Thursday, June 27, 2013

Iman Shumpert is the Key to the Knicks' 2013-14 Season

Improved play from Iman Shumpert in 2013 could define the Knicks
potential as an Eastern Conference threat (
When the Knicks drafted Iman Shumpert two years ago, my initial reaction was, "Who?!" Before quickly turning to the trusty Internet to find out more about the Knicks' newest guard, thoughts of Jordan Hill, Channing Frye and Michael Sweetney flashed across my mind. As a Knicks fan, it's hard not to be cynical after years of ineptitude in evaluating draft prospects, among other failures.

After reading about Shumpert's impressive wingspan and defensive abilities, I decided to give the pick a chance. After all, the Knicks struggled immensely defending the perimeter and Shumpert was a possible answer for that issue. A star at Georgia Tech, Shumpert's offensive game was raw and unpolished but upon further examination, his potential was evident.

Watching the Knicks in the preseason, I couldn't help but be impressed by Shumpert. His length, hands and lateral quickness on the defensive end were as advertised if not better and, not surprisingly, Shumpert finished his rookie season ranked seventh in the NBA in steals despite playing just 28.9 minutes per game.

More impressive than his defense, however, was his jump shot. The results weren't there, but Shumpert's near-flawless mechanics gave me hope that he could develop into a competent shooter in the NBA. By all accounts, he was billed as a kid with a good work ethic and his athleticism stood out on tape, so there was plenty of room for improvement.

Predictably, Shumpert struggled with his shot as a rookie, shooting just over 40 percent from the field and just over 30 percent from the three-point line. While the ACL injury he suffered in the playoffs derailed the start of his 2012-13 season, it may have been a blessing in disguise for his development.

When Shumpert returned to the Knicks in January of this year, his shooting struggles persisted and he rarely looked like the player he was at full health. As the regular season wound down in March and April and Shumpert started to get back into game shape, one thing stood out to me: Shumpert's jump shot was actually much improved.

In March and April, Shumpert was 38-for-88 from beyond the arc (43.2%). He kept up his hot shooting in the playoffs as well, shooting 42.9% from distance on over three attempts per game. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Shumpert was 5-for-6 on three-pointers and at one point hit three in a row to cut a 10-point third-quarter deficit to one when no Knick not named Carmelo Anthony seemed interesting in scoring.

With his biggest weakness out of college becoming a strength, at least for a few months, the sky is the limit for Shumpert. As arguably the Knicks' only above-average player on both ends of the court, much more will be expected of him this season, particularly with the retirement of Jason Kidd and uncertain futures of both J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni.

Even if the Knicks re-sign Smith and Prigioni, they will still need 30 minutes per game from Shumpert. Both Raymond Felton and Smith struggle defensively, as do Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. With Tyson Chandler equally limited on offense, the Knicks will rely on Shumpert's defense on the perimeter as well as his ability to spread the court on offense and allow Anthony and Stoudemire to play to their strengths in the middle of the floor.

There were numerous instances in the playoffs where the Knicks stagnated on either offense or defense. Their offensive lineups featuring Felton, Smith, Anthony and Stoudemire struggled on defense, while combinations including better defenders like Prigioni, Kenyon Martin and Chandler had issues putting the ball in the basket. The Knicks need players who can affect the game on both sides of the court, something their roster is devoid of besides Shumpert.

It remains to be seen what the Knicks do with players like Smith, Prigioni, Martin and Chris Copeland, who is as explosive a scorer as he is a poor defender. None of these players pose a problem in a vacuum, but building an entire roster of players that only excel on one end of the court isn't a recipe for a championship contender.

Personally, I hope another team prices Smith out of the Knicks' range. He was a bargain around $3 million and a key to the Knicks' success this season but his value drops considerably with a contract more reflective of his ability. Many times it seemed that him and Anthony were trying to outdo the other on offense, which led to more isolation basketball than the Knicks, or any other NBA team for that matter, will ever need.

His playoff struggles were another red flag, especially considering the rumors that Smith was partying too hard and regressing to his 2011-12 self. You know, the one that enjoyed the New York City nightlife a bit too much. These concerns are certainly legitimate, particularly after the best year of his career. Will a new, more lucrative contract alleviate these issues? Seems doubtful to me.

