Close to midway through the first quarter of their Martin Luther King Jr. Day loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the young, up-and-coming Sacramento Kings were trailing by seven after six straight scoreless possessions. A few good-not-great shots and one avoidable turnover had them slipping behind their red-hot opponents before Iman Shumpert poked the ball loose from a driving Rodions Kurucs, leading to a quick score by Willie Cauley-Stein on the other end.
It wasn’t a remarkable play, nor a momentum-shifting one: the Kings would lose by 29 and Shumpert would finish with a relatively disappointing outing shooting the ball. But it’s a collection of plays like those — savvy, high-energy and dependable — that have cemented Shumpert’s spot in Sacramento’s starting lineup, and perhaps in the league, after what looked like a career in decline.
“He’s a good defender and leads by example as a defender and usually makes the right plays,” head coach Dave Joerger said prior to the match-up. “That’s good so we don’t get crazy wild all the time and he settles us down.”
It’s ironic that Shumpert has become that guy for the Kings. It hasn’t even been a decade since the New York Knicks drafted the hyperactive guard and he quickly looked like one of their most intriguing prospects of the millennium. He was arguably their best defensive prospect outside of Trevor Ariza and showed flashes of an offensive arsenal that made the team consider developing him as a point guard. With his swag and highlight-worthy game, he was an exciting presence on the court and to fans. However, his game tailed off with a cratering jumper and marginal improvements elsewhere.
New York dealt Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers, hungry for a title with LeBron James back in the wine and gold. Shumpert came off the bench for the majority of his time in Ohio, including during the 2016 Finals run that brought the team and city its first NBA Championship. Two seasons later, Shumpert missed serious time in 2017-18 due to knee surgery, followed by plantar fasciitis in his left foot which ruled him out for the year. He was then immediately dealt to the Kings, known then as the league’s laughingstock.
Fast forward to now and Sacramento is 2.5 games out of the eighth spot after holding a postseason slot for the majority of the season. Shumpert has started every game outside of the first two, averaging the most minutes of his career since his time in New York. His teammates are not shy about his effect on the wins column.
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
“Shot-maker, creates for himself,” De’Aaron Fox, budding star point guard for the Kings, describes of Shump’s impact. “Defensively he’s huge for us, one of our anchors on defense. Just the swagger and confidence he’s brought to the team alone.”
It has been a resurgence on the court for Shumpert. His 36.1 percent clip from deep is second-best in his career, despite a career-high in attempts per 100 possessions. He’s had as many 20+ point outings in these 40 games as his last three seasons combined and cut his turnover rate by a third. Defensively, Shumpert is among 23 players with over 1,000 minutes played this season who is recording over two steals and 0.7 blocks per 100 possessions. He’s every bit as handsy as his younger self while committing fewer fouls. Every time he gets down low in his intimidating defensive stance and starts bumping opponents off their lane, it’s difficult for his team not to follow.
“He just brings that energy,” Yogi Ferrell, another guard for the Kings, told The Step Back. “I feel like when Shump is out there playing, even in practice guys just want to play harder against each other and make each other better.”
Here lies perhaps Shumpert’s biggest impact on these young Kings. He’s only 28 years old but has played under the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, going through numerous trades and injuries, and he’s one of the most seasoned members of this upstart squad. There are only three members of the roster older and, outside of Zach Randolph, he has played twice as many postseason games as the rest of his team combined. Not to mention Shumpert is the only guy with a ring, and experience with the culture it takes to win one. For a team like the Kings, lacking in winning credentials or convention, there’s no better fit for Shumpert.
“He’s just that veteran, vocal leader that gets us focused when we go out on the court,” Ferrell said. “He’s been through it, won a championship so he knows what needs to be done. He’s just trying to put that same fire under us when we go out and play.”
The Kings will need that fire heading towards the All-Star break and final part of the season. They have fallen under the .500 record they carried in the early part of the campaign, though their defense ranks in the top 10 in the league for January. Fox cited defense and communication as two of the things Shumpert is preaching, and notes young teams usually lack in those respects. Luckily he’s there to settle things down.
“He’s helping us grow as a young team,” Fox says. “Him being around a championship culture, that’s just what he brings.”