The New York Knicks roster includes reigning scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, 2013 Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith, former Defensive Players of the Year Tyson Chandler and Metta World Peace, 2006 first overall pick Andrea Bargnani and injury-prone six-time All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire.
Yet, the X-factor on this Knicks team is 23-year-old Iman Shumpert.
New York won 54 games and the Atlantic Division last season before falling to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. The elite teams in the Eastern Conference are more formidable this year. The Knicks will need drastic improvement from one or more of their players to reach the NBA Finals.
On a roster full of aging veterans, Shumpert is the only rotation player yet to reach his prime. While we may not know exactly what to expect from the rest of the team, we have seen what they are capable of.
Anthony admitted during media day that he is unlikely to change at this point in his career, per Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer.
Melo: "My game is not gonna really change much. My game is pretty much set in stone..."— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) September 30, 2013
The same can be said for Chandler, Raymond Felton and point guards Pablo Prigioni and Beno Udrih. World Peace is still a pesky defender, though past his prime.
Smith appeared to turn a corner last season. Then he imploded in the postseason amid rumors that he was partying too much, per the New York Post. This past summer, he was suspended five games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. After nine years in the league, it is safe to assume that Smith will be predictably unpredictable.
New York does not know what to expect from Stoudemire, who revealed on media day that he underwent another knee operation this summer, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley. That's three since last fall.
Even when healthy, STAT is no where near the player he once was. The former Phoenix Sun was lacking explosiveness prior to going under the knife.
STAT himself appears to have changed his expectations. When asked about his injuries in the past, he always spoke of "returning to dominance." Now he is talking about "prolonging his career," per Newsday's Al Iannazzone.
Amar'e doesn't sound as if he will be doing basketball stuff for a while. Kept talking about prolonging his career.— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) September 30, 2013
It is not clear what Bargnani's role will be. After averaging 21.4 points in 2010-11, his career regressed to the point that Toronto Raptors fans booed him out of town. Bargs has the potential to improve the Knicks offense if he regains his shooting touch, but the Italian big man is a poor rebounder and defender. His game is too limited to put the Knicks over the hump in the Eastern Conference.
Iman Shumpert can develop into a difference-maker.
The third-year guard is an excellent athlete with quick hands, a long wingspan and an impressive feel for the game. He established himself as an elite on-ball defender in his rookie season and has flashed the potential to be a great offensive player as well.
More importantly, Shump's game has plenty of room for growth, and he has demonstrated the work ethic necessary to fulfill his potential. For example, while recovering from knee surgery in 2012, he spent countless hours reworking his shot, specifically not elevating as high on his jumper. Between his first and second seasons, Shump's three-point shooting percentage climbed from 30.6 percent to 40.2.
Several other areas of his game need improvement. The former Georgia Tech standout struggled with his shot selection last season, often launching long jumpers outside the flow of the offense. The result was a drop in shooting percentage from 40.1 percent his rookie year to 39.6.
Shump is not going to average 16-18 shots per game in an offense that includes Anthony, Smith, Bargnani and Felton, though he can seize a greater number of opportunities by refining his skill set.
To this point, he has relied almost solely on quickness and athleticism to penetrate defenses. If he tightens his handle and develops a couple of go-to moves, the Knicks can feature him more in pick-and-roll and isolation situations.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Shumpert operated as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls just 44 times last season and scored .7 points on those possessions, which ranked 127th. On 82 isolations, he averaged .71 points per possession, just 157th in the league. By comparison, he took 186 spot-up jumpers for 1.1 points per possession, 71st in the league.
The third-year guard also needs to be more aggressive with the basketball. If he continues to knock down three-pointers, defenders will be forced to close out harder on him, which will open up driving lanes. Shump attempted one free throw per game in 2012-13, an unacceptably low number for a player with his quickness and athleticism.
He was also woefully inefficient when he did drive to the basket. As seen in the shot performance chart below, courtesy of NBA.com, the Knicks guard connected on just 40.9 percent of his attempts around the rim last season.
Shumpert's inability to convert off of dribble penetration can be attributed in part to the mental and physical hurdles that come with recovering from major knee surgery. His shooting improved as he became more comfortable late in the season. As seen in the shot chart below, he nailed 50 percent of his attempts from close range and 45.1 percent of his total shots over his last 20 regular-season games.
There is every reason to believe Shumpert will continue to build on his game. The question is: Will he do so fast enough to pay major dividends for the Knicks this season?
Can Shump double his number of shot attempts (6.1 last season) and improve his efficiency at the same time? Will he develop into a consistent second or third scoring option in time for the playoffs? Can he take on a larger role in the offense without sacrificing his defense?
Players typically make major strides in their third season, as Paul George, a wing player whom Shumpert has been compared to, did for the Indiana Pacers in 2012-13. But in many ways, Shump is not a typical third-year player.
He has yet to participate in a full NBA training camp and played in just 104 games during his first two seasons due to the 2011 lockout and a torn ACL in the spring of 2012. At least 20 of those games were spent reacclimating his body to the rigors of NBA competition after major surgery.
Shump's development was further stymied by a chaotic rookie season in which he played out of position and endured a midseason coaching change.
It is unfair to expect a player to make a massive leap in his first full season, though such a feat is not impossible. Players mature at different rates. Another talented wing player, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, progressed from a promising rookie to an All-Star-caliber forward by the end of his second season.
Shumpert's ceiling is unknown. The rate at which he approaches it may determine whether the Knicks can make a deep playoff run in 2014.