Is the Hardaway hype real?
When you’ve been harassed every day into giving your lunch money away, finding out the bully skipped school is bound to make that plate of Salisbury steak and tater tots taste like filet and truffle potatoes.
More precisely, they're that rare species of Knicks homegrown talent—a duo few feel should be dealt for the sake of another quick fix.
To be sure, both have proven to be valuable NBA assets: Shumpert for his ball-hawking and streaky smooth shooting, and Hardaway for his limitless range, impressive pedigree and off-the-charts athleticism.
But are they as good as the Knicks think they are?
Are they future All-Stars waiting in the wings, or merely reliable rotation players?
Can they grow and thrive on a team purposely built around a single superstar?
Will James Dolan even give them a chance?
More than just Shump change
When the Knicks drafted Shumpert with the 17th overall selection in the 2011 NBA draft—a crucial pick, given the team’s limited financial flexibility—the reviews were somewhat mixed.
Actually, that might be putting it politely. Like many a Knicks-pick past, the selection of Shumpert—who watched the draft with family in his native Chicago—incited its fair share of Prudential Center boos and public second-guessing.
The criticism was less a verdict on Shumpert himself as it was a critique of the team strategy. Indeed, many assumed the Knicks would target someone capable of contributing immediately in one of three areas: size, rebounding and interior defense.
Kenneth Faried. Nikola Vucevic. Tobias Harris.
What could they possibly want with another scoring-centric wing player?
Fast-forward 30 months later, and the attitude and perspective have changed almost completely, from resigned sighs and tempered expectations to viewing Shumpert as a kind of cult hero—a guy whose anti-establishment instincts mirror a game that falls on the scale between grace and reckless abandon.
Last week we outlined in greater detail what Shumpert’s ceiling might be. One possible comp: Joe Johnson, who entered the league with a similar skill set and took a full three years to make his first big statistical leap.
Of course, it’s impossible to posit a possible trajectory without accounting for Shumpert’s injury history. Specifically, a pair of knee surgeries—one major, one minor—that can’t help but temper the third-year guard’s confidence in cutting and slashing.
For their part, the Knicks haven’t hesitated to float out Shumpert’s name in trade talks. How much of an ancillary effect that’s had on Shumpert’s psyche is hard to say.
This much, however, is clear: Should the Knicks keep Shumpert, they’d better be prepared to pay for him in 2015, when the team’s qualifying offer of $3.1 million kicks in.
Even if Shump doesn’t make the jump many expect, there should be no shortage of teams eager to roll the dice on stealing away one of New York’s lone young assets.
And with the Knicks already targeting that summer for their next big free-agent splash, how Shumpert ends up factoring into the team’s long-term plans will be a development worth keeping an eye on.
Even more interesting is how the Knicks will deal with another high-upside prospect—a player whose name alone once cited sour memories of a ruthless rivalry.
Hardaway's easy way
Like Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s selection was met with a mix of cautious optimism and caustic concern.
Unlike Shumpert, New York's 2013 pick just so happened to be the son of a onetime arch nemesis: former Miami Heat point guard and legendary trash-talker Tim Hardaway.
Despite the contentious family tree, it hasn’t taken long for the younger Hardaway—a spindly, silky shooting guard taken 24th overall out of the University of Michigan—to bridge the tribal gap.
Among all rookies nearly halfway through the season, Hardaway Jr. ranks fourth in scoring (8.4 points per game), first in field-goal percentage (45.9 percent), second in three-point shooting (40.5 percent) and third in points per 48 minutes (21.4).
And while Hardaway’s defense has left much to be desired (the 112 defensive rating is one of the lowest on the team), his unique pallet of plucky confidence and breathtaking open-floor abilities have made him a kind of feel-good alternative to the much-maligned J.R. Smith.
The flipside of all the Hardaway hype, however, is a bit more dicey: Should he maintain a steady upward trajectory, to what extent does that render Iman Shumpert even more expendable?
That the Knicks might look at it that way shouldn’t come as a surprise; all they might see are two young shooting guards ripe for the trade-block picking.
Whereas Shumpert's is a fate the Knicks must decide sooner than later, Hardaway's cap-friendly rookie contract means the team has plenty of time to gauge whether he helps or hinders their cause.
The two’s complimentary potential, however, is undeniable. As Shumpert grows into a steadier, more disciplined on-ball defender, the value of a fast-break threat of Hardaway’s caliber—ready to bolt down court for a leading pass or alley-oop at a moment’s notice—can’t be understated.
And then there’s this: Both can shoot the basketball.
On a team liable to remain built around Carmelo Anthony’s singular spacing abilities, that fact alone is worth its weight in gold.
On hype and appreciation
The following were the bottom-five teams:
Perhaps no single statistic is more valuable in understanding Knicks fans’ fawning fascination with fresh-faced rookies—they’ve been jaded so many times in the past that any modicum of potential is liable to be taken, at its most incendiary and exciting, as a sign of the second basketball coming.
And yet, sometimes that potential is real.
Neither Iman Shumpert nor Tim Hardaway Jr. is the next Dwyane Wade. Knicks fans know that.
At the same time, how can you overrate someone whose potential hasn't even been seen, let alone reached?
For it’s in the unknown that fans—battered and betrayed as they've so often been by their team’s almost criminal drafting ineptitude—find their purest vessel for hope.
When your team has botched this many drafts this badly, hoping for the best from a pair of players with such high ceilings shouldn’t be seen as overrating what you have, but appreciating it.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com and NBA.com and current as of January 15, 2014.