Per 36 Minutes:
First, this: Iman Shumpert is a gifted defensive player. He has the full tool kit of a great on-ball defender: good form and footwork, quick hands, long arms, a strong core, the ability to stop on a dime and pivot, and a good sense of when to pounce. He ranked in the top seven in the league this year in both steals per game and steal rate. While Mike Woodson and Tyson Chandler have been credited with the Knicks’ defensive renaissance, Shumpert became the best one-on-one perimeter stopper the Knicks have had in at least a decade. So the story goes.
So why can’t I find a stat that tells that story?
The Knicks forced more turnovers with Shumpert on the court than with him on the bench, it’s true, but they also committed two more fouls and allowed two more free throw attempts per 100 possessions of Shumpert time. Though this could be explained away as a byproduct of Shumpert’s aggressiveness, the more surprising discovery is that opposing offenses were generally more efficient with Shumpert in the game, scoring 102.9 points per 100 possessions (on a 49.1% eFG) compared to 101.3 with Shumpert off (on a 47.7% eFG).
Given all the different identities the Knicks had this year, statistics that are this broad may be unreliable. So let’s look at a more specific example:
These were the two most commonly used Knicks lineups this season. The only difference between the two is that one includes Shumpert and one includes Jeremy Lin, a folk hero to be sure but nobody’s idea of a lockdown defender. And the Lin lineup is not just better on the defensive end, but enormously better. The 9 points per 100 possessions drop-off is bigger than the difference between the overall defensive efficiencies of the Celtics and Pistons this year and, considering that those teams had similarly efficient offenses and Boston won 14 more games than Detroit, you could say that the gap is a pretty big deal. Lin’s dynamic stretch came during a particularly electric moment in the Knicks’ season and against some fairly weak competition, which likely accounts for some of the margin. Still, considering that Shumpert nearly made second-team all-defense and DID make first-team all-rookie, it’s possible that our defense-starved fan base has overreacted a bit to the emergence of a player who, while possessing the physical tools of an all-world defender, simply needed his first year to get up to NBA speed. This is totally acceptable by the way — there aren’t a lot of players who enter the league with perfectly honed defensive instincts. But we should be open to the possibility that Shumpert wasn’t quite as effective a defensive player this season as it felt like while it was happening. More likely he was a good defender with the potential to develop into a truly great defender.
And he might need to be a great defender because the other side of the ball was a pretty big problem. Since 2000, 4 rookie guards have logged 1,000 minutes for the Knicks and you can probably guess who they are. Nate Robinson. Toney Douglas. Landry Fields. Iman Shumpert. Based on essentially all traditional and advanced statistical metrics, Shumpert was by far — and I mean by F-A-R — the worst offensive player of the four. And we’re not exactly talking about a group whose jerseys are flying off the shelves of the Modell’s at 37th and 7th; while some optimism remains about Fields even after an up-and-down sophomore season, Douglas and Robinson’s once-bright futures with the franchise are now topics not discussed by Knicks’ fans in polite company. And yet, as rookies, both players out-shot Shumpert (as measured by FG%, 3P%, TS%, or eFG% — so basically pick your metric). Both had higher assist rates and lower turnover rates despite higher usage. And, despite giving up 10 inches, rookie Nate also topped Shumpert’s 2011-2012 rebound rate:
So again, on at least one side of the ball Shumpert is off to a demonstrably worse start than a couple of guys who were (rightly!) never really expected to become anything more than effective bench players. And on the other side, despite considerable physical and technical tools in evidence, his shifts paled in comparison to those played by a diminutive guard from Harvard who most thought to be too slow to have any role in the league, let alone provide meaningful defensive resistance against NBA perimeter players.
And yet, I would submit that optimism for Shumpert currently exceeds that of any Knick guard at this stage in his career since Rod Strickland (and he got traded for Mo Cheeks like, 20 minutes later and then Cheeks got traded for a draft pick and the draft pick became Charlie Ward so….yeah). I would say that, at this point, most Knicks fans believe that if Shumpert fully recovers from his knee injury, he will make (and deserve to make) several all-defense teams and polish his offensive game to the point of being a solid #1 defender and 4th offensive option on a contending team. This could totally come to pass, but I think there’s more room between his head and the ceiling than most are allowing for. Here’s some of what needs to happen:
OFFENSE: He’s simply being misutilized, although this was a much larger problem at the beginning of the year than at the end. As Sebastian Pruiti covered at length in his must-read rookie rankings on Grantland, his positional and play-type splits made it clear that the two things Shumpert should definitely NOT be doing were quarterbacking the offense and being the primary option in pick-and-roll sets — in other words, the two most important functions of the D’AntoniBall point guard role that injuries forced Shumpert to play so much of in the early part of the season. The emergence of Lin and the return of Baron Davis largely relieved Shumpert of this responsibility. For a while, he thrived playing the two guard off of Lin, whose chaotic slash-and-look style pulled defenders out of position and created the driving lanes that Shumpert’s isolation skills and raw athleticism were able to exploit. Then D’Antoni resigned, Lin got hurt, and Woodson’s iso-Melo offense took hold. And iso-Melo is decidedly not iso-Shump. It’s a system where catch-and-shooters thrive and, though a hot March saw a spike in Shumpert’s shooting numbers, there is nothing in his college or pro stats before or since that indicate it to be anything but an anomaly. Maybe when Lin comes back next year he’ll get some of that off-the-ball magic going again. But in the long run, this is Melo’s offense and Shump best learn to thrive in it. Which means as soon as that knee is healed up, get thee to a gymnasium for 500 threes a day.
DEFENSE: I cop to being a little bit stumped (Shumped? No? You want me to leave now? Sorry, two more paragraphs); I have the same eyes as the rest of you and it doesn’t look like he’s doing anything wrong. I do think he can get caught trying to jump lanes and over-help when teammates miss assignments. I have seen him close out on stray would-be shooters only to have them make the extra pass to the player that Shumpert left behind. I think it’s really just a matter of his knee coming all the way back (not a given, but his age and body type profile would seem to be ideal) and him getting more used to the NBA game (which should not be a problem).
The most recent data point in a startling run of Knick drafting competence, Iman Shumpert had an encouraging rookie year in which he showed incredible promise on the defensive end of the ball and the requisite athleticism to be a plus offensive player if utilized and developed properly. If he was a bit overrated, it was only because of the excitement that comes with watching a player whose youth and explosiveness can at times make his potential seem limitless. Depending on the success of his recovery from major knee surgery, Shumpert’s rookie season will either stand as a first glimpse of potential that has yet to be fully harnessed or a burst of brilliance that was never allowed to be completely realized. No matter how the future plays out, this was a strong debut by an unheralded prospect that has left us all unafraid to ask for more.
Grades (5 point scale):
Final Grade: 3.6