Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard
ATLANTA -- Jeremy Lin isn't quite used to being an Atlanta Hawk yet. It is a sentiment that involves more than just being on a new team in a new city.
After a ruptured right patellar tendon ended his 2017-18 season on opening night, Lin's universe shifted. Instead of trying to lead the Brooklyn Nets as their point guard, he was tasked with the arduous, sometimes lonely process of healing an injured leg for the second time in two seasons.
"The NBA feels a little bit foreign to me," Lin said, "because last year I moved to Vancouver during the whole seasons to do my rehab, so I’m just very far removed from my everyday life."
Lin returned to the NBA last night in the Hawks' preseason opener, a 116-102 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lin came off the bench, made 2 of his 4 shot attempts and and finished with 4 points and 3 assists.
"I felt good," Lin said afterward. "Obviously, there are some things that are going to take a little bit of time: my speed, my explosiveness, and things like that. But I played a game, I didn't get hurt, and it was my first game experience in a long time. I'm just thankful."
Lin showed flashes of himself in the 16 minutes that he played. If he didn't beat anyone with a first step that is still in the process of being restored, he did beat them with his experience and command for the game. Take for instance, this assist to DeAndre' Bembry.
Lin kept his dribble alive, took advantage of Bembry's hard cut, and ran two Pelicans defenders into each other's way.
"I was telling him the other day," Bembry said of Lin, "'I like our second unit. Me, you, and Vince, we've got a lot of depth and players who know the game.' I think he can help my game and I can help him. I'm looking forward to playing with him."
Bembry finished with 20 points and 4 assists. The two shared the responsibility of getting the Hawks' bench into their offense. When Lin wasn't directing the offense in pick-and-roll situations, Bembry was trying to break defenses down in isolation situations. And, as his head coach noted, Bembry succeeded.
"Dre' is the one guy who I know for sure can get in the paint," head coach Lloyd Pierce said after the win. "He doesn't need a pick-and-roll. He doesn't need anything. He just needs the basketball. Why waste the talent?"
Lin played as a shooting guard in high school and college, and he points to his time in Charlotte starting alongside Kemba Walker as proof that he can succeed away from the ball in the NBA. When Bembry had the ball in his hands for stretches last night, it was a similar and familiar situation for Lin.
"DeAndre' can be really dynamic any time we're in the game," Lin said. "It's definitely something that was important for us to establish in a preseason game: just playing off of each other and having two guys who can really come downhill."
One player with whom Lin did not share the court Monday night was rookie point guard Trae Young. When Lin entered the game, Young left, and vice versa for the first three quarters of the game until both players rested in the final quarter. Young finished with 11 points and 8 assists in his NBA preseason debut.
Many anticipate that the 30-year-old Lin to tutor Young, a point guard ten years his junior. And that's a perfectly reasonable expectation. But Lin cautioned against viewing the mentorship as a one-way street.
"A lot of relationships are very two-way," Lin said. "He’s going to help me in some ways. He’s going to push me. I’m going to push him in some ways. Of course, I have more experience from an NBA standpoint, so I can help in that area, but there are definitely things that I can learn from him."
Lin said that he tracked Young last season during Trae's one collegiate season at Oklahoma, and he liked what he saw even if he had to resort to an oxymoron to describe it.
"(Trae) has a fearlessness about him," Lin said. "He has — I don’t know how to say it — it’s almost like a humble swagger. It’s not like he’s showboating or doing disrespectful things to his opponents. He has a humble demeanor but is confident at the same time."
Lin was asked what advice he would give to Young, and Lin's recommendations echoed the journey that he himself has experienced over the last two seasons.
"Enjoy it, because these moments are precious," Lin said, "and that's not just when things are going well. Even when you're going through a really tough situation, you can still enjoy it. You're in the NBA. You're healthy. You're playing. It's a great place to be. It's the best job. It's easy for us to forget. It's like, 'Oh. We have to go to Media Day.' Actually, it's an honor. It's a privilege to be able to do that. Millions and billions of people would love to do what we do."
Lin, who was only cleared to play full 5-on-5 contact basketball in recent weeks, said that the process of restoring his explosiveness and rhythm will involve getting more reps and following his return-to-play protocol. And while he continues along that progression, he said that he plans to savor the experience of playing the game. In the meantime, he has left his own set of expectations for himself as open-ended as possible.
"Most seasons I come in with a very clearly defined agenda and things that I want to see happen and goals,' he said, "but having the game taken away from me for such a long time, I just want to play and have fun."