- Scott Powers, Reporter
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As a senior at Oak Park High School, he was one of just two McDonald’s All-Americans from Illinois, and he still finished fourth in the state’s Mr. Basketball voting. As a junior at Georgia Tech, he averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists in the ACC and was among the nation’s leaders in steals yet only made it onto the all-conference second-team.
Even when he left Georgia Tech early and entered the draft, he was told he was making a big mistake.
“I was told I was going undrafted,” Shumpert said during shootaround Tuesday before the Knicks played the Chicago Bulls. “That’s what I was told by everybody. I guess I wasn’t good enough in everybody else’s eyes. I was called fool’s gold. That’s what I was called in the draft combine. That’s how I remember it. I took it personal.”
Respect and recognition eluded Shumpert throughout much of his amateur career, but that’s changing in his first season as a professional.
The Knicks drafted Shumpert with the 17th pick in the 2011 NBA draft on the strength of his defense. It was a surprise choice, but Shumpert has proven to be a pleasant surprise for the Knicks, starting 25 games and averaging 9.8 points, 2.7 assists and 3.2 steals in 28.7 minutes. He ranks fifth in the NBA steals.
Shumpert has been impressive recently. He scored 25 points in back-to-back games in late March. He had five steals against Cleveland. And on Sunday, in addition to playing solid defense on Derrick Rose, he had 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals in a season-high 45 minutes in the Knicks’ overtime win over the Bulls.
“He's not playing like a rookie,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said on Tuesday. “He's playing great defense. He's shooting the ball well for them. He's playing with a lot of confidence, bringing a lot of energy to their team also. He's had a terrific rookie season for them.”
There’s no doubt what has earned Shumpert a starting role for interim coach Mike Woodson.
“He brings defense,” Woodson said. “I know what I’m going to get from him from a defensive standpoint. You got to have an attitude to play defense in this league. His attitude is he feels like he can stop anybody that’s he facing, and that’s a good attitude to have.”
Shumpert flashed that attitude against Rose on Sunday, helping limit the Bulls star to 8-of-26 shooting.
“I wasn’t trying to back off him,” said Shumpert, who never faced Rose in high school or AAU play. “I didn’t want to back off him. I figured I would go at him, playing offense on defense, trying to dictate what he does, which is hard as it is. He runs a score up on you and controls the game. I figured I’d try to make it uncomfortable him. I was able to strip him a few times. It worked to our advantage.”
Shumpert may not face Rose, who is a game-time decision due to an ankle injury, but he is still amped to be playing in Chicago again. He hopes his second game at the United Center goes better than his first when he had 10 points, five rebounds and eight assists in a Feb. 2 loss.
“It’s special,” Shumpert said of the United Center. “I like playing in Chicago. Last time, I didn’t play much. We had different lineup. This will be my second time. I’m excited.”
The same can be said about his family and friends who will watch Tuesday’s game. His former high school teammate Daniel Barnes, a junior guard at UIC, said Shumpert has become a hero in his hometown.
“He’s thought of as one of the legends to come out of Oak Park,” Barnes said. “Everyone looks up to him. It’s a great feeling to see someone you’re friends with playing at the highest level and playing up to his potential every night. It’s a warm feeling.”
His former AAU coach Steve Pratt called Shumpert a future NBA player when Shumpert was a junior at Oak Park. And now, Pratt believes Shumpert is nowhere near his NBA ceiling.
“It’s been fun to watch him evolve into what he is,” Pratt said. “The thing is he can keep getting better. I think he can be a NBA All-Star if he stays locked in and focused.”
Chicago area native Iman Shumpert is an emerging talent for the Knicks.