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The Meaning of Iman Shumpert

On the morning of his glorious return, Joe ponders just why exactly Knicks fans have fallen for the kid with the fade.

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Jamie McDonald

I want to talk about Iman Shumpert. More than just talk, I want to pile all the praise I can muster onto the shoulders of the second-year guard; I want to express my sincere belief that the Knicks will finally start playing some defense now that Shump is back.

Most likely, I want to do all of this because I'm a Knicks fan. I view the NBA through the prism of the New York Knicks, as I always have. My dilemma is this: if I were an independent, unbiased NBA observer, what would I write about Iman Shumpert? Would I toss out a few vague compliments about his defense? Would I write a hilarious snark-laden article like the dude over at Gothic Ginobili?

The simple fact of the matter is that Shumpert's rookie stats aren't terribly impressive. Like most Knicks fans, I dismiss those stats out-of-hand. Some are already labeling Shump a product of New York Hype. Like most Knicks fans, I instinctively reach for my trusty switchblade when I hear such accusations...them's fightin' words!

Since we don't know yet what kind of impact Iman will have on this year's team, perhaps we can instead delve into a fascinating existential question: why has this kid struck such a chord with Knicks fans?

Here are some thoughts:

1. Shumpert's Rookie Season Was a Rare Thing Indeed (At Least for the Knicks)

The 2011-12 Knicks season will be forever remember by the sports world as the year of Linsanity. I do believe, however, that most Knicks fans have moved on, and they're hoping they will someday tell their grandchildren about the rookie year of Shump. (Not that you shouldn't buy this book anyway...I got your back, boss!)

Linsanity was a supernova; Shump's rookie season was more of a slow, consistent burn. Iman made his Knicks debut a few days before the team signed Lin, and he was doing his best work down the stretch after Lin's injury. Shump was always there last year, through all the ups and downs, both in his play and in the Knicks' play. He ended up making the All-NBA rookie team. It was, in other words, a pretty successful rookie year...but it was far from special, right?

Iman's rookie campaign probably wouldn't seems out of the ordinary...unless you've followed the Knicks these past 12 years or so. The Knicks don't usually get big contributions from rookies, because their front office policy for the past decade has been to include draft picks in every dumb trade imaginable (and they were almost all dumb). They gave away picks for old guys, fat guys, injured name it. In doing so, they created the bizarre, hopeless experience that is all younger Knick fans have ever known.

Fans have two reasons to root for a team: either they're competing for a playoff spot, or they're playing for the hope of developing young players into a future playoff team. When your team is losing, it's fun to watch your team play some of rookies, watch them develop, track their progress, and dream about next summer's draft.

For a team as bad as the Knicks had been last decade, their fans got very little of that experience. Try to guess how many Knicks rookies qualified for the leaderboard in terms of minutes played per game from 2000 through last season...four players: Trevor Ariza ('04-'05), Nate Robinson ('05-'06), Landry Fields ('10-'11) and Shumpert. That's the same number as the Lakers and two fewer than the Spurs - two perennial contenders who had legitimate reasons to avoid playing rookies. The Bulls have had 15 such rookies in that time. Is it any wonder Knicks fans fell so hard for Shump?

2. The Chance to Correct a Past Mistake

Of those three rookies that came before Shump, clearly the best comparison in terms of playing styles would be Trevor Ariza. Both were limited offensive players who more than made up for it with tenacious perimeter defense. Shumpert was picked at the bottom half of the first round, while Ariza was an absolute steal as a second-rounder.

Now, maybe some of you youngsters aren't even aware that Ariza once played for the Knicks. If you're too young to remember, then skip this next paragraph. It'll give you nightmares. For us old fogies, I'm sure we remember where we were when Isiah Thomas shipped Ariza and Penny Hardaway's valuable expiring contract to the Magic for Steve Francis. We could sit here and argue all day about which trade was Isiah's worst. The Eddy Curry deal has had the most long-term impact (FYI: the Knicks are 0-4 this season against players drafted with the picks Zeke gave away in the Curry deal), but in my opinion the Francis deal was the least defensible. You could at least argue for Curry's offensive talent, size and youth, and draft picks are far from a sure thing. But Steve Fucking Francis? Not only was he basically done as an NBA player by that point, he was basically quadruple-redundant on those Knicks teams (the Isiah-era Knicks never found themselves short of one-dimensional, ball-hogging gunners.)

