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Lin scores a fresh identity as a solid basketball player

Hornets guard Jeremy Lin (right) goes after a loose ball against the Heat's Luol Deng in Game 4 of their play-off series.
Hornets guard Jeremy Lin (right) goes after a loose ball against the Heat's Luol Deng in Game 4 of their play-off series. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • For the past five years, Jeremy Lin has felt multiple, disparate identities foisted upon him: undrafted underdog, franchise saviour, overpaid mercenary. None quite fitted.

But over these past six months, a calibration seems to have occurred. One half-step away from the spotlight, Lin has nurtured an existence that comfortably rests somewhere between the short-burst ecstasy of his time with the New York Knicks and the protracted bewilderment of his stints with the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers: solid basketball player.

As a reserve this season for the Charlotte Hornets, Lin contributed steadily to a group that enjoyed an exciting run to the play-offs. He reasserted himself as deft scorer, capable of catching fire in the right conditions.

Finishing seventh in the National Basketball Association's Sixth Man of the Year voting, he reset his value as an attractive target for teams this summer, should he, as expected, decide to become a free agent.

In an interview last month, Lin said that he felt liberated by a firmer sense of who he is.

"I think I'm just in a different place, mentally, spiritually, where I'm able to enjoy this job more and more," he said.

"The lows don't affect me the way they used to any more."

It seems that he has broken out of the cycle of hype and backlash that shadowed him after a sudden emergence with the Knicks in 2011-12 catapulted him to the national stage.

With the Lakers last season, he seemed miscast inside the team's ponderous offensive system. He was a free agent after the Lakers' 21-win season, and suitors were not quite knocking down his door.

But the Hornets envisioned a role for him, and coach Steve Clifford pitched him a system that would emphasise fast play and pick-and-rolls - the lively conditions in which Lin thrives.

The Hornets had missed the play-offs last year, and they had ambitions to re-establish themselves as post-season contenders. It was an intriguing opportunity.

"Going through what he went through last year, and then coming here and having a chance to do something special, he was down for it," Charlotte centre Al Jefferson said. "In this league, you want a winning situation, and normally everything else will take care of itself."

Lin signed a modest contract: two years for US$4.37 million (S$5.87 million), with a player option on the second year. It has been a mutually beneficial agreement. On the court, he averaged 16.1 points per 36 minutes during the regular season, his highest single-season average since his days in New York. In five games he notched 25 points or more, including a 35-point performance against the Toronto Raptors and a 29-point game in a surprise win over the San Antonio Spurs.

As the regular season wound down, Clifford praised Lin for a "terrific year". He said there were facets of his game that seemed to go under-appreciated.

"He's a much, much better defender than people realise," Clifford said. "He competes hard every night."

Lin demurred when asked about the coming summer, whether he might opt out and what he might seek. He noted it would be disrespectful to the Hornets organisation and his team-mates to discuss personal business during the play-offs. Charlotte were battling to keep their post-season alive this morning (Singapore time), when they faced the Miami Heat in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.

Lin played his part in getting the series to a deciding game. He scored a team-high 18 points in Game 3, and followed that up with a 21-point outing in Game 4. The Hornets won those games to level the best-of-seven series at two apiece.

Several teams could use his services. The Brooklyn Nets' hiring of the Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson to coach their team next season led some media outlets to speculate on whether Brooklyn could be an attractive destination for Lin. Atkinson was an assistant with the Knicks during the Linsanity days. Since last summer, the focus has been on altering his jump shot - still a weak point in Lin's game - with help from a shooting coach. Clifford predicted Lin's three-point-shooting average would rise starting next season.

"I think he's got another big jump in his game," he said.

And then, maybe, another label in a short career full of them.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Lin scores a fresh identity as a solid basketball player'. Print Edition | Subscribe