Full Speed Ahead

HOUSTON - You likely need no introduction to the Jeremy Lin story. Since he burst onto the international stage in early 2012, his every pass, dribble and shot have been dissected in ways the 24-year-old never could have imagined or braced for back when he was entering the league as an undrafted rookie out of Harvard. Now, however, the newness of that unexpected fame has faded, making way for a new normal: a reality that’s less about learning how to handle life beneath the microscope and more intent upon his perpetual quest for self-improvement – both on and off the court.

Rockets.com’s Jason Friedman caught up with Lin over the weekend, and what follows is a transcript of a conversation touching upon everything from the intricacies of playing the point guard position to accepting the elements of life that lie outside of his control.

JCF: How would you compare this summer to last year’s? I know last year was so chaotic for you, not just switching teams, but also having to rehab coming off of knee surgery. I assume this offseason has been a completely different experience for you from that standpoint.

JL: Last year was a lot more rehab-oriented. Last year was actually a very frustrating summer of training because I was supposed to be ready a lot earlier, but the first two to three months of the summer just didn’t go as planned. This summer has been filled with great health, allowing me to work on different things every day. It’s been a lot easier in terms of knowing what each day is going to bring; I’m not sitting here guessing whether my knee is going to feel good or if I’m going to be able to do this or that. I know what I’m doing, I have a great team around me, and this year things have been so much more focused and everything’s been going according to plan.

JCF: So what are you primarily focused on from an improvement standpoint? I imagine shooting is probably right up near the top of the list.

JL: Yeah, shooting and doing a lot of lefty stuff – hopefully that will show that I’ve gotten a lot better at those things.

I would say another big thing has been posture. That might not sound like much, but it’s a big deal for me because it made me slower in the past. That’s more of a defensive-oriented improvement I’m trying to make.

JCF: So when you say posture, do you mean it in terms of improving your defensive stance from a balance standpoint so you can more readily and efficiently change directions? Can you go into some detail regarding the recognition of that being an issue and how it’s supposed to manifest itself into on-court results?

JL: My strength coach, Daryl Eto, thought that I had really bad posture and knew that that meant, as an athlete, I was moving less efficiently than I should be. So we addressed it and he came up with a plan to specifically improve that.

It can be frustrating at times because it’s like relearning the most basic of basic things which in this case is your stance and basic movement patterns. It’s not easy to relearn something at the age of 24 that you’ve been doing since you were a kid.

JCF: And this is something that is designed to help you more on the defensive end?

JL: Yeah, the idea is not so much to be more upright, but to have less concave of a back. One example is that if you look at Derek Fisher in his stance, he looks like an athlete. If you look at me, I look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame (laughs).

JCF: I remember when we spoke earlier in the summer you mentioned that another thing you wanted to focus on was improving your mental toughness. How does one go about the process of making yourself mentally tougher and stronger?

JL: I think a lot of it comes from your mentality in training. For example: working on how your mind responds in certain situations like when you miss your first shot of a game or a drill. So whether I’m playing pick-up, or in a league or I’m just doing shooting drills, I’m constantly saying, ‘Next one’s in, next one’s in’ in order to train my thought process so that my confidence never wavers and I never even allow any sort of doubt to trickle in.  

JCF: Because mental toughness is more an intangible than a tangible thing, are you able to notice actual improvements in that area, or is that something that you really can’t know until the real games start and you’re in the heat of the battle?

JL: You can notice improvement. There are little things here and there that show your progress. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of like taking a big test: you can prepare and prepare and prepare, but if you freeze when it really counts then it’s all for nothing and you’re not going to get the results you worked for.

So I’m training every single day and I can definitely see how things are better and different, but at the end of the day, the only results that really matter for athletes is what happens during the game.

JCF: Well you’re a Harvard guy, so you should be used to cramming for tests and then acing them, right?

JL: (laughs) Not the acing part, but the cramming part is definitely something I’m familiar with.

JCF: Well to that end, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the playoffs. You and I have spoken before about how your play the last few months of the season really picked up from how you started – you hit nearly 40 percent of your 3s from February 1 on, for example – then the playoffs began, you got hurt in the first half of Game 2, and your year ended on a negative note.