It may seem asinine that a team that struggled to find a second scoring option in the playoffs should let a scorer like Smith walk, but Amar'e Stoudemire will be back to full health (supposedly) and is certainly more scorer than defender. In his limited appearances this season, Stoudemire did seem comfortable coming off the bench and his offseason work with Hakeem Olajuwon had a positive impact on his post game.

Smith's departure would also create an opportunity for Shumpert to see upwards of 35 minutes per game, which the Knicks will need to balance out their lineups that will inevitably be lacking either offensive playmakers or defensive stoppers, most likely the second. His potential impact next year reminds me of the role Kawhi Leonard played in the Spurs' run to the NBA Finals this season.

Leonard's breakout was the biggest reason San Antonio was able to avoid the early playoff eliminations of the past few seasons, as he proved to be an essential two-way presence alongside a veteran trio of stars. I don't see any reason why a 100% healthy Shumpert can't have the same effect on the Knicks next year and take some of the pressure off Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.

If Shumpert's offensive game continues to evolve as it has in his first two seasons, Knicks fans won't miss Smith one bit. He may not help this team get to the NBA Finals with Miami, Indiana and Chicago in the way like Leonard did in San Antonio, but Shumpert's development heading into year three will have a profound effect on how far the Knicks go in the playoffs next season.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Grading the Draft: San Francisco 49ers

(Originally posted at

Blessed with double-digit draft picks and roster depth that will make it impossible for more than a handful of rookies to make their Week 1 roster, the 49ers masterfully maneuvered their way through the draft by trading up for three of their first four picks. Even after using their later picks to move up for their main targets, San Francisco still managed to make 11 picks and the players they drafted should help the team either this year or in the future. Chris Tripodi breaks down one of this year’s best draft classes.

Eric Reid/S/LSU (Round 1/Pick #18): The 49ers wasted no time replacing departed strong safety Dashon Goldson, trading their 31st overall pick and a third-rounder to Dallas for the rights to take Reid. A second-round pick on our board, Reid fits very well in San Francisco’s secondary and has the hard-hitting mentality to step right into Goldson’s starting spot alongside Donte Whitner. He lacks great range in coverage and has just average ball skills but is an intimidating presence inside the numbers and has the ability to make 49ers fans quickly forget about Goldson, especially since he left the division completely by going to Tampa Bay.

Cornellius “Tank” Carradine/DE/Florida State (Round 2/Round #40): San Francisco used the 34th pick they got from Kansas City for Alex Smith to trade back in round two, picking up a seventh-round pick and a 2014 third-rounder in the process. If Carradine hadn’t torn his ACL in Florida State’s final regular season game, he may have been a first-round pick; we had him graded as a top-20 prospect anyway. The 49ers have the luxury of taking his recovery slowly but with Justin Smith succumbing to age and entering the final year of his contract, Carradine looks like his obvious successor. Intense rehab may allow him to add more weight to his 276-pound frame and if he returns bigger and with his explosiveness intact, Carradine will be an even more complete three-down lineman who can team up with Aldon Smith to terrorize opponents for years to come.

Vance McDonald/TE/Rice (Round 2/Pick #55): With backup tight end Delanie Walker leaving via free agency and the 49ers not needing to fill many starting positions, they could afford to trade up for a player who won’t be expected to play every snap. Michael Crabtree’s torn Achilles may force the 49ers to use more two-tight end sets than usual and while McDonald isn’t as good of a blocker as starter Vernon Davis, he’s a big athletic pass catcher who can get up the seam and become a favorite target of Colin Kaepernick. This pick is less of a luxury after Crabtree’s injury and playing behind Davis should be great for McDonald’s development, although he may need to wait until his next contract to flash his ability as a starter.

Corey Lemonier/DE/Auburn (Round 3/Pick #88): After moving down a round earlier to give San Francisco a chance to draft Vance McDonald, Green Bay moved down again as the 49ers gave up a seventh-round pick for the opportunity to draft Lemonier. They likely don’t view him as a starter with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks locked in at outside linebacker, but Lemonier has 4.6 speed and tangible upside as a pass rusher. He struggled to produce as a junior after a breakout sophomore campaign and has shown signs of being an underachiever, but the 49ers feel he can improve their pass rush if he takes to coaching and is used in the right spots.

