Iman Shumpert will be asked to fill a critical need against the league's top guards such as Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings, who last season shredded the Knicks' flimsy defenses. Shumpert, the 17th overall pick in the June draft, says he'll be up to the challenge.
"If you put a guy on the other side of the ball," he said, "I'm going to go at 'em."
In a telephone conversation from Las Vegas over the weekend, Shumpert talked of confidence as if it were oxygen. In other words, he breathes it. He spectacularly dunks it at the end of an exhausting workout and posts the video on Twitter. He raps about it, his friend lays it to an edgy track and they post that video on YouTube with highlights of his confidence on display.
So a couple of strong outings against NBA veterans last week at the Impact Basketball League merely expanded his lung capacity.
"More confidence? Yes," he said of the experience so far. "But I've never been a person who lacked confidence."
The ongoing NBA lockout eliminated the chance for Shumpert to get his first chance to test that brimming confidence at the NBA Summer League, which is usually held in July. But in trainer Joe Abunassar's loosely organized circuit, which continues for one more week, Shumpert is getting more of an education by going up against veterans such as Mo Williams, Kyle Lowry, Tony Allen, T.J. Ford and younger talents such as John Wall and DeMar DeRozan, rather than exclusively against rookies and second-year players in the summer league.
And in his first two games, the 6-6, 220-pound Shumpert, who has spent the entire summer training for his rookie season, was the talk of the league. He had 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in his first game and then put up 24 points, six rebounds, an assist and a steal in a showdown with DeRozan that had Impact's gym buzzing. He and DeRozan, both very athletic, explosive players, went head-to-head on several plays and had veterans teasing DeRozan, a former lottery pick, about the low profile rookie taking it to him.
DeRozan wound up with 39 points in the game, on 16 of 19 shooting -- which might question Shumpert's defensive trademark -- but Shumpert is quick to note that his team won the game, and several observers noted that Shumpert was one of the few on his team giving an effort on the defensive end.
The Knicks have had swagtastic, dunktastic athletic guards who have had Slam Dunk Contest aspirations and have torn up the offseason before -- Mike D'Antoni still shudders from flashbacks of Nate Robinson shooting at his own basket in New Jersey -- and there is still nothing that replicates an NBA game, with NBA officials and NBA coaching.
And perhaps the most important result of Shumpert's experience at Impact will come this week, when Chauncey Billups arrives to join the rookie for a few games. The two could find themselves spending a lot of time together this season in the Knicks' backcourt.
Abunassar has kept teammates together in this league -- in fact, former Knick David Lee arranged to have an entire team of Golden State Warriors -- so Billups and Shumpert will get plenty of reps as a tandem. Billups told me last week that he was looking forward to seeing the athletic rookie, and Shumpert said he was looking forward to beginning his apprenticeship.
"He's somebody great to play off of," Shumpert said. "He's a scoring guard and I'm looking forward to playing with him and developing some chemistry."
While this is going on, where is Landry Fields? Not in Vegas. But he will be at IMG next month for Amar'e Stoudemire's minicamp, if the lockout wipes out training camp. Shumpert will be there, too. Let the competition begin.
Fields has spent a great deal of the summer focusing on improving his long-range touch, especially the corner three. And don't forget about Toney Douglas, another defensive-minded guard who -- once he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery -- could combine with Shumpert for a shut-down backcourt combo . . . although one of them will have to prove they can effectively run an offense.
Shumpert knows his athleticism and defensive potential (with a 6-9 wingspan) is what caught the eye of the Knicks' scouts and convinced Donnie Walsh and Co. to take him over 6-9 forward Chris Singleton, a decision that will be scrutinized over the next couple of seasons. [Singleton, by the way, opted to not play in the Impact League. He chose to join Andray Blatche for workouts in D.C. with other Wizards players, though, curiously, most of their top players, such as Wall and JaValle McGee, are at Impact.]
Shumpert said "I don't want to go down as a specialist" and has spent the summer working on the parts of his offensive game that will help him fit into Mike D'Antoni's system. His workouts include countless jumpers from specific areas on the court. It's as if he was advised, perhaps just before the enforcement of the lockout embargo that forbid teams from having contact with its players.
Usually, D'Antoni and his staff have a few weeks in July at the Summer League to coach and get to know incoming rookies. But D'Antoni's first look at Shumpert won't be until the lockout ends and training camp begins.
"I'm happy with the results right now," Shumpert said of his summer of work. "Hopefully they will, too."
* * *
* -- Along with Billups, Shawne Williams is expected to join Shumpert at Impact this week. Roger Mason Jr. and Jared Jeffries also made committments to play, but neither have arrived yet. Mason Jr., a member of the NBPA's executive committee, has been busy with the collective bargaining process.
* -- Jamaal Tinsley, who is still looking to make an NBA comeback at 33 years old, is playing in the Impact league and looks to be in good shape. Tinsley last played in the NBA in 2009-10, when he appeared in 38 games with the Memphis Grizzlies. Walsh flirted with the idea of signing Tinsley last season, but resisted bringing the controversy-riddled Brooklynite back to New York.
* -- Shumpert, who left Georgia Tech as a junior, admitted he was getting anxious about the lockout eliminating some or all of his rookie season. But he said after he attended the NBPA membership meeting in Vegas last Thursday, he gained a better understanding of what's at stake for the players. "When you really understand how serious this is," he said, "how it can affect you down the line, with your second contract and, if you're fortunate to still be around, your third contract, you understand the importance of it."