Now that you’ve had a few months to distance yourself from that postseason experience, how do you look back on it now? Can you put it all in the proper perspective and rationally realize that a disappointing couple weeks shouldn’t diminish the significance of months of significant improvement?

JL: It definitely didn’t end the way I wanted it to end. I try to remind myself of those times when I’m training.

One of the worst feelings as a player is the feeling of being out on the court and feeling like you’re unable to do anything or unable to make an impact or unable to control the game, especially as a point guard. I have that memory, I know what it feels and tastes like. Throughout the offseason I’ve been trying to keep that fresh in my mind while I’m working so that I don’t ever have to feel that again.

JCF: The last time we spoke was when you were in LA and the team’s informal mini-camp had just begun. I’ve talked to people who were there and watched you play, and the consensus seems to be that you were looking quicker and stronger than ever before. Are you able to gauge where you’re at as a player versus where you want to be from workouts like that?

JL: It’s tough to say because it’s so different in the summer. People’s mentalities are different, the intensity isn’t the same, there is no structure and so you get a lot of people freelancing and some people are just naturally better at that than others. So only so much can be taken from that.

For me, my focus is just to keep getting better, keep getting better and I trust that, when the time comes, the results will be there. In a lot of ways, it’s just learning to leave the unknown to God, and what I’m not that great at I’m going to keep working on it. Whether I have a good workout or a bad workout, I can say that I’ve put in the time and usually what that means is I’m getting better.

So I guess what I’m saying is my measure for success isn’t so much determined by how I do in those specific workouts.

JCF: That’s fair, and it also brings me to my next question which is to get you to try to assess where you think you are as a point guard. It’s no secret that this league is filled with so many very good, great and Hall-of-Fame-caliber point guards. Where do you feel like you’re at, especially as a guy who naturally came into the league approaching it more from a score-first mentality to now transitioning to more of a traditional playmaking role, especially given that you play with an All-Star who’s exceptional with the ball in his hands in James Harden, and another superstar in Dwight Howard who’s going to need the ball a good bit as well?

JL: You know, I haven’t really thought that far ahead. Honestly, I don’t know how to respond to that question right now. It’s a good question, but for me I haven’t really thought too much about that because I try not to worry too much about that sort of thing because you just never know what’s going to happen. Someone can get hurt. Someone can get traded. And suddenly everything you spent all this time thinking about is completely different. You just never know.

So for me, the summer is a time when I don’t really think about all that excess stuff. Each and every day is just about: how can I get better every day? I’m not too worried about fitting in because I don’t yet know what that’s going to look like. I won’t have a tangible understanding of what everything will look like until we all get together for training camp. But from a skill standpoint I know very clearly what I need to get better at.

It is a league full of great, great point guards. But one thing I learned through my first few years in the league is just to work, work, work and focus on that because everything else is out of your control. Would I have known that my first breakout game was going to be against Deron Williams? Of course I couldn’t have ever imagined that would happen, that I’d have a great game against him and be right there with him when it comes to going back-and-forth. I had no idea. That’s not what I was planning for, but that was just the result of all the work I’d put in every single day. That’s the only thing I can control.

JCF: That’s an awesome answer which is too bad because now it means I’m about to make the worst segue of all time. I wanted to steal a question from Zach Lowe who likes to pose this query to point guards: We all know this is a pick-and-roll league and in Dwight Howard you now have perhaps the premier pick-and-roll roll man on the planet. So when you’re running the pick-and-roll, what are you reading, what are you keying on so that you can exploit the defense? Are you focused more on your defender, or the big man charged with defending the play?

JL: First and foremost, I look at the big man who’s guarding whoever is setting the pick. That’s the first read because if he’s not there then you don’t have to worry about everything.

Then it’s important to see how he’s playing you because if it’s a Miami trap type thing, you need to know ahead of time that, ‘I need to get the ball to my big or to some other release, and I need to do it quickly.’ Now if it’s Tim Duncan and he’s kind of “soft” showing and he’s kind of zoning you up, then you know you’re going to have a little more time to make your decision and he’s not going to give you anything right away; you’re going to have to be patient. Then there are some guys who just aren’t disciplined and you can split the screen and blow by them, or some guys are slow and you can exploit certain things. So that’s the first thing I look at.

