Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Knicks chose Iman Shumpert with the No. 17 pick in last year’s NBA Draft, but Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony both feel the team got a steal.
“Definitely, definitely,” Chandler said Tuesday at the Knicks practice facility. “I watched the draft and I watched a lot of guys go early in the draft, and I feel like to me he’s displayed the most confidence out of any guard besides….the No. 1 pick, Kyrie [Irving].
“But other than that, as far as the guard position, I haven’t seen anybody play with as much confidence as those two.”
Shumpert, out of Georgia Tech, currently ranks first among NBA rookies in steals (2.2) third in scoring (13.2) and is tied for 11th in rebounding (4.0).
Irving, the former Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick star (15 ppg), and Nets guard MarShon Brooks (14.4) are the only two rookies scoring more than Shumpert, who leads a number of high-profile names including Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Ricky Rubio, Tobias Harris, Derrick Williams, Jimmer Fredette and Tristan Thompson.
The Knicks (5-4) — who host the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday — are 4-1 in games Shumpert has played, and 2-0 since he was named the starting point guard replacing Toney Douglas. Shumpert missed nine days after spraining his MCL on Christmas Day against the Boston Celtics, and has battled leg cramps that have caused him to miss the ends of several games.
Still, with his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, aggressive scoring style and athleticism on defense, he has quickly become both a fan favorite and a favorite of head coach Mike D’Antoni.
“I just gotta do what I did to get here, and that’s being aggressive,” Shumpert said. “So I wouldn’t come here and be unaggressive. Then I’m totally uneffective.”
Knicks fans have responded.
Chants of “We Want Shumpert” rang out again Monday during the Knicks 91-87 victory over Walker and the Bobcats at Madison Square Garden when Shumpert was on the bench.
“I could hear it, it’s nice but I’m going to get a blow, too,” he said. “Just like everybody else on the team. We’re gonna get a blow, Toney’s gonna come in and do his job, Landry [Fields] gonna come in and do his job, when I come back in I’m gonna do mine.”
Shumpert is the Knicks’ third-leading scorer behind Anthony (26.6 ppg) and Amar’e Stoudemire (21 ppg), yet he doesn’t always defer to those veterans and has appeared to fit in seamlessly.
“It can be intimidating coming into this league and playing with guys that are already established, but he came in and he believed in himself from Day One,” Chandler said.
“And when you believe in yourself, you start to demand respect from veterans….We trust him out there.”
Anthony said the team also feeds off Shumpert’s energy, especially on nights when the Big Three are struggling.
“We gonna have nights like I had last night, like Amar’e had, you know shooting- wise not having it going offensively and we’re going to look for other people to step up and build off of them,” Anthony said. “And [Monday] that’s what he did and we build off of him.”
While he was “the man” at Georgia Tech under former coach Paul Hewitt, Shumpert said playing alongside Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler has forced him to “clean up my shot selection.”
“In college, the shots Melo shoots at the end of the shot clock, I had to shoot it,” he said. “But I had to shoot it from the point guard position. Usually I was going from halfcourt and just trying to make a play, something crazy. I feel a little more calmed down now that I can just throw it to Melo, everybody can just clear out.”
Added Anthony: “He’s so poised as a rookie, man. And you can’t say that about a lot of rookies. For him to come in and fit into what we have going on over here, that’s big-time for him.”
Shumpert works hard at his craft, too. He said he writes out all the plays on an iPad, watches a lot of film to understand opposing players and is “constantly with [assistant coach] Phil Weber going over plays, going over sets, just trying to understand the offense better.”
Shumpert was inserted as the starting point guard before Saturday night’s win over Detroit and says he feels more comfortable playing the point in the NBA than he did in college.
“It’s actually a lot easier in the NBA because people can’t camp in the lane,” he said. “So it’s a lot easier to read what’s going on. We do a good job of spacing the floor…And you’ve got the threat of Amar’e and Melo, so you know people ain’t leaving them.”
Yet Shumpert can also play off guard, and when Baron Davis returns from a herniated disc — D’Antoni said it could be later this month — the team will have a decision to make.
Does D’Antoni start Davis at the point and bring Shumpert off the bench? Does he opt to pair Davis and Shumpert in the backcourt, and relegate both Douglas and Fields to the bench?
“We’ll figure that out when we get there,” D’Antoni said.
“It’s whatever coach wants to do,” Shumpert said. “Whatever he does, that’s what he does. We’re just gonna go out there and play hard.”
That decision could be informed by the sub-par play of Fields, who is simply not the same player he was for the first part of last season. Fields is averaging just eight points a game.
“I think he knows he’s struggling a little bit with his shot,” D’Antoni said. “Last year he made everything and this year he’s not doing that yet. He needs to feel more comfortable and we get comfortable. He’s our best plus and minus guy. Every time he’s on the floor we do well, whether he plays well or not.”
Yet while Fields was the rookie sensation a year ago, he has clearly been eclipsed this year by Shumpert, whom they chose at No. 17 because they believed he could help defending athletic Eastern Conference players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
In the days leading up to the draft, Shumpert said his brother and father kept track of all the negative things being said about him, and Shumpert has used that for himself.
“I know what was said, so I use it for motivation,” he said. “I play with a chip on my shoulder.”
Anthony, for one, loves it.
“I want him to play with a chip on his shoulder,” he said, “and go out there and show everybody what he’s about.”
Photo: Daily News
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.