For the New York Knicks, young, promising talent hasn't exactly been flowing through the pipelines lately. With the right to just a pair of selections between now and 2017, change doesn't appear to be on the horizon in that regard.
As the only two homegrown players on the roster, it's hard to blame fans for latching onto Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. This time last year, by their account, Shumpert was destined for all-star accolades, as potential was already morphing into tangible results for the sophomore swingman.
But—well, I'll let Shump field this one:
Last year's 24th overall selection has crept dangerously close to overtaking Shumpert as New York's top youthful asset. Some could say he's already surpassed the third-year man.
Heading into the season, that notion would've been dismissed as nonsense. Hardaway, for all he brings to the table, is still flawed—not unlike most rookies. Shumpert's depressing regression in year three, though, makes this a two-sided debate.
A Depressing Mystery
Over his last 26 games last season after returning from knee surgery, the Georgia Tech product shot 45.4 percent, including 44.6 percent from deep. The postseason only served to encourage fans even more; Shump was arguably the team's most consistent player, shooting 43 percent on threes—including 57 percent from the corner—and the team was 11 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
But, somewhere between the incessant trade rumors, hatred from ownership stemming from the Las Vegas summer league, and the lack of support from his head coach, Shumpert has morphed from a breakout difference-maker to a ruined shell of himself.
Woodson's adversarial relationship with Shumpert, in particular, has been documented ad nauseam this season. To most knowledgeable basketball minds, it remains a stunner. Via Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy offered the following on Shumpert:
"Oh, [heck] yeah," said former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy when asked whether Shumpert could have played for his rough-and-tumble Knicks teams of the 1990s. "He's not as offensively skilled as John Starks was, but he has that same 'I'm never gonna back down' sort of belief. Some call that cocky, but find me a great player that doesn't have that trait."
Shumpert's 2013-14 season was doomed before it even started, dating back to when Woodson announced the the third-year player wasn't necessarily the favorite to resume his starting duties this year. In fact, he hinted at J.R. Smith being favored to win the job, despite having an atrocious postseason and being forced to sit out the first five games due to a drug suspension.
Whatever the cause, Shumpert's play has been abysmal in a year that was supposed to boost him into the next tier of NBA brethren. He's posted a career-worst 37.5 percent field-goal mark, regressed back to 35 percent from three and his efficiency rating has been parked in the single digits all season long.
Enter the Trendy Rookie
Heading into the season, with Shumpert and J.R. Smith stacked in front of him on the depth chart, it was suspected that Tim Hardaway's minutes would be hard to come by.
What with Smith's and Shumpert's equal futility above him, Hardaway was given an opportunity. Through the first half of his rookie season, the 21-year-old ran with it.
Over his first 46 games, Hardaway shot 47 percent from the field, 42 percent from three-point range and 83 percent from the stripe. The case could be made that he was the team's most consistent guard through the first three months, as he was leading rookies in several offensive categories.
Not atypically among first-year flashes, Hardaway's stretch then came to a rather abrupt end.
He's shot 38 percent from the field over his last 28 games, including 29.7 percent from three, scoring 11.4 points on 10.5 shots, grabbing 1.8 rebounds and dishing out 0.8 assists per game.
Still, based off what we've already seen from Hardaway in year one, there are signs of a very good scorer someday forming. He's clearly put his shooting on display, but the guard has shown a tight handle with the ball and is a rare Knick that flourishes in transition. Operating out of the catch-and-shoot, he's posted the Knicks' third-best effective field-goal clip among players with at least two attempts per game.
On the flip side, he has posted the second-worst field-goal percentage among Knicks guards on drives to the basket at 41.4 percent. It's important to note also that Hardaway, to this point, hasn't shown any type of playmaking skill or the instinctual rebounding prowess that Smith and Shumpert bring to the table. THJ is actually the Knicks' worst rebounder per-36 minutes this season. (Not counting Chris Smith. Never count Chris Smith.)
And defensively, Hardaway has been even more of a disaster than Smith. According to Synergy (subscription required), he's ranked 269th league-wide in defending isolation, 230th against defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 278th against spot-up shooters—allowing more than one point per play on each.
Who Has the Edge?
Considering his gifts and his flaws, and accounting for the growth that occurs in between a player's rookie season and the beginning of his prime, it's possible that—if he could develop mere competency on the defensive end, to the point where he isn't a liability—Hardaway's ceiling could be higher than Shumpert's.
When discussing Shumpert's potential, New York has been banking on the development of his ball skills for the last three seasons—going as far as sending him to the summer league after his second season to work on becoming a point guard. To be frank, not much has changed since his rookie season. Running a fast break, Shumpert is a stumbling, frantic mess.
When you have a Shump in transition, you get this. Whatever this is:
Even with Shumpert's internal and tangible struggles this season, it's still a bit premature to shove him behind Hardaway in New York's long-term asset ranking.
Even in a down season, Shumpert has still provided a threat from long-range that defenses respect, and makes more of an impact on the boards than many players his size. Herring recently recapped Shump's value in a string of tweets to a skeptical Robert Randolph:
As he points out, evaluating Shumpert's game by his scoring isn't the wisest tool. His impact on the game stretches far beyond points scored—although it's true that at various points this season, his non-existent offense has hampered the Knicks' chances.
Still, through all this hardships, Shumpert has posted the second-best net rating on the team (via 82games), only behind Carmelo Anthony. The team is 7.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
Of the Knicks' 12 five-man lineups this season to have played more than 50 minutes together, seven have posted net-positive ratings. Shumpert is a member of six of those seven lineups; Hardaway isn't on one. The rookie is, however, a part of three out of the five net-negative lineups on the list (via NBA.com).
These were all likely considered by the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder—contending, well-run organizations with smart basketball people in charge—when they inquired about adding Shumpert at the trade deadline.
So while Shumpert has hit a snag this season, look for a resurgence as soon as next year, under a new head coach and under the guidance of Phil Jackson, who plans on retaining the 23-year-old moving forward.
And just as it isn't wise to judge Shumpert by a single skill—his scoring—the same holds true for Hardaway. Based on what we've seen in his first NBA run, he'll have a chance to blossom into a fine piece as a volume scorer—but that will remain his ceiling until we see improvements elsewhere on the court.
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