By Ben Horney, Knicks fan since '94
The instant it happened it was obvious.
"Shumpert grabs his knee and he..he's in a lot of pain," Mike Breen stammered, as Iman Shumpert lay on the American Airlines Arena hardwood clutching his left knee, his face locked in a state of agony. A single misstep on an attempted behind-the-back dribble and Shumpert's rookie season was over, his ACL and lateral meniscus shredded.
Surgery. Rehab. Rest. More rehab. Extreme flat top growth.
Meanwhile, summer came and went, the roster was rebuilt, and the Knicks jumped out to an 18-5 start, earning "talk of the league" status. But as the Knicks forged deeper into the season, their torrid start cooled off as the league adjusted to their new offense. By the time the Knicks landed in London to play the Pistons on January 17, the Knicks, now 25-12, had lost six of their last 10. It was evident that Shumpert's return couldn't come sooner.
Before the mid-January game in London's famous 02 Arena, coach Woodson confirmed what we'd all heard from various reports: eight months and 20 days after he had crumpled to the ground in Miami, Shumpert was back. He'd start, and could play up to 15 minutes.
Shump, still called "Rook" by Woodson, played 14 minutes and 53 seconds that night. And while his numbers weren't staggering -- 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting (2-of-3 from beyond the arc), 2 rebounds 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block -- they were representative of what Shumpert brings to the table. He's an energizer who can do a little bit of everything.
His presence helped the Knicks break a streak of anemic first quarters -- in the previous 10 games the Knicks had averaged 22 points in the first quarter, which would have ranked them last in the league for the season. In London against the Pistons, with the aid of Shumpert, they dropped 29, on the way to a 15-point blowout.
The most promising result from Shumpert's return was that the 22-year-old, with less than a full regular season's worth of games under his belt, showed no fear. He didn't get overconfident after successes -- like when he went coast to coast and Euro Stepped his defender before finishing with a finger roll that would make Walt Clyde Frazier proud. Nor did he recoil from failure -- like when he rose up for a vicious dunk but was thwarted by a Pistons defender. Defensively, Shumpert was typically pesky, constantly disrupting the Pistons perimeter players. He moved with ease, both side-to-side and down the court. In short, he looked a lot like the Shumpert that Knicks fans had become enamored with a season ago.
"It was a wonderful test for him," Woodson told reporters after the game. "He answered the bell, loud and clear."
As expected, Shumpert spent most of the season playing his way back into form. He averaged 22 minutes per game and played more than 30 minutes just once in the regular season. His numbers were inevitably muted -- 6.8 points, 3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1 steal per game. But he did show an immense improvement in 3-point shooting -- from 31% a year ago to 40% this year while taking roughly the same amount of threes per game -- which ranked him 33rd in the league, just ahead of Klay Thompson and only a few slots behind LeBron James.
By the playoffs, Shumpert appeared to be completely back, averaging 9.3 points, 6 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 steal per game, while continuing to define the term "impact player." From his 14 points and eight rebounds per game in Games 4, 5 and 6 against Boston to his barrage of threes in a desperate attempt to keep the Knicks alive in Game 6 against the Pacers, Shumpert showed that he has the ability to become a star.
Shumpert consistently displays the exact attitude and work ethic that Knicks fans expect and desire from their premier players. In his exit interview after the Knicks were eliminated from the playoffs, Shumpert appeared just as downtrodden as many Knicks fans, made no excuses for the team's early exit, announced he would be playing on the Knicks Summer League team and vowed to come back better next season.
"I'm going to take advantage of this summer," he told reporters. "I know what I have to do."
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images