Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cognitive bias and Jeremy Lin

NBA fans will enjoy Michael Lewis's new book:

...Maybe the mind's best trick of all was to lead its owner to a feeling of certainty about inherently uncertain things. Over and again in the draft you saw these crystal-clear pictures form in the minds of basketball experts which later proved a mirage. 

The picture in virtually every professional basketball scout's mind of Jeremy Lin, for instance. The now world-famous Chinese American shooting guard graduated from Harvard in 2010 and entered the NBA draft. "He lit up our model," said [Daryl]Morey. "Our model said take him with, like, the 15th pick in the draft." 

The objective measurement of Jeremy Lin didn't square with what the experts saw when they watched him play: a not terribly athletic Asian kid. Morey hadn't completely trusted his model---and so he had chickened out and not drafted Lin. A year after the Houston Rockets failed to draft Jeremy Lin, they began to measure the speed of a player's first two steps: Jeremy Lin had the quickest first move of any player measured. He was explosive and was able to change direction far more quickly than most NBA players. "He's incredibly athletic," said Morey. "But the reality is that every fucking person, including me, thought he was unathletic. And I can't think of any reason for it other than he was Asian."

In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn't seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin's coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game---because everyone else was injured---and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he's simply quit basketball altogether. 

That's how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of the experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?...

Rob's comment:

As a longtime Golden State Warriors fan, I remember well Lin's short stint with the Warriors in 2010. He didn't get much playing time, but when he did he often did something  interesting: a steal, a good pass, a drive to the basket, a defensive play. I felt a twinge when the Warriors dumped him. By the way, The Undoing Project is not a sports book. Early in the book, Lewis just uses basketball as an example of cognitive bias.

Lin with the Warriors: 

Some highlights below from his early games with the Knicks:

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