respect, not contempt, is what Lin has for his coach from his first NBA stop. In the two times Lin has faced off against Smart, he’s made it a point to approach the Kings bench just before tip off. And both times, the gesture was the same – a proud embrace followed by a few words of encouragement shared between coach and player. If there was any animosity or resentment toward Smart, a gracious exchange probably wouldn’t be on Lin’s pregame agenda.
“He kind of taught me about slowing down and reading the game and things like that,” Lin said of what he took away from his one year under Smart’s tutelage. “So, I definitely learned some stuff from him.”
Handling the speed of the game was just one aspect Lin needed to improve. A spotty jump shot was another. In Lin’s case, his lack of minutes could be attributed to the unfinished product he was at the time.
“He had some games where he did some decent things,” Smart said as he remembered his one season at the helm in Golden State. “One game against the Lakers, he did pretty well. But he still had a lot of flaws in his game – he couldn’t shoot yet and he was still trying to get the ball to the basket where defense was waiting on him there.”
Lin would agree that his inexperience had to do with the absence of opportunity in his first pro campaign.
“I think it was part of it,” Lin said. “I had a lot of getting better to do. But I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t ready to be effective or be able to help.”
The numbers game on the Warriors’ roster didn’t aid matters either. Much like the glut of guards he has in Sacramento, Smart wasn’t lacking in backcourt players in Golden State. Stephen Curry averaged 33.4 minutes per contest in 74 games while Monta Ellis played a team-high 40.3 minutes in 80 appearances that season.
Despite his deficiencies and dearth in playing time, Lin’s breakout season last year was in the making for two reasons according to Smart. The Kings head coach credits Lin’s self-made success to the Rocket guard’s amazing work ethic and dedication to the game
“The young man is a worker,” Smart said. “He would come in the gym early in the morning and start working on the floor by himself before his coach would get with him. And then once we got on the floor, he’s already going through his routine. Every single day, the guy is a tremendous worker and a competitor.”
Lin’s confidence never wavered in Golden State either and he had no fear Smart said. Even when he took a physical beating from teammates, that didn’t stop his drive to compete.
“The guy’s shoulder came out a couple times at practice and you couldn’t get him off the floor,” Smart recalled. “I mean, he wanted to get back on the floor. Popped it back in and went right back to practice.”
Lin’s success spells hope for Smart’s current crop of young guards. Fredette has made strides this year while Isaiah Thomas‘ meteoric rise from the last pick in 2011 draws small-scale comparisons to Linsanity. Like Lin that first year with Smart, the two Kings guards are far from finished products. As long as they stay committed to the process, Lin-like success might not be far down the horizon.
If that happens under the watch of another head coach, expect no should’ves, would’ves or could’ves from Smart. Because maybe one day, they’ll greet him pregame with the same kind of gratitude that Lin has shown him these last two seasons.