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Iman Shumpert’s offense has taken a leap

J.R. Smith has struggled, but Iman Shumpert is picking up the slack on the wing.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Iman Shumpert has by far been one of the most inconsistent Cavaliers players in the second LeBron era. While he hasn’t received the microscopic scrutiny that Kevin Love has, Shumpert’s time with the team have been a mixed bag. He’s missed significant time with two injuries, a shoulder dislocation and a wrist tendon rupture. When he has been on the court, he’s been a competent three-and-D wing who can hit spot-up shots and slash to the basket when he’s at his best.

Unfortunately, that has only appeared for short stretches, and he’s also spent long stretches of being a handicap to the offense. Every made spot-up three has seemingly been coupled with an ill-advised one-on-one possession that’s ended with a live-ball turnover or a terrible contested shot.

With J.R. Smith’s contract holdout, Mo Williams retiring, and Matthew Dellavedova leaving this summer to play for Milwaukee, Shumpert was going to be under a microscope this season. He was the obvious answer to fill both of those players’ minutes if Smith wasn’t ready, and that obviously brought mixed feelings for fans who have watched him over the past two seasons.

In theory, Shumpert getting more point guard minutes would work out. After all, LeBron can operate as a de facto point guard, and Shump and Smith were good enough ball-handlers and shooters in theory that the Cavs could produce a pretty potent unit without a true backup two. However, that hinged on Shumpert being the good Shumpert we’d seen - and truthfully, we hadn’t seen enough of it in his career.

Through 22 games in 2016-2017, Shumpert has been better than anyone could have imagined. Smith is struggling (31.2 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from three) and Jordan McRae has not been ready for rotation minutes, meaning that all of those worries in the preseason about guard depth were warranted. However, Shumpert has done a lot to make that not matter by himself.

Even though he’s playing less minutes (down to 22.2 per game from 24.4 last season) Shumpert has been much more productive on the offensive end, raising his scoring average from 5.8 points per game to 7.2, and his per-36 assists from 2.5 to 2.9. Even more exciting has been Shumpert’s shooting, as he’s raised his true shooting percentage from a disastrous 47.5 percent to an incredible 66.7 percent. He’s shooting 13.7 percent better on shots at the rim; 37.3 percent better on shots from 10-16 feet; and most importantly, 15.4 percent better on three-point attempts.

Shumpert’s improvements have been most apparent in a re-configured three-point shot that he spent the summer working on. Shump’s past inconsistencies have resulted from a pair of problems with his mechanics - inconsistent lift from his legs and fluidity with his extension and release. The change in his release is very easy to see. Here’s an attempt from last season, in which he has delayed elbow extension on an open corner three:

Compare that to this season’s form, which is more compact and fluid:

These subtle changes have led to Shumpert making his catch-and-shoot threes at a higher rate. He’s hitting 44.2 percent this year on these attempts, which is a 13.8 percent improvement over last season (31.4 percent), and a 5.5 percent increase over 2014-2015, his career high (38.7 percent). He’s been particularly effective from the corners, where he’s hitting a lethal 55.6 percent. But catch-and-shoots aren’t his only area of improvement. Shumpert has also been hitting pull-up jumpers at a strong clip this year, with an effective field goal percentage of 51.7 percent on 30 attempts. He’s just 5-of-18 on two-point jumpers, but you can see how his mechanics have improved here, and he’s more confident stepping into these shots.

Shumpert’s decision-making has also taken a step forward this year. A major complaint about Shumpert’s game has been that he tries to do too much with the ball in his hands, and this can lead to bad shots and worse turnovers. His inability to dribble is well-documented, and was a major source of the worry about throwing him in a nominal point guard role.

But this season, Shumpert has been less egregiously bad. He has been handling the ball more, and that’s resulted in his turnover rate increasing from 14.8 percent to 20.3 percent. Most of that has come from the pick-and-roll, which he’s run on 22.2 percent of his offensive possessions this year, up from 15.3 last year.

But it’s not all bad. Shump has been better as a passer this year, increasing his assist rate and making more decisive reads on simple passes. We’re seeing less of Shumpert putting his head down on the break and barreling into contact, and more of passes like this:

He’s also turning the ball over less in spot-up opportunities (5.4 percent, down from 6.3 percent), meaning those straight-line drives he makes off the three-point line have been more frequently successful, because Shumpert can now string a few bounces of the basketball together.

Shumpert’s statistical profile is full of outliers right now. His three-point shooting, especially from the corners, is probably not sustainable. Neither is his turnover rate, which is outlier high thanks to a low number of overall possessions. But there are signs that he’s improved in a sustainable way. He’s making smarter decisions with the ball as he’s had the ball in his hand more than ever, and subtle changes to his jumper mechanics will help him sustain an improvement in his shooting, even if he’s not “top-10 in the NBA” good, as he has been.

Shumpert has been a player who has struggled to maintain a high level of play throughout his career. He has shown flashes of being the elite three-and-D player that many expect him to be, but he’s also been a random number generator at times on offense. This season, it appears that he’s leveling out, and doing so in a way that points towards long-term positive improvement. Combine that improvement with his usual high-energy and mostly steady defense, and the Cavs have themselves the strong wing option they wanted when they traded for him in January of 2015.