NEWARK, N.J. -- The Knicks have exhausted their efforts during free agency looking for a potential sixth man, and so far they've lost out on Jamal Crawford, Shawne Williams, Reggie Williams and Maurice Evans to higher offers. But they may have found that immediate contributor without even realizing it back on June 23.
That's when the team drafted Iman Shumpert with the 17th pick, surprising fans by not selecting defensive-minded forward Chris Singleton out of Florida State. But the 6-5 combo guard is quickly becoming the talk of the town.
After a week of training camp showing off his shooting stroke and attack mentality, even looking to dunk on a basic layup drill, Shumpert shined in his first preseason game Saturday afternoon against the Nets. In just 26 minutes, he scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, sparking the Knicks past the Nets, 92-83. At one point in the first half, he had scored nine points in 12 minutes. Head coach Mike D'Antoni was most impressed with his poise.
"He does a little bit of everything," D'Antoni said. "He can get his shot anytime he wants it. He shoots the ball pretty well. He can definitely defend. He's athletic, he's long -- a lot of good stuff. Again, it’s just one baby step. But you could just tell that he could be good."
Shumpert looked solid from different angles on the court. He was sharp off the wing, using a screen well to get to the top of the key for the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. He split a double-team once, drove right, absorbed contact at the rim and finished with a left-hand finger roll. He didn't back down on defense, and during one possession at the start of the second quarter, he swatted the ball away from All-Star Deron Williams and drove it in for the fastbreak layup.
You would've thought the first-time arena experience, with around 17,000 fans in attendance, would faze him. Not at all.
"I'm always pretty confident," Shumpert said. "Basketball is basketball. I was just trying to stay as comfortable as possible, work on communication, work on getting into a rhythm on offense, play off the guys, see where guys like the ball."
Shumpert credits his play with NBA veterans in the offseason -- for example, during the Impact Basketball Vegas league -- for helping him better prepare for Saturday's opening tip. He said he picked things up in regards to staying in shape and understanding the nuances of the game. One player who was in his ear was his very own teammate Tyson Chandler. They played together in Mexico during two exhibition games in early October, which were organized by the Bobcats' Eduardo Najera. Shumpert said Chandler gave him some tips about making quick reads while guarding players.
"Tyson was teaching me how to get around stuff on defense," Shumpert said. "He said, 'I know in college you should be bigger and stronger than a lot of guys and you can always cheat your way around.' He said, 'In the league when you cheat, that's a three right away'" (laughs).
Fortunately, Shumpert will see more threes right away on the offensive end, playing with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, who demand consistent pressure and double screens.
"I think my game is a little better because I've got people worrying about Carmelo and Amare," Shumpert said. "When you've got guys like that, that draw double teams and just attract that much attention, you just sort of play your game. The ball comes to you, the game comes to you. It's a lot easier."
D'Antoni says that because of Shumpert's 6-5, 220-pound athletic size, he'll be able to play the rookie in multiple scenarios, from the 1 through 3 positions. D'Antoni continues to rave about his potential, and that's a relief to the Knicks' front office. While they weren't able to acquire Crawford, their prize free-agent possession, Shumpert showed that he can not only be a scorer, but also a defender that Crawford never was and never will be.
While talk will heat up today about the likelihood of Shumpert starting over Toney Douglas or Landry Fields in the not-so-distant future, the team needs to roll with experience right now in the first unit, especially with a shortened season ahead. And they also don't need any more scoring in the starting five. It needs to be balanced out.
With performances like Saturday, Shumpert will enable Anthony and Stoudemire to sit more comfortably knowing that a scoring punch is in the game when either of them are out.
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