Jeremy Lin and Talent Acquisition: Leave No Stone Unturned

Unless you’ve been trapped underneath a rock for the these last two weeks, are on day 20 of a month-long TV, newspaper and Internet boycott or have just been too busy with work to notice, then you’ve probably heard a lot about Jeremy Lin.

Lin, who plays professional basketball for the New York Knicks, has a remarkable story, one that even relates to corporate on-boarding or talent acquisition in general.

If you are a sports fan, you immediately know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, but watch the news or read the newspaper, then you’ve probably gotten bits and pieces of Lin’s remarkable rise to the spotlight.

Here’s a primer:

Lin is an Asian-American basketball player who just a little less than two weeks ago was about as famous as you or I and living on his brother’s couch in New York.

A Harvard graduate and economics major, Lin played four years of basketball as an Ivy Leaguer — and a good one at that. Even though he was one of the top scorers on his California high school basketball team, Lin wasn’t really recruited or offered a scholarship to play basketball at a major school. He was also a great player at Harvard. In 2010, he went undrafted for the NBA, and managed to scrap his way onto the benches of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets before getting cut by both teams.

On Dec. 26, Lin was unemployed. On the Dec. 27, the Knicks claimed him off waivers, mainly because a slew of injuries left the team desperate at the position Lin plays, point guard.

Lin’s first month or so on the Knicks was much like the rest of his NBA career up to that point — he stayed on the bench, playing some minutes here or there, but never really breaking in and getting a chance to play. Then, on Feb. 4, in a game against the New Jersey Nets, everything changed.

With the team desperate for a starter at point guard, Lin came off the bench for the Knicks. He scored 25 points and tabulated 7 assists in a 99-92 victory for the Knicks. The following Monday, again given a chance to start against the Utah Jazz, Lin scored 28 points and added 8 assists. The Knicks’ next game, on Feb. 8 was a similar story for Lin — 23 points, 10 assists. Then, last Friday, the novelty and “Linsanity” really came on strong, when the unlikely hero scored a career-high 38 points and 7 assists against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Before those first four starts, Lin had averaged just 2.8 points and 1.6 assists per game in his NBA career. After those four starts for the Knicks, Lin was averaging 28.5 points and 8 assists per game.

But wait. There’s more.

Perhaps the apex of all the “Linsanity,” as was coined via social media amid his unlikely run, came Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors. With the game tied, 87-87, and the game clock nearing zero — 5 … 4 … 3 … — Lin took the ball at the top of the three-point line, waited for the right moment, took the last shot and drained it. “Knicks Lin.” “All he does is Lin.” “He just keeps Linning.” The puns were aplenty, and it appeared as if everyone was totally abuzz with Lin fever.

The novelty of it all is its status as the most obvious of underdog stories in sports. Because Lin doesn’t fit the typical profile of a professional basketball star, went to Harvard as an economics major and was all but dismissed as not worthy of the NBA, no one gave Lin a chance. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, no one has scored more points in his first five starts in the league than Lin. Not even Michael Jordan. No one.

So what does it all mean for talent management?

For one, talent can come from anywhere. I’m sure dozens of college and NBA scouts are scratching their heads as to why they couldn’t see Lin’s talent. It was there all along; he just needed an opportunity.

Like scouts and front office executives do in the NBA, talent managers often get caught up in metrics, data and stats to draw their succession plans and organize leadership development programs. Picking a high potential is no easy task; just when you think you’ve got all the data and metrics to prove why your picks are worthy, a Jeremy Lin comes along.

Who knows if Lin’s success will last? Either way, his story has a remarkable lesson for anyone whose job it is to evaluate or assess talent — whether it’s for an NBA team or an accounting firm or executive leader.

So how did Lin, obviously a great basketball talent, still get lost in the shuffle?

Jena McGregor put it nicely in her “On Leadership” column in the Washington Post:

NCAA and NBA scouts and general managers are like any leaders looking to identify talent for their teams: They rely too much on metrics and data. They look for people who remind them of people they know, and who they think will fit in with their teams. Having to limit their recruiting pools somehow, they don’t spend time looking for people in unexpected places. And perhaps most important, they get consumed by the idea of recruiting big names with big pedigrees.

Be careful not to fall into the same old habits and traps in your recruiting and talent evaluation as the NBA did. You might miss out on the next Jeremy Lin.