Quinton Patton/WR/Louisiana Tech (Round 4/Pick #128): Branded with the small-school tag after a 100-catch senior season, Patton proved he belonged with this year’s top college talent after a great offseason and was rated as a second-round prospect by most draft outlets, including Draft Insider. A very polished receiver, Patton runs great routes and shows both soft and strong hands. He lacks great deep speed but is dangerous after the catch, especially on underneath routes. Michael Crabtree’s injury opens up a starting spot opposite Anquan Boldin and if the battle comes down to Patton, Mario Manningham and 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, our money is on Patton. Once he breaks the starting lineup, it may be tough to take him off the field.

Marcus Lattimore/RB/South Carolina (Round 4/Pick #131): After stealing Quinton Patton three picks earlier, the 49ers took a chance on a running back who likely would have been the first ballcarrier selected if he hadn’t suffered a second straight season-ending knee injury last year. Early reports on Lattimore’s rehab have been positive and while it’s tough to say how he will recover, San Francisco is a great fit for both the team and the player. Like Tank Carradine, Lattimore can take his time getting back to full strength and will likely start the season on the PUP list. Starter Frank Gore recovered from a torn ACL himself in college and has a contract that ends after the 2014 season, making Lattimore the 49ers running back of the future if he can get close to his prior form. An instinctive downhill runner who never relied on blazing speed to begin with, Lattimore could make the 2013 fourth round a goldmine for San Francisco along with Patton.

Quinton Dial/DE/Alabama (Round 5/Pick #157): Despite signing Glenn Dorsey and drafting Tank Carradine, the 49ers added to their defensive end depth even further by drafting Dial. While he was never more than a rotational player at Alabama, Dial showed enough upside and growth potential at 6-5, 318 to be an intriguing late-round prospect. Explosive and athletic for a big man, Dial has to develop more moves to get off blocks but could find his way into the 49ers’ defensive line rotation as a run stopper in the future.

Nick Moody/LB/Florida State (Round 6/Pick #180): Moody had a strong sophomore year at safety but his play leveled off before he moved to linebacker as a senior. At just 236 pounds, his speed and athleticism are his best assets as he flies around the field but struggles with coverage instincts and timing. Moody is a prospect that needs time in the weight room to develop into a good NFL player, something he will be able to focus on while buried on the depth chart at outside linebacker. He’ll likely need to make an impact on special teams to avoid the practice squad.

B.J. Daniels/QB/South Florida (Round 7/Pick #237): An undersized college quarterback who struggled with his accuracy, Daniels was listed as a running back on our board but the 49ers are expecting him to know the playbook as a quarterback. He saw time at running back and as a kick and punt returner during rookie mini-camp and San Francisco will look to use his athleticism any way they can. Daniels could run San Francisco’s read option package if something were to happen to Kaepernick and has a strong arm that would force defensive backs to run downfield with receivers. Daniels could be a fun player to watch if the 49ers can find a good way to use his skills.

Carter Bykowski/T/Iowa State (Round 7/Pick #246): A tight end entering college, Bykowski was moved to the offensive line and cracked the starting lineup for the first time as a senior. An athletic prospect who needs to gain strength like Nick Moody, he’s likely bound for the practice squad while he hits the weight room and works on his fundamentals with the coaching staff. If he can continue to improve his game, he has enough upside to crack the roster in the future.

Marcus Cooper/CB/Rutgers (Round 7/Pick #252): Like Quinton Dial, Cooper never started during his college career but has the size (6-2, 192) and speed to make him a nice upside play this late in the draft. He will be expected to compete for a gunner role on special teams but if not, he’s another 49ers’ rookie ticketed for further development on the practice squad. He defends the run well and his measurables make him a worthy developmental prospect for San Francisco.

Grade: A. San Francisco was in a great position to come out of this year’s draft with a deep, talented group of rookies and they did just that. Five of their first six picks are arguably top-50 talents and their deep roster allowed them the luxury of stashing injured stars like Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore. Their draft was as good as it gets and with 11 picks, value at positions of need, no big reaches and more picks on the way next season, the 49ers should remain a Super Bowl contender for the next few seasons if their core stays healthy.