by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
There was never any doubt John Shurna would play professional basketball in some capacity. But after going undrafted and underwhelming in Summer League competition, his path to the NBA took on a whole new set of challenges. Word leaked yesterday that Shurna will indeed play in the NBA this season, and its hard to envision a more favorable scenario. As Howard Beck of the New York Times reported, Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer has signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks. The deal is partially guaranteed, but will become fully guaranteed if he stays with the team through January 10. The Knicks now have 19 players under contract for training camp. Shurna is NU’s first NBA player since 6-11 big man Evan Eschmeyer retired after four years in the league. Since the deal is partially guaranteed, the Knicks are financially liable for Shurna’s services (at least until January 10), meaning there’s a decent chance they’re bringing him in as more than a training camp trainee.
NBA teams need shooters, no matter their roster depth, composition or positional strengths and weakness. Which is why the Knicks’ signing Shurna makes absolute sense. Though he was never able to work himself into the flow of Summer League play, there’s no doubting Shurna’s ability to light it up from beyond the arc. He shot over 40 percent from three during his NU career, including 44 percent last season, when he led the Big Ten in scoring at 20.0 ppg. At a summer league workout with the Milwaukee Bucks, Shurna hit 36 of 40 three-point shots. Even without defensive pressure, that’s an impressive feat, and the Knicks clearly took notice of that inherent skill to stroke it from distance.
Shurna’s athletic and defensive limitations are fairly obvious; the Knicks know this. They know what to expect from Shurna. He will be a three-point shooter, a specialist employed for the sole purpose of knocking down long-range jumpers. Shurna can score off the dribble in spurts, but against hyper-athletic NBA defenders, he’ll struggle to create his own shot. Given his area of expertise (three-point shooting) and the handful of ball-dominating wing players on the Knicks roster – Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Amare Stoudemire – it’s hard to envision the Knicks demanding he do anything beyond camping out on the perimeter and firing away. You’ll probably see Shurna take more threes than dribbles next season.
Training camp and preseason competition will allow Shurna to settle in, to learn the ins and outs of the NBA, to carve out his role in a completely foreign basketball environment. Madison Square Garden is not Welsh-Ryan Arena, and global superstars like Anthony and Stoudemire will not afford Shurna the same respect he earned and sustained at NU. At least not at the outset. His playing time is likely to be minimal, particularly in the early part of the season. If Shurna shines in the preseason, things could change, but the Knicks probably will call upon veteran Steve Novak, who averaged 8.8 points in 54 regular season games in 2011-12 and shot 47 percent from three, for three-point shooting help off the bench before even pondering the thought of using Shurna. New York struck gold with Novak last season, and he was compensated accordingly (Novak signed a four-year $15 million deal this offseason).
With Novak standing in his way, it could be a rough early going for Shurna. Novak is essentially a more experienced, battle-tested version of Shurna who – if not for pure competitive reasons, than for financial ones – will get the nod over the green and unproven NU alum. At a glance, it’s easy to conclude Novak’s success will block Shurna’s playing time. This is probably an accurate assessment. But there is perhaps no better role model for Shurna to learn under than Novak, a player with similar size, stature and skill set. The potential exists for a truly constructive apprenticeship, with Shurna gleaning Novak’s wisdom and learning ways to maximize his talents. For his first foray into NBA competition, Shurna has landed in a favorable situation. Whether he remains with the Knicks through the January 10 contract deadline remains to be seen, but he’s positioned well to do so. His development and production in NBA competition, the single most exclusive major sports league in the United States, home to some of the world’s best athletes, will be fascinating to observe.