Why Did Everyone Underestimate Jeremy Lin?

Implicit biases deep in our psychology affect us every day.

Posted Mar 01, 2012

Jeremy Lin scored more points in his first seven games as a starter than anyone in NBA history, including Michael Jordan and LeBron James. The struggling Knicks won all of those games.

As I said in a previous post, statistical laws suggest he may not be able to keep this up. But he's undoubtedly a legit starting point guard in the NBA. Last night he had 22 points, 13 rebounds and only 1 turnover.

Yet Jeremy Lin didn't get a college scholarship after a stellar high school career in California. He wasn't he drafted after coming out of Harvard.

He signed with Golden State last season, but they released him, and the Knicks almost did the same--until he started burning up the league.

The question is WHY? Why did scouts and coaches so consistently underestimate Jeremy Lin?

Is it that scouts just suck?

One real possibility, which Jonah Lehrer explains in this Wired article, is that scouts are just really bad at identifying talent. Examining NFL scouting, Lehrer quotes economists Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams:

Using correlation analysis, we find no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance, with the notable exception of sprint tests for running backs.

In another study, Cade Massey and Richard Thaler compared two players drafted in the same year at the same position; if scouts are accurate the higher pick should be a better player. He writes: "The higher picks proved better only 52 percent of the time. The teams beat randomness, but barely."

If NBA scouts are equally inept, it could explain why Lin went undrafted. But does it explain why Golden State cut him? They had plenty of time to observe him in NBA games.

Is it that he got better?

Another possibility, put forward by Howard Beck in this New York Times article, is that Lin has worked incredibly hard on his game since being cut by Golden State.

He worked so hard, in fact, that the scouting reports didn't apply anymore. Maybe he wasn't good enough to start for Golden State, but he was good enough to start for the Knicks by the time the lockout ended.

But that doesn't explain why the Knicks almost cut him.

Was it bias?

Another possibility is that Lin was underestimated because he's an Asian-American. Or because he's from Harvard.

In other words, were NBA scouts and coaches too biased to give Jeremy Lin a fair shake? Psychologists have a clear answer to this question: Maybe.

We all have unconscious biases (also known as implicit biases). We may not be aware of them. We may not endorse them. But they affect us.

The Implicit Association Test is a measure of implicit bias. Many people who hate stereotypes and racism have been dismayed to take this test and find that they do, in fact, harbor biased attitudes. (This topic isn't funny, but this article is.) 

If I'm going to be an objective scientist, I have to admit I surely have implicit biases too. And so do you. Unfortunately, these things affect us every day.

This sounds like an indictment, but it can go the other way. Consider the recent ESPN headline used the phrase "chink in the armor." This is an offensive way to describe Jeremy Lin. But unfortunately, we've all been exposed to the hateful association between Asian Americans and the term chink. The person who wrote the headline, who was promptly fired, claims that the offense was unintentional. Given that so much of what we process is unconscious, there are psychological reasons to believe he may be telling the truth. 

Scouts who underestimated Jeremy Lin might have been biased. It almost kept him out the NBA. And to me, that would have been tragic. Reign on, Linsanity!!

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