It may be too early to know if the Knicks have a shot at the title, but fans already think they got the steal of the draft.
Rookie Iman Shumpert has so quickly emerged as one of the premier first-year players that head coach Mike D’Antoni has decided to start him at point guard, even though Toney Douglas manned that spot since opening day. Shumpert made his second start against the Bobcats and D’Antoni said that should be the plan for the foreseeable future.
“He’s starting to get a better feel for what we want and I do think as Shump progresses he’ll get even better. We’re really excited about what we’ve got,” said D’Antoni. “His presence on the defensive end is huge. When you have a 6-foot-5, 220-pound ferocious and strong defender like that, with Tyson [Chandler] in the back, it really shores up a lot of stuff. He’s been impressive on that end.
“Offensively, he keeps trying to be simple and make the right play, make shots. He’s played really well. And this is the start of it. Hopefully, he stays grounded and keeps going forward, and if that happens he should make a big impact on every game.”
The ascension of Shumpert means Douglas is the odd-man out. D’Antoni allowed that Douglas has been in a bit of a funk lately, including getting booed at last week’s home loss to the Bobcats, but added his young veteran takes everything in stride.
“Toney has been pressing some, so he just has to go out there and play,” D’Antoni said.
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As long as Douglas continues to press, it means Shumpert will continue to have an even bigger workload. Which also means he’ll need to find a way to co-exist with resident superstars Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. The dazzling rookie said that won’t be a problem because the vets have actually encouraged him to look for his shot.
“I think it makes it a little easier on me for them to allow me to stay aggressive and I do what I do to stay that way,” said Shumpert. “We have Amar’e and Melo and Tyson, but I have experience being the guy and being aggressive because in college I had a bunch of freshmen around me and had to be a little more aggressive.”
Besides the obvious measurables, the levelheaded play of Shumpert is what initially caught D’Antoni’s eye during the college draft scouting process. Shumpert spent a lot of time at the point at Georgia Tech, which honed his handle and decision making. But his ability to defend all three wing positions is what also intrigued the coach.
So far this season, Shumpert has defended everyone from point guard to small forward and his aggressive play Monday night is what helped spark the Knicks and allow them to overcome a 10-0 deficit to start the game.
“We played off his energy and fed off of that,” said Anthony
Anthony added that Shumpert’s intangibles, more importantly his confidence, are what set him apart from other young players. The perennial all-star said the rookie actually reminds him of himself a little.
“One thing about him is he doesn’t lack in confidence. I love that because I’m a guy who doesn’t lack confidence. He’s come right into this situation and fit right in,” Anthony said. “There’s different levels [of confidence] and you can see it. He plays like he has a chip on his shoulder and we want him to play like that. In order for us to be successful, and he’s a big part of that, we need him to play like that. He’s a rookie and is going to make mistakes and that’s going to happen. But as long we correct them for him and he learns from his mistakes he’s gong to be alright.”
For his part, Shumpert remains humble and always defers to his older teammates. And even with someone like Douglas, who’s not much older than him, Shumpert tries to downplay the fact he took Douglas’s job and said the two can certainly co-exist.
“Obviously he’s a different style of guard than I am but it’s good to have that because I can play the two [shooting guard], he can play the two or either one can play the one [point guard],” Shumpert said, adding another veteran point guard has been instrumental so far in his development. “With Baron sitting out right now he sees a lot. He’s been through it all. What he does is tell me what to look for so I won’t make the mistake. He sees things I might not and it allows me to use my athleticism. … I’m happy I’ve got him.”
»Melo said that Shumpert was the steal of the draft, but didn’t know that until he actually laced up his shoes and worked out with the rookie: “I never saw Iman play [at Georgia Tech], but when we drafted him I heard he was a real athletic guy [and] a wingman who can score and play [defense]. It wasn’t until I worked out with him down in Atlanta one time and I had him come out here after the draft to work out with me that I saw his athleticism and saw what he could do. It’s just a matter of him sticking with it, keep working and getting better. We got his back out here. He’s a great guy and a guy who’s willing to learn.”
»D’Antoni said he’s tried everything to get Landry Fields out of his funk: “He’s struggling. Last year he hit everything and now this year he’s struggling with his shot. But he’s our best plus-minus guy, whether he plays well or not, so that means something. He gives us a lot of athleticism at the two [shooting guard] and does a lot of things well. We just have to make sure he doesn’t press too much.”
D’Antoni added he’s thrilled will Shumpert’s rise, but said it’s only a surprise to those who never saw him play: “It’s a surprise if you’ve never seen it, but that’s why we took him at No. 17. When we saw his [pre-draft] workouts it was one of the best workouts we had ever seen. His shot was good and his knowledge of the game was good. Unanimously we all said this is the guy we really want. We liked him and he was a guy that fit our system and he’s yet to disappoint.”
D’Antoni then switched gears and said everyone needs to temper expectations: “He is a rookie, but he already has the respect of the veteran players and that’s not easy to do. But again we just have to go a little slower [with expectations], and I know New York is not great at that, but we need to be cool and let him progress.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.