The New York Knicks, among several other NBA squads, officially tip off 2013-14 basketball next week in the Las Vegas Summer League. It's the first opportunity for fans to catch glimpses of first-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. in action and place bets on who could become this year's Chris Copeland (Copeland signed a non-guaranteed deal with New York last July, and his Summer League performance played a role in his making the final roster).
With the Knicks nearly tapped out of funds to sign impact free agents—they still have several holes that need patching throughout the roster—they'll certainly be open to any sort of cheap talent this offseason. With only one draft pick over the next three years, New York's summer rosters will likely be under its microscope more closely than ever before.
The Vegas league packs a few storylines worth keeping an eye on. Here are a few Knicks things to monitor while the Carmelo Anthonys and Tyson Chandlers of the world are out of the office.
Iman Shumpert's Willingness to Advance his Game in Vegas
In Iman Shumpert's exit interview following the Knicks' season-ending series loss to the Indiana Pacers, he surprised some by declaring his readiness to participate in the upcoming Vegas summer league games—games that are instructional by nature and are made up of mostly first-and-second-year players.
His reasoning for the decision was to round out his to-this-point-inconsistent offensive game, and to spend more time being coached under Mike Woodson's staff. "It can't be anything but positive for me," Shumpert said to the New York media.
Entering his third season as a Knick, it will be Shumpert's first appearance in Summer League action. The league's games were cancelled due to the lockout in his rookie campaign, and the swingman was recovering from knee surgery last July.
Shumpert told reporters than the Knicks would like him to be "more decisive offensively," and the 22-year-old said that steady offense must be expected of him next season, instead of being an added bonus to his stellar defense. So it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility to see Shumpert handling the ball often against Vegas competition.
Days later came a tweet from ESPN New York's Jared Zwerling, further describing what the Knicks would like from Shump in 2014.
Shump's offseason focus is developing better skills at PG, which team could use him at more next year. Developing midrange shot key. #Knicks— Jared Zwerling (@JaredZwerling) May 23, 2013
The biggest hole in Shumpert's game at its current state is his ball-handling and decision-making. He's conquered his lifelong battle from the three-point line last season—he shot over 40 percent from the arc, bettering his marks from 2011-12 and each season he played at Georgia Tech.
Rounding out his offense is the priority entering this season, and the team will likely run Shumpert at some point guard in Vegas to work on his handle and ability to facilitate.
The move likely won't be geared towards a major overhaul in Shumpert's future plans, but rather to fix up his suspect offense. His weaknesses line up directly with skills that point guards must excel at. So with some luck, this summer will help him evolve into a point guard option for Mike Woodson. But more realistically, it will expose him to his offensive shortcomings and provide an opportunity to fine tune them, in order to better implement them as a 2 or 3.
Is Chris Smith a Legit NBA Talent?
Even before J.R. Smith re-upped with the Knicks for four years, via ESPN, there were reports from the New York Post that the sixth man wouldn't be straying far from home—in fact, part of his home would come closer to him.
Post beat writer Marc Berman implied that J.R.'s brother Chris Smith, who played college ball at Lousiville and played on the Knicks summer team last July, would be offered a contract with New York if the Sixth Man of the Year returned to the Big Apple at a relative discount. This of course would be a punishable offense, since no deal may be contingent upon another.
Berman referenced this tweet by Chris Smith, which came shortly after the Knicks were eliminated from the postseason. Neither brother had a contract with the Knicks for 2014 at the time of the tweet (Chris still doesn't).
I will be back next season along with my big brother @TheRealJRSmith ... Will be a blessing to wear my Knicks uniform.. Prep for 2014 is now— Chris Smith (@3_ChrisSmith) May 19, 2013
The 25-year-old Smith averaged 9.5 points on 43 percent shooting in his final two years at Louisville. He failed to impress in last year's Summer League—he shot just 29 percent from the floor—but somehow still appeared to be destined for Madison Square Garden until a knee injury ended the Smith family reunion before it began.
The Knicks are giving the sibling another chance this July, and it will be extremely telling if he manages to slide onto the NBA roster this fall. The team has J.R. Smith, Tim Hardaway, Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni all fighting for time in the backcourt, and could use a bigger body out of their 15th man.
Who Can Emerge from the Pack of Unknowns?
The Knicks invited, via ESPN, a variety of little-known names to Vegas, including former NC State forward C.J. Leslie, local product A.J. Matthews of Farmingdale State, Jerome Jordan who spent the 2011-12 season riding the Knicks' bench, point guard Toure Murray of Wichita State and Tony Mitchell, a forward formerly of Alabama (not to be confused with the point guard Tony Mitchell, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons).
The team could desperately use a big body to remedy its rebounding woes from a season ago. With Marcus Camby out and Andrea Bargnani reportedly in, Tyson Chandler has no true backup underneath him on the depth chart. Jerome Jordan is a seven-footer with some NBA experience under his belt, and showed some promise in limited time with the Knicks and in the D-League two seasons ago. His overseas career packs some reasons for optimism as well.
Jordan recorded three double-doubles in six games playing in the Philippines last spring.
Leslie is another candidate for the team's final squad, despite going undrafted. He stands at 6'9", and his athleticism has, at times, set him aside from his peers.
Leslie managed to shoot the three-ball at a respectable 33 percent last season at NC State, while grabbing 7.4 rebounds and swatting over a shot per game.
Aside from Shumpert and Hardaway, will a Knick currently on the Vegas roster contribute to the 2013-14 Knicks?
It's simple: The Knicks need athletic bodies in their frontcourt. Last year's experiment of stacking the forward and center spots with grizzled-yet-fragile veterans ultimately failed, and the team must get younger at those spots right away.
Their lack of depth can be blamed as a direct cause of Tyson Chandler's playoff downfall—the team had no sufficient backup for Chandler through much of the year, leading to the center playing way too many minutes and eventually breaking down at the worst possible time. A young, athletic body or two could alleviate the stress on Chandler.
For the capped-out Knicks, there won't be a much better place to find reinforcements than Las Vegas.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.