COMMENTARY | When the Knicks drafted Iman Shumpert two years ago, my initial reaction was, "Who?!" Before quickly turning to the trusty Internet to find out more about the Knicks' newest guard, thoughts of Jordan Hill, Channing Frye and Michael Sweetney flashed across my mind. As a Knicks fan, it's hard not to be cynical after years of ineptitude in evaluating draft prospects, among other failures.
After reading about Shumpert's impressive wingspan and defensive abilities, I decided to give the pick a chance. After all, the Knicks struggled immensely defending the perimeter and Shumpert was a possible answer for that issue. A star at Georgia Tech, Shumpert's offensive game was raw and unpolished but upon further examination, his potential was evident.
Watching the Knicks in the preseason, I couldn't help but be impressed by Shumpert. His length, hands and lateral quickness on the defensive end were as advertised if not better and, not surprisingly, Shumpert finished his rookie season ranked seventh in the NBA in steals despite playing just 28.9 minutes per game.
More impressive than his defense, however, was his jump shot. The results weren't there, but Shumpert's near-flawless mechanics gave me hope that he could develop into a competent shooter in the NBA. By all accounts, he was billed as a kid with a good work ethic and his athleticism stood out on tape, so there was plenty of room for improvement.
Predictably, Shumpert struggled with his shot as a rookie, shooting just over 40 percent from the field and just over 30 percent from the three-point line. While the ACL injury he suffered in the playoffs derailed the start of his 2012-13 season, it may have been a blessing in disguise for his development.
When Shumpert returned to the Knicks in January of this year, his shooting struggles persisted and he rarely looked like the player he was at full health. As the regular season wound down in March and April and Shumpert started to get back into game shape, one thing stood out to me: Shumpert's jump shot was actually much improved.
In March and April, Shumpert was 38-for-88 from beyond the arc (43.2%). He kept up his hot shooting in the playoffs as well, shooting 42.9% from distance on over three attempts per game. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Shumpert was 5-for-6 on three-pointers and at one point hit three in a row to cut a 10-point third-quarter deficit to one when no Knick not named Carmelo Anthony seemed interesting in scoring.
With his biggest weakness out of college becoming a strength, at least for a few months, the sky is the limit for Shumpert. As arguably the Knicks' only above-average player on both ends of the court, much more will be expected of him this season, particularly with the retirement of Jason Kidd and uncertain futures of both J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni.
Even if the Knicks re-sign Smith and Prigioni, they will still need 30 minutes per game from Shumpert. Both Raymond Felton and Smith struggle defensively, as do Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. With Tyson Chandler equally limited on offense, the Knicks will rely on Shumpert's defense on the perimeter as well as his ability to spread the court on offense and allow Anthony and Stoudemire to play to their strengths in the middle of the floor.
There were numerous instances in the playoffs where the Knicks stagnated on either offense or defense. Their offensive lineups featuring Felton, Smith, Anthony and Stoudemire struggled on defense, while combinations including better defenders like Prigioni, Kenyon Martin and Chandler had issues putting the ball in the basket. The Knicks need players who can affect the game on both sides of the court, something their roster is devoid of besides Shumpert.
It remains to be seen what the Knicks do with players like Smith, Prigioni, Martin and Chris Copeland, who is as explosive a scorer as he is a poor defender. None of these players pose a problem in a vacuum, but building an entire roster of players that only excel on one end of the court isn't a recipe for a championship contender.
Personally, I hope another team prices Smith out of the Knicks' range. He was a bargain around $3 million and a key to the Knicks' success this season but his value drops considerably with a contract more reflective of his ability. Many times it seemed that him and Anthony were trying to outdo the other on offense, which led to more isolation basketball than the Knicks, or any other NBA team for that matter, will ever need.
His playoff struggles were another red flag, especially considering the rumors that Smith was partying too hard and regressing to his 2011-12 self. You know, the one that enjoyed the New York City nightlife a bit too much . These concerns are certainly legitimate, particularly after the best year of his career. Will a new, more lucrative contract alleviate these issues? Seems doubtful to me.
It may seem asinine that a team that struggled to find a second scoring option in the playoffs should let a scorer like Smith walk, but Amar'e Stoudemire will be back to full health (supposedly) and is certainly more scorer than defender. In his limited appearances this season, Stoudemire did seem comfortable coming off the bench and his offseason work with Hakeem Olajuwon had a positive impact on his post game.
Smith's departure would also create an opportunity for Shumpert to see upwards of 35 minutes per game, which the Knicks will need to balance out their lineups that will inevitably be lacking either offensive playmakers or defensive stoppers, most likely the second. His potential impact next year reminds me of the role Kawhi Leonard played in the Spurs' run to the NBA Finals this season.
Leonard's breakout was the biggest reason San Antonio was able to avoid the early playoff eliminations of the past few seasons, as he proved to be an essential two-way presence alongside a veteran trio of stars. I don't see any reason why a 100% healthy Shumpert can't have the same effect on the Knicks next year and take some of the pressure off Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.
If Shumpert's offensive game continues to evolve as it has in his first two seasons, Knicks fans won't miss Smith one bit. He may not help this team get to the NBA Finals with Miami, Indiana and Chicago in the way like Leonard did in San Antonio, but Shumpert's development heading into year three will have a profound affect on how far the Knicks go in the playoffs next season.
Chris Tripodi lives in New York and has been a Knicks fan since the days of Patrick Ewing and John Starks in the early 1990s. He has written for numerous online sources, namely Draft Insider, Optimum Scouting and Jets 101. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi.
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