Few players are a bigger career wildcard than the Knicks' Iman Shumpert
On June 23, 2011, Iman Shumpert was treated to a draft night rite of passage: a chorus of boos from fans of the New York Knicks, who had just selected the Georgia Tech University standout with the 17th pick.
Of the players who were still available—Kenneth Faried, Donatas Motiejunas and Reggie Jackson, among others—it’s safe to say Shumpert probably wasn’t on the top of most Knicks fans' mock lists.
But it didn’t take long for the versatile guard to endear himself to Knick Knation, thanks to a combination of lock-down defense, breathtaking athleticism and a moxie seemingly beyond his years.
Nearly three years later, Shumpert’s progression, though spotty, has been steady enough to make him the subject of endless trade rumors, all of which seem to center around a singular question:
Can he be a star?
Before we tackle that question, it’s important to chart Shumpert’s first two full seasons in the league to get a better sense of where he's been and what his overall ceiling might be.
Coming out of Georgia Tech, Shumpert was seen as a kind of combo point guard—a decent enough handle to bring the ball up the floor in a jam, but with the size, quickness and two-way athleticism of a traditional wing.
As it turned out, point guard just so happened to be the team’s weakest position heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.
If Mike D’Antoni—groomer and stat-booster of many a guard—could successfully cultivate Shumpert’s floor-general instincts, the Knicks were looking not only at their point guard of the future, but a potential star as well.
The reviews were mixed, to say the least: After entering the season as the Knicks’ starting shooting guard, Shumpert was shuffled around for the remainder of the season—even taking over for opening-night starting point guard Toney Douglas for a brief spell.
While Shumpert excelled in stretches checking the opponent’s best guard, his jump shot—never very reliable in college—and overall floor vision came and went.
Still, the numbers were promising:
Then, just as he seemed on the verge of finding his groove, disaster: A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) suffered in Game One of the team’s first-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat.
Over the summer of 2012, the high hopes and sky-high ceiling of New York’s new cult hero became a dream deferred, as questions lingered as to how well Shumpert would respond to such a devastating early setback.
Finding His Groove
By the time a now-healed Shumpert hit the floor for his first spin of the 2012-13 season, a January game in London against the Detroit Pistons, the rest of the Knicks were engaged in a roller-coaster ride of their own.
Despite an impressive 23-13 record, the Knicks—who had stormed out of the gate to an 18-5 record—were suddenly reeling, having dropped five of their last eight.
With Shumpert in the fold, the team quickly got back on track.
As the playoffs loomed, Shumpert began undergoing his own impressive transformation: After a putrid February in which he connected on a mere 26 percent of his field-goal attempts (including 27 percent from three-point range), Shump shot 46 percent from the floor and a whopping 49 percent from downtown in March.
That trend carried through the first round of the playoffs, a six-game defeat of the Boston Celtics in which Shumpert hit 10 of his 19 tries from deep (52.6 percent).
Those numbers would lag somewhat as the team succumbed to the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers in the next round, but with the offseason approaching and the future of the team’s veteran makeup in doubt, Shumpert had clearly asserted himself as a franchise cornerstone in the making.
This despite an end-of-year player-comparison chart that didn’t exactly set the world on fire:
|Mike Dunleavy, Jr.||2003||GSW||12.5||.505|
Anecdotal analysis aside, as the new-look Knicks started taking shape ahead of the 2013-14 season, Shumpert was viewed as a legitimate secondary weapon behind Carmelo Anthony and the suddenly resurgent—and efficient—J.R. Smith.
Unfortunately, through New York’s first slate of games in 2013-14, Shumpert’s production has remained somewhat sporadic.
Part of that is circumstantial: With the team struggling, coach Mike Woodson has been forced—or compelled, anyway—to utilize just about every lineup configuration at his disposal. For a team as guard-heavy as the Knicks, that’s been problematic, particularly for Shump.
The results have been about what you’d expect: streaky, occasionally incendiary, equal parts hopeful and harrowing.
Following a dismal December in which his shooting had regressed back to post-injury levels (31 percent overall, 28 percent from downtown), Shumpert showed up for his team's annual Texas road trip a shell of his 2013 self.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere: gangbusters.
In the Knicks' first two games of 2014—a win in San Antonio and a narrow, heartbreaking loss in Houston—Shumpert would tally 53 points on 19-of-27 shooting, including an absurd 12-of-14 from distance.
His lift steady and his stroke smooth, Shumpert looked as though he’d finally turned a corner.
Instead, the third-year guard plummeted back to Earth during the next two games, shooting 5-of-13 from the field and only 1-of-7 from deep.
Which brings us to today, and the still-lingering question: Can Shumpert—streaky, headstrong Iman Shumpert—truly be a star in the NBA?
Not Your Average Joe?
With less than three seasons and a mere 150 games under his belt, Iman Shumpert’s ceiling is difficult—if not exactly impossible—to predict.
One possible comparison in particular may help shed some light on Shump’ statistical progression, even if the attendant player won't sit well with Knicks fans. (Tip of the hat to the Wall Street Journal's excellent Chris Herring for the initial idea.)
|Name||Age||Years||PER||TS%||Points per 36|
Because he's been around the league forever, it's easy to forget just how long Joe Johnson's road to stardom has been.
While the two certainly bring different things to the table—Johnson has always had a more refined mid-range game, while Shumpert’s athleticism and defensive instincts set him apart at his age—their physical tangibles and early-career ups and downs provide a useful ground for comparison.
Obviously, Shumpert has a long way to go before he’s mentioned in the same breath as Johnson.
Still, Johnson’s gradual growth—he didn’t crest above 17 points per game or a 15 player efficiency rating until his final season with Phoenix in 2004-05 (he was 23, the same age as Shump is now)—is a template that Shumpert, with all his gifts and game, could easily meet.
For him to do so, however, would require something that’s been in famine-short supply within the Knicks’ notoriously quick-fix front office: patience.
Stories abound of Mike Woodson and Shumpert not seeing eye-to-eye. Couple that with Shump’s reluctance—nay outright refusal—to participate in last year’s Las Vegas Summer League for more than one game, along with a second, "secret" knee surgery, and you have all the makings for the kind of incessant trade talk that can’t help but throw a young player off.
Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Knicks will have every opportunity to keep Shumpert—who becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season—should they so choose.
Whether they actually do so depends on how much owner James Dolan, who grants loyalty only to those who swear it, is willing to swallow his pride and let Shump be Shump.
Despite his fair share of ups and downs, one factor above all has fed the Shumpert legend: being a home-grown talent on a franchise with a penchant for treating draft picks and prospects like rental furniture.
In Shumpert, the Knicks have a player who, if brought along earnestly and administered equal doses proper punishment and pats on the back, stands as good a chance as any of turning draft-day boos into rafter-gracing cheers.
(All stats for the 2013-14 season courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and current as of Jan. 8, 2014.)