Should Basketball Players Be Evaluated Behind A Screen?

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of high-level music auditions. It seems that for eons, those who ran the music world thought that women didn’t have the strength to perform in orchestras. Women were deemed not to have sufficient strength to play certain piano compositions — and to lack the lung capacity and lips to compete with men on brass and woodwind instruments.

In the 1960s, leaders of the music world finally implemented The Screen. Where the auditioning musicians once walked onto a stage or into a room in full view of the judges, they began auditioning from behind a literal screen that prevented judges from seeing who was playing. Instead of assessing auditioners based on visual cues like race, gender, height or attractiveness, judges were forced to focus exclusively on the sound coming from the instrument. In most trials, the musician auditioning was not permitted to even speak.

What happened? The number of women winning auditions quintupled. The very first time the Metropolitan Opera in New York had blind auditions, they were seeking four violinists. Women won all four spots.

I’m reminded of Gladwell’s story by the recent stellar play from Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. As you can see from the picture above, Lin is of Asian descent. And let’s face it — there haven’t been many Asian-American NBA players in history. I’ve been following the NBA since the late 70s, and I can’t remember even one. The only Asian players to reach the NBA I can recall are bigs from overseas (like Yao Ming).

We all know what basketball players look like, and Lin doesn’t fit the mold. Except that he’s 6-3 with long arms, and that he’s quick, and that he has good speed, and that he can jump a little.

Thrust into the starting lineup by injuries to other players, Lin has performed spectacularly. Nate Silver found 41 players who had similar results to Lin in their first four starts, and concludes that Lin is no fluke. The “screened” eye of stats suggests that Lin is likely to be a solid NBA player — at worst.

How did EVERYONE miss on a player who looks this good? How did Golden State and stat-savvy Houston decide to cut him? How did at least two pro teams take a smart, athletic, skilled player and dump him when he almost certainly could have helped either team?

I’m not about to accuse either franchise of overt anti-Asian discrimination. But I do believe that prejudice played a role in their evaluations of Lin as a player. Not in a conscious, “Asian people can’t play basketball” way, but at the deep-down, subconscious implicit bias level. He doesn’t look “right” to folks who have been conditioned for decades to “know” what good basketball players look like.

And by the way, I don’t think Lin’s ethnicity is the only “blinder” at work in his case. NBA talent evaluators have long overlooked offensive efficiency as a critical factor. The ability to shoot the ball with accuracy lags on the priority list behind height, speed and leaping ability. Never mind intelligence and skill — what’s the guy’s vertical? What’s his standing reach? A great athlete can “develop” the skills and learn the game. At least that’s the theory.

Start researching the NBA and you’ll find an array of blind spots and faulty assumptions from decision-makers. Playing time and salaries are determined mostly by per minute scoring — even though that’s not what wins. Minutes and length of a player’s career are largely determined by draft position — players picked high keep getting chances when more productive players picked later languish.

Want to know who’s going to make the All-Star team? Try picking the leading scorer on the teams with winning records. And no, the coaches (who pick the reserves for the All-Star game) do no better rewarding the game’s best players than the fans do in voting for the starters.

The All-Rookie team is determined almost exclusively by per game scoring.

Despite all the tools available to assist in evaluation, we keep getting “surprises” like Jeremy Lin.

Maybe it’s time NBA talent evaluators took a cue from the music world and started looking at players from behind a screen. Maybe it’s time to worry less about what people look like, and spend more time paying attention to what they’re actually doing.

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