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If You Can Make It There

April 2, 2012

By Matt Winklejohn
Sting Daily

Iman Shumpert sure didn’t look like a young man who’d made a poor decision.

It hasn’t been a full year since some folks around here felt that he made a mistake by leaving Georgia Tech and entering the NBA draft, but there he was in Philips Arena on Friday night, scoring 25 points for the New York Knicks for the second game in a row.

The Hawks won, but Shumpert wasn’t a culprit. The Knicks done in by the absence of injured point guard Jeremy Lin as Baron Davis and former Hawk Mike Bibby combined for a dreadful night in Lin’s stead.

Afterward, Shumpert was borderline despondent. He was one of the last players dressed in the New York locker room. He spoke in a low voice. He volunteered to do more.

Tech had a pretty darned good point guard last season. Shumpert averaged 17.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.7 steals and led the Jackets in all those categories. He played a little bit of point guard for the Knicks, too, but chiefly has been at shooting guard and small forward while starting 22 of 46 games.

“Whatever coach needs me to do, I go out there and try to do. That’s how I’ve always played,” he said. “If I’m in a tough spot, I’ve just got to figure it out. If I need to play [power forward], I’ll play the spot. I don’t care. I just want to win.”

Shumpert and the Knicks have yo-yoed this season. If you can make it in New York, maybe just maybe you really can make it anywhere because he’s already been through a career in less than one season.

The Knicks drafted him 17th after he had a spectacular pre-draft combine, but soon came the NBA lockout. Then, on Dec. 10, New York waived guard Chauncy Billups by way of the new amnesty clause, and a day later Shumpert, Bibby signed contracts with the team.

Nine days later, Davis signed even though he had an injury that would keep him from playing for nearly three months, and Lin was claimed off waivers a week after that once the season had begun.

A fine if brutally brief training camp and preseason (two games) landed Shumpert on the opening-day roster, but it was still unclear where he fit. There were (and are) significant injuries to others, including All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.

He got off to a fine start, though, averaging 12.7 points over the Knicks’ first seven games, and New York started the season 5-1.

Then, six straight losses and nine in a span of 10 games.

Before long, Lin played, and beyond well. He was scoring, passing, energizing. And the Knicks were winning and winning.

Suddenly, Shumpert found himself side stage to a circus. He was fine with it, saying, “Jeremy was right on time. We needed him. He gave us a boost. It worked out.”

Not forever, it didn’t.

The Knicks won seven straight games, and nine of 10.

Upon Anthony’s return they lost six straight and head coach Mike D’Antoni resigned amid withering criticism that he couldn’t blend Anthony and Lin. Former Hawks coach Mike Woodson, hired late last summer as a New York assistant, took over in an interim position.

The Knicks went 8-1 before losing in Atlanta.

“It’s been a totally different thing. With all the injuries and stuff, you can’t prepare yourself for that, all this, Jeremy, the coaches,” Shumpert said softly. “I’ve just tried to grow up quick.”

It may not work any more. The game in Atlanta was the third straight Lin missed with was up to then a mysterious knee injury. Team officials, notorious for being one of the most difficult in the NBA to work with, didn’t even acknowledge that Lin had undergone an MRI until before the Hawks game, when Woodson let it slip.

The New York beat writers, and they are legion, were all a-Twitter.

Weirdness was everywhere, even in the media room in Philips arena where Knicks broadcaster Walt Frazier was spotted before the game – back in his hometown – in red patent leather shoes with equally red socks. After the game, Dikembe Mutombo wandered the New York dressing quarters, saying hello to everybody.

His belt was even with my sternum.

Shumpert’s doing fine. He’s averaging 9.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists. His average +/- is +9.59, which is superb. He ranks No. 4 in the NBA in steals per game (1.83), and he had five in Saturday’s blowout of the Cavs as the Knicks got back on a winning track. He also scored 10 points, two rebounds and two assists.

This hasn’t been normal, though. On the other side of Mutombo, Davis walked up to the food table, equipped only with a towel and shower sandals. He looked down, ignored the chow and instead glanced at a stat sheet. Then, he cussed, wadded up the paper, and said, “that was the worst game I played in my life!”

Part of Shumpert misses being at Tech. He would be a senior right now. He would not have a salary of $1.56 million like he does now.

“I definitely don’t miss class; I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I miss some of my friends back in Atlanta. Jonathan Stewart on the track team. Lance Storrs, Mfon Udofia, Glen Rice, I talk to them a lot.”

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