When Talent Meets Opportunity

Two men have exceeded the loftiest expectations of even their biggest supporters, leaving the rest of us to split our time between creating puns and conjuring up black swan theories.

As Miami University’s head coach, Frank Haith amassed a 129-101 record, with a 43-69 mark in ACC play. He made the NCAA tournament once. When Missouri had to replace Mike Anderson, they eventually settled for Haith after their public flirtation with Matt Painter ended in rejection. Haith wasn’t an established program builder like Painter, nor was he a rising star like VCU’s Shaka Smart. Hiring Haith was the NBA equivalent of naming a Flip Saunders-type your skipper – a suitable yet unexciting also-ran. You don’t expect him to set the world on fire, but you also know he’ll bring a suitable level of expertise and professionalism to the job.

Meanwhile in New York, the Knicks desperately needed a point guard while they waited to see just how un-washed up part-time lumberjack Baron Davis would be once he returned from injury. Toney Douglas and a beat up Melo didn’t cut it as pick-and-roll ball handlers, Iman Shumpert is better suited for an off-ball slasher role, and Mike Bibby can’t do much more than look like Kermit the Frog on the bench. Enter Jeremy Lin, who almost had to exit when the Bulls cut veteran Mike James. Boy would that have been a mistake.

Lin hasn’t stopped #Linning (and spawning horrible hashtags) and Haith has Mizzou primed for a one seed despite having only one player taller than 6’8″. How does this happen?

Let’s be clear – there’s a reason the Warriors and the Rockets cut Lin and there’s a reason nobody offered him a scholarship. Racial prejudices definitely had something to do with it, but schools and NBA scouts aren’t going to overlook a once-in-a-generation point guard due to some preconceived notions about Asian-Americans.

There’s also a reason Haith didn’t turn Miami into a winter version of the gridiron “The U”. Haith is definitely an excellent motivator and basketball coach – he’s proved as much this year – but he’s also definitely not in that top-of-the-top tier of college coaches.

Haith found a group of talented, experienced players willing to buy into his message of selflessness and his style of play. Lin found a coach who runs a system that has turned mediocre point guards like Chris Duhon and Ray Felton into fantasy basketball monsters.

Recently, the “Wages of Wins” blog ran a post supposedly debunking the myth that D’Antoni’s system is generous towards point guards. They cite Nash’s ability to maintain his numbers even after D’Antoni took the Seven Seconds or Less system to New York and the system’s inability to boost Douglas, Bibby, or Shumpert’s numbers.

And this, in a way, proves my point. Of course D’Antoni can’t turn just any NBA ballhandler into a 17 and 8 point guard, but seeing what he did with Felton and Duhon, and what’s become of them since leaving his watch, proves just how accommodating his system can be for the right player. Nash is a unique and outrageous talent – of course subsequent Suns coaches would cater their system to his unique abilities, thus maintaining his lofty numbers.

Lin couldn’t be doing what he was doing if he wasn’t damn good at basketball – a player significantly better than Douglas or Bibby, although probably not at the level of a Steve Nash. The guy is clearly an NBA player, and an NBA contributor at that. He just needed his shot. Were the Warriors and Rockets inept not to give it to him? Of course not. Lin appears to be the type of player who can make great plays on a consistent basis when a coach runs a bajilion pick-and-rolls with him a la D’Antoni, but as your run of the mill NBA backup point guard not put in a multitude of scoring situations, the Warriors and Rockets probably saw a good but not great option who didn’t have that one outrageous skill that set him apart.

Your Kobe’s and your Calipari’s are going to succeed regardless of situation. They just have too much going for them. Disregarding this top 1% of the top 1%, players and coaches alike need that perfect blend of talent and opportunity to truly reach their potential. It may or may not be fleeting, only time will tell, but Haith and Lin both are proving they have what it takes when the moment is right.

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