By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
For all the hype and anticipation, the best you could say about Iman Shumpert’s season debut is that it went just as planned.
A week ago, it was “he will play in London, barring any setbacks.” After shootaround on Thursday, it was “he will play, and he could start.” And as game time neared and Coach Woodson confirmed he’d both play and start, it was “he can play up to 15 minutes.”
So after 14 minutes and 53 seconds on the court, the entirety of Knicks Nation could breathe a collective sigh of relief because everything went according to plan. The idea of adding a player with Iman Shumpert’s profile to a first-place team has a way of generating excitement, but until we see something in a game, it’s just that: an idea.
It is no longer just that. We needed to see him move, perform some basketball actions resembling those of an NBA player, and emerge from the game healthy. Check, check, and check. In those almost 15 minutes, Shump provided exactly what one might hope he would, and some more. How did he look?
“It was a wonderful test for him,” said Woodson after the game. “He answered the bell, loud and clear.”
Shot out of a canon
This much was apparent from the very start. Over the last four games, the Knicks have averaged just under 19 points in the 1st quarter. Against the Pistons, they dropped 29.
For this, Woodson gives a lot of credit to Shump. “He brings so much energy and his teammates feed off it. This is one of the first quarters we’ve had to start off the game in a little while when we’ve been really good.”
We know to take single game plus/minus numbers with a grain of salt – even more so with short stints within a game. But in his first court time in nearly nine months, Shumpert was plus-14 before exiting with 7:26 to go in the first quarter.
“That’s how we should be starting every game, anyway,” he said afterwards.
His numbers were modest – 8 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block – but that tends to happen when a player can’t exceed 15 minutes. Projected out to 36 minutes, they tell a story of someone ready to break out once he’s back to full health: 19.2 points, 4.8 boards, 2.4 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.4 blocks.
It wasn’t so much that he overwhelmed in any one area, but he showed a little bit of everything. When asked how he’ll help, Woodson praised his versatility, pointing out that he “gives us another body that can play. He can play four positions; he can defend four positions. He can play 1 and 2, in terms of being able to handle the basketball, and relieve Kidd from not having to handle it so much.”
All of this was on display in his limited time on the floor. He took turns guarding each one of Detroit’s perimeter players, bringing to each matchup the energy and tenacity for which he’s known. He handled the ball some, at one point driving hard to his left, drawing the defense and dropping off a bounce pass to Tyson Chandler on the right block for a dunk. Not a finished product on offense as a rookie, he even showed some veteran spatial awareness in the half court and knocked down two of three 3s from the corners.
As Carmelo Anthony said, he “played within his means and did was he was supposed to do.” For a 22-year old that has been itching to return for months, that was impressive.
At times it looked like the game was moving too fast, but even for someone who worked so hard to rehab and get back out there, that is to be expected initially. Most importantly, we saw the effort and glimpses of the explosiveness. When you are wondering how a player has recovered from major knee surgery, you don’t worry so much about the missed dunk when you see him drive hard, stop on a dime, and elevate like a rocket ship to try and slam it home over Greg Monroe.
He flashed. His coaches and his teammates were noticeably giddy about his contributions and what he can do going forward. Not just energy and defense, but a step forward in his second year in the league to a more complete game. Giving his coach flexibility to redistribute ball-handling responsibilities and more minutes for his star to play power forward, where he’s most comfortable.
In just 15 minutes, Shumpert’s return provided a reason to dream. How he responds after his first game action in a long time will be important, but he has proven in the past that modest expectations just might not be for him.
“I’m pretty optimistic. They told me I was going to have soreness weeks ago and I didn’t. I hope I’m just different.”