“Kinda neutral,” D’Antoni said. “I wasn’t excited.”
It is hard to conceive of it now, but there was a time when Jeremy Lin’s name was spoken without exclamation points, when he was fourth on the Knicks’ depth chart at point guard, when the word “Linsanity” had not entered the N.B.A. lexicon and Knicks fans were praying for Baron Davis’s herniated disk to heal quickly.
It was another time, another era. Seventeen days ago, to be precise.
The Knicks were in Houston and struggling against the Rockets. Carmelo Anthony was out. D’Antoni needed a spark, and he turned to Lin in the third quarter — the earliest Lin had appeared with a game on the line. He played 20 minutes and produced a solid 9 points and 6 assists.
Teammates quietly marveled at how Lin was able to penetrate and make timely passes, unlike the Knicks’ other guards. But the offense never quite sparked that night, and the Knicks lost their third game in a row.
“I just thought that he has a point-guard mentality,” D’Antoni said, looking back. “He can get to the basket. He didn’t finish well. But you could see the pick-and-roll, or at least penetration, getting the ball into the paint. It was kind of like, ‘We’ll see.’ ”
Lin played in two of the next three games, sparingly and without fanfare. No one anointed him a savior, or made T-shirts with entertaining puns.
No one could see what was coming next: three straight games of at least 20 points and 7 assists, a winning streak, a dunk, a national phenomenon. And no one can blame the Knicks for a lack of foresight. If you gathered everyone who overlooked or underestimated Lin over the last several years, you could fill Times Square.
Hundreds of Division I coaches declined to offer Lin a scholarship. All 30 N.B.A. teams passed on him in the draft — some of them twice. And two teams cut him, albeit reluctantly, in December.
The Golden State Warriors waived Lin because they were clearing payroll room to chase , a budding center. The Rockets waived Lin because they were clearing payroll room to sign .
Both teams liked Lin, for his skills, his smarts and his work ethic. Both hoped to re-sign Lin, if he cleared waivers. Neither one realized what it was giving up.
“We always felt there would be some chance he’d be a backup point guard,” said Larry Riley, the Warriors’ general manager. “I have egg on my face in telling you that I did not think he was going to become a starting point guard with a good team. He’s doing that right now.”
The Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, was even more blunt, declaring on Twitter: “We should have kept @JLin7. Did not know he was this good. Anyone who says they knew misleading U.”
The Rockets are known for identifying and developing hidden talent, from to to . But Lin slipped away.
“This is not a science,” Morey said in an interview. “We try to make it as scientific as possible, but it’s not.”
The challenge is harder when a prospect is playing outside the major conferences, as Lin did at Harvard. He produced solid statistics — 16.4 points and 4.5 assists per game as a senior — but scouts had few chances to see Lin play against elite competition.
One personnel director said that Lin’s talent was not evident until his postseason workouts. Even then, Lin did not make a lasting impression until he outplayed — the No. 1 pick in 2010 out of Kentucky — in the fourth quarter of a summer league game.
The Warriors signed Lin based largely on that game, and they had him for a full season. But they had two dominant ball-handling guards, and , and little playing time to offer.
The Rockets were similarly well stocked at point guard, with and . Had Lin stuck, he probably would not have gotten the playing time that allowed him to blossom.
Then again, had either team realized that Lin was capable of 20-point, 10-assist games, they would have found a way to keep him. That kind of foresight requires more than scouting — it requires a time machine.
“To see him at these heights is something that is nearly impossible,” Morey said.
This is the part of the Lin story where luck, opportunity and circumstances take over.
The Knicks liked Lin when he worked out for them in 2010. They called the Warriors about him last year. But when they claimed him off waivers, on Dec. 27, it was largely because , their prized rookie guard, had been injured. They grabbed Lin as a low-risk, low-cost emergency player, to provide insurance behind and .
Lin arrived with the same question marks that hovered over him coming out of Harvard.