Imagine a construction worker responsible for building a skyscraper—the tallest, most glorified, most perfectly constructed one in the country. In order to make way for the project, he has to first tear apart a run-down shack, made up of recycled trash, some unwanted-yet-overpriced rotted wood and a couple of new, sturdy bricks hidden beneath the shack's hideous appearance.
Phil Jackson is that construction worker, and Iman Shumpert is one of those bricks.
A rare youthful and inexpensive asset on a New York Knicks team mostly consisting of one-dimensional albatrosses, the 23-year-old Shumpert has shown actual spurts of promise through his brief career.
His on-ball defense in the backcourt has appeared, at times, to be among the league's best. And though his offense leaves much to be desired at this point, he has shot a respectable 36 percent from three-point range over the last two years.
But as he enters Year 4, he has shot just 39 percent for his career, hasn't displayed much ability to handle the ball and even regressed slightly on the end of the court deemed to be his expertise.
Still, unlike the bulk of the team's roster, Shumpert seems to have the potential to evolve into a key contributor for New York down the line. And while Jackson will lead the team into and out of serious roster turnover through the next year and beyond, the team president has repeatedly referenced Shump as a piece worth saving once the team's fortune turns around.
Now Shumpert appears to have a legitimate future with Phil Jackson’s Knicks. According to a league source, Jackson is a fan of Shumpert.
Shumpert is a defensive-minded player who sacrifices his game and doesn’t need to score a lot to have an impact.
“Iman is still part of this,’’ a league source familiar with the Knicks’ thinking told The Post.
Jackson's arrival brought about a sharp 180 regarding the way Shumpert was viewed inside Madison Square Garden leadership rings.
Prior to Phil taking the Knicks job, Shumpert was the subject of endless trade speculation—which came off as borderline insane, given (a) his status one of the team's two young assets and (b) the names mentioned to be coming to New York in potential deals (Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Jason Thompson and a poorly-fitting Kenneth Faried, to name a few).
In a now infamous clip of ESPN's Stephen A. Smith and Dwight Howard speaking while they believed no camera was rolling, Smith dished out more Knicks dirt: James Dolan was set to trade Shumpert last summer when the guard resisted an assignment to the summer league—a league mostly comprised of rookies and project players—immediately after Shumpert was arguably the team's most reliable player during the 2013 postseason.
Dolan's unfair view of Shumpert seemed to trickle through the entire organization, pre-Phil. Under Mike Woodson, the Georgia Tech product was consistently buried in the rotation behind less viable options such as a 40-year-old Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith, even on the days where Smith was capable of shooting New York out of a victory.
To most respected NBA minds, Woodson's negative outlook on Shumpert was mystifying. According to Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy offered the following on New York's young swingman:
"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."
After the 2013-14 season began, with Woodson reportedly stripping Shumpert of his job security as starter—in favor of a suspended Smith—it seemed clear that the 23-year-old's time in New York was likely running short. But with wise management groups like the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder interested in him at this past trade deadline, Shumpert clearly possessed a skill set worth building with.
Thankfully for New York, it finally has a wise basketball mind in charge.
Measuring Shumpert by point averages (7.7 for his career) isn't very wise, as he specializes in ways that help his teams win without yearning for field-goal attempts. Assessing his past year's performance is uneven, too, with Woodson pulverizing his basketball self-esteem to a pulp from the very start.
A fine way to evaluate Shumpert's effect on his units is looking at on/off-court data and performances of specific lineup combinations. He posted the second-best net-rating on the team—only to Carmelo Anthony—according to 82games, and Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan noted how a pairing with Anthony benefitted the Knicks as a whole:
Consider: Of the 44 two-man units that have logged a minimum of 250 minutes for the Knicks this season, the Shumpert-Anthony tandem ranks sixth in overall net rating (6.7), per NBA.com (media stats subscription required). They are first if you break it down by duos with over 1,000 minutes tallied.
Statistical cherry-picking? Perhaps. But with over 1,500 minutes logged on the floor together, neither is it an accident.
Shoot 3s at a league-avg level, and stop the team from going 1-8 when he's out of the lineup. Rebound at a top-five level for a guard, defend better than any other wing on the roster. Team lost five straight without him, and opposing wings set 5 season-highs in that span he was out. People oddly focus on just his scoring, when Hardaway does literally nothing but score.
Under a coach who can make use of Shumpert's skills and work to improve his weaknesses, it's reasonable to believe that the swingman can blossom into, at the very least, a glue guy for a winning Knicks team.
Regarding Shumpert's long-term future, Jackson's front office will have a decision to make after this season. He will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015—the year New York is trying to carve out as much cap room as possible.
He's currently on the 2015-16 books for a qualifying offer of just over $2.6 million, but will presumably garner much larger offers in restricted free agency. The Knicks will have the chance to match any offer if Shumpert doesn't settle for that relatively measly dollar amount, but depending on how intrusive it could be to New York's plans to sign a maximum-salary player that summer, Phil may be inclined to let a lucrative offer go unmatched.
In the short term, if Jackson hires a coach who implements the triangle offense, Shumpert seems to fit that approach. He's a reliable shooter from distance—particularly from the corners—and is athletic enough to be effective off slashes and cuts. Even at a young age, Shumpert probably has one of the highest basketball IQs on the team, and he could be considered the team's lone two-way player.
Before this past season, he explained that the drive behind his defensive prowess derives from a hunger to win, something Jackson surely values more than anyone.
The notion that Shumpert can be a franchise savior has long since expired, but he seems to possess the tools necessary to grow into a player who can make any team better.
But if the team adores him enough to make him part of an extended future, it may have to mortgage the ability to afford a top-tier free agent in 2015.
Whether he commands the type of salary to hinder those star-studded plans will be determined by his performance under this new Knicks regime. And for that to happen, Jackson's crew will need to work to develop Shumpert's potential into tangible results—something Woodson and his staff never bothered to do.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Stats gathered from Basketball-Reference and 82games.com.
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