Next Steps: Chris Copeland

By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)

Chris Copeland's rise as an NBA player this season would have been a great story if it ended today; he made the team as a 28-year-old rookie, an accomplishment in itself, and by the end of the year had become a vital role player on the 54-win Knicks.

He proved over and over again that he could score the ball, and eventually gained enough trust from his coaches -- and himself -- to know he could play his part in an NBA defense and warranted a spot in the rotation.

When coach Mike Woodson called his number this year, he produced to the tune of 20 points and 5 rebounds per 36 minutes. The 6-foot-9 hybrid wing/forward/big man was a model of efficiency, shooting 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

But on a team brimming with veteran depth, he had to keep evolving to prove his value. Most, if not all, of his teammates had already proven their NBA utility, so as the team went 11-4 in November, he spent the time working tirelessly with coaches behind the scenes just to pick up the fundamentals of Woodson's complex defensive schemes.

He finally broke through at the beginning of December, scoring 29 points in less than 29 minutes in a game against the Rockets. As the season wore on, he continued to produce, thanks in part to Woodson's guidance. "He pushed me, and that was what I believe I needed," Copeland said in his exit interview last week. "We all would agree that I've grown being under his wing."

And thanks to his development in year one, his future looks bright. He could always score, and he did that consistently throughout the year. But he showed down the stretch that he could handle both the minutes (over 30 minutes per game over the last eight games of the season) and the responsibility (18.4 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor and 48 percent from three during that time) required to contribute to an organization with title aspirations.

On a team full of breakout individual performances, his stands out because of what it portends going forward. As does his attitude, which is what you'd expect from a player with his history: "Work never stops," he says. "Just because you made it to this level doesn't mean the work is done."

He's focused on "getting stronger, trying to come back an even better athlete. I think that will help me on the defensive end," he says. "Just tightening up my ball handling, things of that nature. Work on everything this summer."
 
After showing he's capable of playing multiple positions and making big plays in the playoffs, Copeland believes he's put himself in position for a bigger role through hard work with the coaching staff.
 
He was an adequate one-on-one defender, but will be the first to admit that he struggled to grasp the assignments required to make the proper rotations at this level. With a season under his belt, he and his coaches believe he made tremendous strides in that area, but he'll continue to focus on defense as he works out in Richmond, Virginia, this summer. 
 
Where he goes from here depends both on his continued improvement and his opportunity. With free agency looming this summer, he's determined to take care of what's in his control and content to his future role play out as it will.

He hopes that his work will net him an opportunity to contribute even more to the Knicks next season, calling it "a dream come true" if he could return.

"If you look at my career overseas, I've never chased the highest bidder," he says. "I've never been that guy. I played with teams for multiple years. When I'm comfortable, I usually tend to stay in those situations, and I love it here. Finances play a part, but I have emotional ties here that would be hard for me to break."

Watch Copeland's complete exit interview here.