Iman Shumpert Can Get Better on Defense

I have made no secret of my love for New York Knicks rookie shooting guard Iman Shumpert. While his offense has been inconsistent and erratic for much of the season (though it has been both better and more consistent of late), his defense has been a bright spot for the Knicks all season. Shump’s hounding one-on-one defense on the perimeter, along with the inside presence and versatility of both Tyson Chandler and Jared Jeffries, has been one of the biggest reasons for the Knicks’ vaulting from the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency last season to the top 5 this year.

Already in his short career, Shumpert has become a lockdown isolation defender. According to mySynergySports, he allows just 0.6 Points Per Possession (PPP) against on isolation plays, good for 28th in the NBA and better than noted defensive stalwarts such as Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Tony Allen. Shump has allowed opposing players to score on just 30.7% of their isolation plays while forcing turnovers 28.4% of the time. He uses his quick feet to stay in front of his man and his long arms and lightning-fast hands to bother opposing players off the dribble and once they put up their shot. His ridiculous athleticism – he had a 42 inch max vertical at last year’s draft combine – along with his insanely long arms – at 6’5″, Shumpert has a 6’9.5″ wingspan – conspire to make him nearly impossible to beat in one-on-one situations.

His ability to defend perimeter scorers one-on-one is where his reputation as an excellent defender comes from, but he is far from perfect on defense. In fact, there are still many ways he can improve on that side of the floor.

Pick-and-roll defense is probably the weakest area of Shumpert’s game so far. He tends to get caught in screens way too much for a guy who is 6’5″ and 220 pounds. Too often, he either doesn’t see a pick coming or doesn’t react quickly enough when he does. Now, one may think this could be attributable to communication problems by whoever the big man defender is, but with Chandler or Jeffries acting as those defenders much of the time, I doubt it.

Let’s take a look at a few different plays that illustrate some of the problems Shumpert has defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Here’s a play from the Knicks’ most recent victory over the Magic. Shumpert is guarding Hedo Turkoglu.

As Shumpert gets screened by Glen Davis, you can see that he neither tries to fight over the top of the pick or go under it and recover to get back to Turkoglu, he just kind of accepts that he is being screened and switches onto Davis. This allows Turkoglu to turn the corner and receive another screen from Dwight Howard on Carmelo Anthony, and he gets right to the basket for an easy lay-up. While the Knicks’s strategy of defending pick-and-rolls often meant manic switching earlier in the season, Mike Woodson has de-emphasized that approach and preached staying with your man since he became the interim head coach.

Below, Shumpert is guarding J.J. Redick, who cuts to the wing where he receives the ball from Jameer Nelson. This time, Shumpert does a good job of anticipating Davis’ screen and tries to force Redick away from it.

However, Shumpert fails to recognize that once he forces Redick away from Davis’ original location for the screen, that one is soon coming on the other side.  It also appears that Shumpert didn’t know Carmelo Anthony, Davis’ defender, would be hedging hard on the pick to cut off Redick’s driving lane, so forcing him away from the screen probably wasn’t the best move. Once Anthony hedged and Shumpert forced Redick away from that hedge, the Magic had already won on the play. Shumpert runs right into Davis’ pick and Redick, a knockdown shooter, gets a wide open 3-pointer.

Another problem Shumpert tends to have when navigating pick-and-rolls is that he tends to not know whether he should try to fight over a screen, go under and then recover to his own man or switch the screen altogether. Because the Knicks change up their strategy of depending pick-and-rolls from time-to-time, this is more excusable than his tendency to get caught in screens, but he should still be more decisive.

Here, Shumpert is guarding Lou Williams as he brings the ball up the floor. Evan Turner comes up from the block to set the screen on Shumpert. He tries to fight over the top of the screen while Jeffries hedges to cut off Williams’ driving lane. Jeffries shows on Williams’ driving lane and Shumpert, now confused, runs back to cover Turner instead of staying on his path and picking up his man, Williams. Jeffries then stays on Williams and is screened by Turner again. Shumpert gives away how he’ll be defending that screen too soon, and rather than taking Turner’s second pick, Williams crosses over and releases a 3-point jumper.

Another problem Shumpert has shown on the defensive end so far in his career is tunnel vision, better known as ball-watching. Sometimes, he’s watching the ball-handler too intently and strays too far from his man and gives up a spot-up opportunity. Others, he’ll get blind-sided by a backdoor cut.

Here, Dwight Howard is posting up against Tyson Chandler. Chandler, an excellent defender, possibly the best in the entire league this season, doesn’t necessarily need help in the post against Howard. And he especially doesn’t need it from Shumpert, who again is guarding Redick, one of the best shooters in the NBA. Baron Davis, guarding Jameer Nelson at the top of the key, who has struggled from the field for much of the year, is and should be the primary help defender in this situation. But Shumpert starts watching Howard back Chandler down and strays too far away from Redick, which leads to an open spot-up opportunity and a basket. Plays like this are why Shumpert has allowed 0.92 PPP against Spot-up shooters, which places him 158th in the NBA. This is still in the top half of the league, but you can see he can get even better.

A few weeks ago against the Toronto Raptors, Shumpert showed how he’s sometimes susceptible to being backdoored. He’s guarding DeMar DeRozan, who starts the play at the elbow extended. When the Raptors run a pick-and-roll on the opposite side of the floor, Shumpert is again caught ball-watching, and DeRozan slips behind him to the corner.

Because he strayed so far away from his man, Shumpert had to go to a full-on sprint to challenge what would have been a wide-open jumper by DeRozan. DeMar instead pump-fakes and Shump can’t recover in the other direction in time to stop DeRozan from knocking down the mid-range shot.

These plays are indicative of the problems that Shumpert has been having on the defensive side of the court this year. The good news for Knicks fans is that he’s already an excellent on-ball defender, and that his performance in team defensive concepts like the pick-and-roll, rotating out to shooters and help defense should improve with time. Shumpert has excellent instincts on the defensive end and should only get better. His lockdown wing presence provides a solid foundation from which to build, but he’s nowhere near complete yet. He has an incredibly high ceiling as a defender, he just has to put in the work to reach it.

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.