Ariza eventually became an integral part of the Lakers' 2008 championship team before falling off after a trade to Houston. He never became the player Houston thought he would be, but he's had himself a fine career. Considering their talents, I consider Ariza to be something of the baseline for Iman Shumpert's career, barring injury. Even if he never improves on his jump shot, Shump can have an Ariza-type career. I sincerely hope he has that career with the Knicks. Every day he isn't traded for Rashard Lewis is a victory in my eyes. (No Zeke, we don't miss you)

3. About that "Defense" Thing...

Aside from the Pistons, its hard to think of another NBA fan-base that values defense quite like Knicks fans. Quite a few NBA analysts have blamed the 90's Knicks teams for destroying basketball - yeah, we heard you the first time, Bill Simmons - but that's the kind of ball most Knicks fans grew up with. We embrace defense. In the mind of most Knicks fans, Defense wins; Defense equals character,

Not only do Knicks fans love defense, we had been in desperate want of defensive for some time. Last decade's Knicks teams had a few dudes who could drop 40 points; they were occasionally exciting and rarely victorious. But they lacked defense, lacked character.

And then Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler got together. Last year's team was a paradox: a Melo and Amar'e-led, D'Antoni-coached top 10 defense. Chandler won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and deservedly so, but the Knicks struggles this year have really shown their need for Shump's defensive presence.

And just how good was Shump on defense last season? Check out the top 15 Knicks rookie seasons in the shot clock era, by Defensive Win Shares:

Rk Player Season Age Tm G GS MP DRB TRB STL BLK PF DWS
1 Mark Jackson 1987-88 22 NYK 82 80 3249 276 396 205 6 244 4.2
2 Lonnie Shelton 1976-77 21 NYK 82 2104 413 633 125 98 363 3.4
3 Patrick Ewing* 1985-86 23 NYK 50 50 1771 327 451 54 103 191 3.1
4 Ed Sherod 1982-83 23 NYK 64 37 1624 106 149 96 14 112 2.7
5 Darrell Walker 1983-84 22 NYK 82 0 1324 93 167 127 15 202 2.7
6 Iman Shumpert 2011-12 21 NYK 59 35 1705 144 186 101 8 173 2.5
7 Willis Reed* 1964-65 22 NYK 80 3042 1175 339 2.4
8 Trent Tucker 1982-83 23 NYK 78 59 1830 141 216 56 6 235 2.4
9 Bill Cartwright 1979-80 22 NYK 82 3150 532 726 48 101 279 2.1
10 Greg Anthony 1991-92 24 NYK 82 1 1510 103 136 59 9 170 2.0
11 Walt Frazier* 1967-68 22 NYK 74 1588 313 199 1.9
12 Gerald Wilkins 1985-86 22 NYK 81 53 2025 116 208 68 9 155 1.9
13 Landry Fields 2010-11 22 NYK 82 81 2541 416 521 80 17 114 1.8
14 Renaldo Balkman 2006-07 22 NYK 68 1 1064 197 294 57 44 146 1.7
15 Micheal Ray Richardson 1978-79 23 NYK 72 1218 155 233 100 18 188 1.7
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/16/2013.

Whoa. That's some pretty good company. Pay close attention to Shump's age and minutes played. He put up some impressive defensive numbers at a younger age and in fewer minutes than most of the guys on that list. Considering he played about half the minutes Mark Jackson did (when he won Rookie of the Year), you could make the argument that Iman Shumpert was the Knicks; best rookie defender since Patrick Ewing.

4. Character

No matter what we'd like to believe, defense does not equal character. Metta World Peace has always played defense and has always been a maniac, even when he had a real human name.

Iman Shumpert is a different case entirely. The kid has a preternatural leadership quality that transcends age and experience, even on a veteran team like the Knicks. This radio interview with Michael Kay is particularly enlightening:

"If I see a guy out there, just, you know I feel like he took a play off, I'm all over him. Even though I'm younger than everybody on the team, I accept when they yell at me, and the cool thing about this team is they accept when I yell at them. And even though I'm in a suit, when a guy like Tyson, when I feel like Tyson could've got a block and I say something to him, Tyson don't yell at me, he just says, 'You know what, rook, you're right.'"

Knicks fans can see this. They see him leading the team in the pre-game circle, they see him leading from the sidelines. And they love it.

5. The Improvement on Offense


Pre-All Star Break:

.375 FG% .268 3P%

Post-All Star Break:

.433 FG% .347 3P%

Iman was an absolutely dreadful offensive player at the start of the year - he took too many bad shots and lacked a consistent jumper. He was somewhat of a changed man in the second half. His scoring went down, but his efficiency shot way up. He was especially good in March, shooting .381 from behind the arc. Knicks fans can dream about those March numbers, but they'll take his second-half shooting any day of the week. Faced with the disappointing performance of Ronnie Brewer, the Knicks desperately need a wing who can defend and get to the hoop. Iman can already do those things. If he can hit 35% of his threes, then that's just the icing on the cake.

There's no doubt we Knicks fans have a special place in our hearts for good ol' Shump, and it goes far beyond the Instagram photos, mix tapes, and that glorious flat-top fade. Shumpert has a chance to become the rarest of rarities: a quality homegrown Knick. He doesn't have to become a star to earn our love, but if he goes ahead and does that anyway, I doubt you'll hear us complaining.