Now the fact that Dwight Howard will be rolling down the paint is going to greatly affect how that big man plays me – how much space he gives me, how far up he gets on me, how much he commits to me – Dwight Howard is going to change all of that. Every team is going to approach it differently, but the end result is we’re going to have a lot more space to operate just by his mere presence on the floor.

JCF: I don’t want to ask you to give up any of your secrets, but is there one strategy for defending the pick-and-roll that you’re more wary of than others, or does it really just come down to the personnel in charge of running that strategy?

JL: I would say it has way more to do with the personnel. A great defender like a Tyson Chandler can play multiple types of pick-and-roll defense and do them all well whereas some guys just can’t do any of them well. And then when you look at systems, a team like San Antonio isn’t going to let you come off the pick-and-roll and get a layup, but you might see another team – and it doesn’t matter what system or coverage they run – you’re going to find a way to get a layup against them.

So much of it just comes down to who that big man is, how agile he is, how he uses his hands, how much he sells out, etc. Some guys, if you watch their feet carefully, they’ll sell out a lot of times and you can just tell when they don’t want to play defense. You can just look at their body position and know they’re not interested and know that you’re getting a layup. But you’ll never see that from a Tim Duncan.

JCF: No, you most definitely won’t. Wrapping up here, you’re about to embark on a nearly month-long trip to Asia. What’s the gist of what this trip is all about for you?

JL: It’s everything from endorsement appearances: public appearances, photo shoots, commercial shoots. That’s one aspect and the other is a basketball camp that we’re doing for the kids which for me is all about giving back to the game and growing the game. Then I’ll also be doing a lot of charity work; there are certain things I’ll be doing in Taiwan and China that are on my heart. Then the last thing is my evangelical event to share my testimony. Every year I write up a testimony about what God has taught me in the last year and I share that with whoever will listen.

JCF: Do you feel like your life, after the roller coaster and the resulting international celebrity, has at least reached some sort of equilibrium, if not normalcy, now?

JL: Oh, for sure. It’s much more normal now. Part of it is things have died down a bit from the whole Linsanity era but the other part has to do with adjusting and coming to accept that this is my life and this is what my life will look like now – that’s just the reality. So it’s a little bit of both, but it’s definitely a lot more normal than it had been in the past. That’s one thing I love about coming back home (to California): when I do come home, everything seems a lot more normal.

JCF: So it sounds like over the last year or so you’ve learned how to better deal with the inherent instability of life in the NBA. To a certain extent there’s education, to a certain extent there’s acceptance, and then to a certain extent it’s just the realization that so much is out of your control so you just have to focus on how you’re going to respond to whatever situation comes your way.

I know that makes it sound so simple – and I know it’s not – but is that basically what this last year-plus has been about for you?

JL: Yeah, I would say that’s true for everybody in their life, but it’s just been more magnified for my life over the last year. You summed it up really well. It’s just learning to take what comes in the journey of life. For me it’s understanding how to respond or react, or to be that person who uses the platform in the way God is calling me to do.

For me, going back to Asia and doing these things, that’s important to me because it reminds me: this is why God has put me here – it’s for this evangelical event, or the charity work, or growing the game. Even the endorsement side, it’s building the brand or building the platform and gaining that leverage so that when you do want to do something or do have a message, people will listen. I think it’s all intertwined with the bigger picture.

JCF: Last question, Jeremy, and it’s far and away the most important: Have you completely caught up on your Naruto watching, or are you still way behind?

JL: (laughs) I’m in a serious stall. I was going strong for a little bit and then once my training ramped up it kind of got lost in the shuffle. But that’s a great point you brought up. That’s the most important thing and I will absolutely get back on that (laughs). My little brother loves watching so he talks about it a lot. I need to be able to keep up with the conversation.

JCF: Well I don’t know how much free time you’re going to have in Asia, but maybe when you’re hanging out in your hotel room you can crank out a few episodes here and there.

JL: Sounds like a good plan. I’m on it.