From the moment the New York Knicks drafted Iman Shumpert in 2011, it seemed as if the team's plans and Shumpert's development didn't overlap.
These Knicks are built to win as soon as possible. Their salary structure is tied to a trip of peak-age performers in Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and, precariously, Amar'e Stoudemire. The three are signed through 2014-15. Maximizing that trio has been the sole focus of the Knicks' front office. Whatever the future brings after that, the Knicks seem content to figure out when it gets here, with a ton of cap room and little in the way of long-term talent.
If any doubt remained about the present focus, it disappeared when Jeremy Lin was allowed to leave for Houston, and the team brought in so many 35-and-older players that it became a running joke: Rasheed Wallace, Kurt "Midlife" Thomas, Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd, even Kenyon Martin mid-year. Their rookie point guard, Pablo Prigioni, was 35. Their youngest rookie, Chris Copeland, was 28.
Within this roster of experience and age was Shumpert, an anomaly at 22, entering his second year. But despite a rookie season with promise, including some elite on-ball defending, the chances for Shumpert to be a key part of the Anthony Knicks were harmed considerably by the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in Game 1 of the NBA playoffs last spring against the Miami Heat.
By the time Shumpert returned in January, the Knicks had created a team that didn't seem to have room for him. And when Shumpert, as befitting a man returning from major knee surgery, struggled to regain his athleticism and timing on the court, a trade to a team with a different window of time, a franchise able to wait for Shumpert to recover and become whatever he will be as a player in exchange for some immediate help, looked like a real possibility.
The Knicks, however, either unimpressed by what teams were offering or out of an abundance of optimism, held onto Shumpert at this season's trade deadline. And it's an awfully good thing they did. The timelines have merged. Iman Shumpert is very much the present of the New York Knicks.
Shumpert's dunk in the second quarter of Tuesday night's 105-79 victory over the Indiana Pacers is one of the more remarkable plays you'll see in an N.B.A. game. And it put on display the potent combination of basketball intelligence and tantalizing athleticism that Shumpert offers.
Sure, the ultimate moment of the dunk, his seemingly limitless reaching back for the ball as he skies toward the hoop, thunderous dunk and incomparable roar of a Madison Square Garden crowd that followed, was impressive enough. But watch where Shumpert is when the missed three-pointer by Chris Copeland that made the dunk possible goes up: he's at the three-point line himself. He recognizes the trajectory of the ball before anyone else on the court. And an Indiana defense that has prevented the Knicks from easy baskets for much of the first two games is powerless to stop him.
Jason Kidd routinely makes reads like that; he's able to give the Knicks consistent rebounding, despite being a 40-year-old guard, because he knows where the ball is going before anyone else. But to see that from a second-year wing who can convert that kind of knowledge into a Sportscenter top play, just shy of his 23rd birthday, well: that's a player who can help the Knicks, or anyone else, right now.
"Yeah, I think I was trying to make a statement," Shumpert said at his postgame press conference. Shumpert makes a visual statement everywhere he goes. He was dressed in his typically unique style, pink dress shirt with brown suspenders, the retro flat top haircut groomed perfectly, diamond stud sparkling as he turned to see the reporter asking the next question. Always noticed, he's a hyperkinetic presence in any room, no less in a Knicks locker room not exactly short on epic personalities.
And that's been equally true on the court, particularly as February turned to March to April to May, each new month bringing back with it elements of Shumpert's game. But to simply think of Shumpert as "back", as the formulation goes in so many questions about Shumpert to coach Mike Woodson or Shumpert himself, is to miss something bigger.
Iman Shumpert is a far better player now than he was before his injury. And really, no one knows exactly what his ceiling actually can be, when he's finished developing.
"He's doing all the things that we thought he could do," Woodson said Tuesday night following the game. "And I can't help but think he's going to continue to grow and get better."
He was a defensive stopper in his rookie year, and after getting burned on one-on-one defending in the first few months of his comeback, that ability has returned. (He is still vulnerable to backdoor plays.) But he wasn't close to the perimeter shooter last season that he's since become. He shot just over 30 percent from three-point range in 2011-12; in 2012-13, he's at over 40 percent from three. Incredibly, one of the main reasons he slipped to 17th in the 2011 draft, his inconsistent shot, has become one of his biggest constants.
He credits that to an unorthodox development period. During the time other players would be consolidating their skills, his knee injury meant the only thing he could work on was his jump shot.
"When I was finally able to walk, I wasn't able to jump," Shumpert said of one stage in his rehabilitation. "I was doing form shooting. And soon I was able to jump, and I'm not able to run. So, you know, I'm just shooting jump shot after jump shot, all the time. It was all I could do. And you miss basketball so much, you do it all day.
"So I guess I have to credit tearing my ACL with being able to knock down corner threes."
But with so much more to Shumpert's game than just the shooting, it is apparent that the apprentice time he logged watching the Knicks this season has made him a more knowledgeable player, able to recognize opportunities that can change games like his epic dunk. He arguably saved the Knicks' season during Game 6 in Boston, ending the Celtics' 20-0 frenzied fourth-quarter run with a forced steal and dunk that quieted the crowd and restored the Knicks' equilibrium. Earlier in the game, he'd followed a missed shot with a thunderous dunk that, in retrospect, feels like a trial run for his Tuesday night highlight.
While J.R. Smith, the team's second scorer, has struggled to find his regular season form, and Anthony himself has fought through a shoulder injury that has limited his accuracy, Shumpert has been the constant. On offense, he's averaging 13.4 points per game over his last five, scoring double figures in each one, while shooting 51 percent from the field overall, and 44 percent from three.
On defense, his team is asking him not merely to contribute, but to lead.
"I feel that my team expects something out of me," Shumpert said. "Especially Tyson [Chandler]. Tyson's always in my ear. Kenyon [Martin] too. Telling me that I have to jumpstart the defense. And being that I have the ability I have to get up in somebody, when they see me do that, he said, that sort of helps us get going, so we need you to do that... That's just my teammates encouraging me. That's what they expect of me."
Offensive mainstay. Defensive key. If the future is still hazy for the Knicks, that is a worry for tomorrow. Iman Shumpert has become an indispensable member of the present, the salve for so many of the challenges these Knicks, built for today, face right now. And no one is thinking about Shumpert's injury, now relegated to the past.
Or as Shumpert put it to a room full of media members still buzzing about his dunk, "If it weren't for you guys, I'd forgotten I tore my ACL."