CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Part of the fun of watching sports is the off-court arguments that go along with the on-court action.
Who’s better, Magic or Bird? LeBron or Jordan?
Saunders or Lin?
OK, Wesley Saunders hasn’t exactly reached the one-name status of someone like Jeremy Lin, the former Harvard star who took the basketball world by storm with the New York Knicks two years ago.
So that last one may not be on quite the same level (outside of the dorm rooms of the most diehard Crimson fans, that is) as the Magic-Bird or LeBron-Jordan debates. But after Saunders led the Crimson in points (24), rebounds (nine), assists (seven) and steals (three) against Princeton on Friday night, he became the first Harvard player to lead the team in those four categories in a single game since Jeremy Lin did it in 2009.
And the similarities don’t end there.
According to research by Harvard’s Andy Chesebro, Lin finished his senior season ranked in the top 10 in the Ivy League in nine different offensive categories. Through four Ancient Eight games in 2013-14, Saunders is also ranked in the top 10 in the league in nine different categories. The same nine categories as Lin, in fact (see table).
So when a reporter somewhat gingerly asked Tommy Amaker if it’s fair to compare the two California natives (Lin is from Palo Alto; Saunders is from Los Angeles), the coach responded with a quick no.
But not for the reason you might expect.
“I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison,” Amaker said, sitting in the lounge at Lavietes Pavilion on Monday afternoon. “Not that Jeremy didn’t have to guard the best offensive player sometimes, but it wasn’t ever like every night. Like every night, Wesley has to guard the best perimeter player that we go against. Every night, every game -- whether it’s an afternoon game or a night game. That’s who he has.
“Now to think that he has to do that on that end and then is doing what he’s doing on the other end, I mean, it’s fantastic.”
Against the Tigers on Friday night, Saunders was matched up on T.J. Bray. The senior leads Princeton and is second in the Ivy League in scoring at 17.8 points per game, but against Harvard he didn’t attempt his first field goal until the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Saunders subbed out with 9:07 remaining in the half.
Freed from Saunders’ D, Bray quickly converted a layup and hit a 3-pointer behind a screen. Saunders checked back in a few minutes later and resumed the tough assignment.
Though Bray finished with a game-high 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting, including 4-for-6 on 3s, much of it came when Princeton was desperately trying to punch its way back from a 15-point deficit late.
“Wesley’s performance in that game, to have to guard that kid and then have 24, 9 and 7 ... it’s unheard of,” Amaker said. “In some ways, what I’m trying to say is that his responsibilities are even higher [than Lin’s were] because of what we ask him to do defensively.”
While both players are terrific offensively, Amaker said Saunders’ capabilities on defense are what separate the two in this debate.
“He’s been a dynamic defensive player,” he said. “And I don’t think he gets enough credit for that aspect in addition to what we ask him to do off. That package there blows me away.
“I’ve had to apologize to him for how much I ask of him.”
The coach was also quick to point out he’s not expecting Saunders to become a global celebrity like Lin, because that would be too much. He just doesn’t think comparing the two is exactly as farfetched as some might initially think.
“I’m not saying he should be Jeremy Lin,” Amaker said of Saunders, “but he’s capable of those kinds of things.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.