Taking a glance at the New York Knicks roster of experienced superstars and grizzled veterans, it’s hard to spot a player likely to make major improvements over the course of this season.
As Marcus Camby told me at Knicks practice in London last week: “We are a veteran group. There’s not a lot coach can tell us that we haven’t already seen. A lot of people like to focus on the Knicks being an old team, which is true in terms of age, but we’re also a wise team and an experienced team.”
But there’s one Knick who bucks this trend, 28-year-old rookie forward Chris Copeland.
In limited spots, he’s already proved to be far more valuable than a benchwarmer capable of grabbing garbage time points. His ongoing evolution into a legitimate NBA player is the feel-good story of this Knick season.
Left undrafted after four years at the University of Colorado, the same college attended by Chauncey Billups and current Utah Jazz star Alec Burks, Copeland embarked on what became a five-year odyssey to battle his way back to the NBA.
Copeland initially spent time in the D-League with the Fort Worth Flyers before swapping the United States for Europe. After month-long stint in Spain in October 2007, he moved on to Matrixx Magix Nijmegen (Netherlands) and spent the following two seasons with German side Trier where he played 67 games, pouring in 15.0 PPG and grabbing 4.8 boards.
In 2010, he signed with Aalstar in Belgium, where he averaged 18.5 points and 5.6 rebounds and helped them win the Belgian Cup two years later.
Copeland was the outstanding player at the NBA summer league in July 2012 averaging a team-high 13.8 PPG on .473 shooting (26-55 FGA) with 5-12 from downtown (.417) over team-best 22.8 minutes per game. His play earned him an invite to Knicks training camp where, against the odds, he claimed the 15th and final spot on the Knicks’ NBA roster.
Although he’s only 27 games into his Knicks career, Copeland has already enjoyed a handful of personal highlights. Starting in place of the injured Carmelo Anthony, he scored 29 points in 28 minutes against the Houston Rockets. He also enjoyed 20+ point outings at Sacramento and at home to New Orleans.
In these scoring outbursts, Copeland demonstrated impressive versatility. Most importantly he showed the ability to create shots and to carry the scoring burden on the second unit alongside JR Smith. He can knock down threes, drain the occasional jumper and get buckets in the paint, an area where the Knicks have struggled to score.
Despite being 28, Copeland hasn’t been able shake off his rookie status off the court and, despite some pleading with his veteran team-mates, has been unable to avoid traditional locker room hazing.
Copeland’s team-mate Marcus Camby gave me the scoop. “I’ve seen some bad things in my time [when it comes to hazing]”, the 38-year-old center explained. “The worst thing I saw was a guy getting his head shaved! That’s the one thing Cope asked us not to do. He said ‘Please Marcus, don’t let them cut my hair!’ In the mean-time, he has to wear the onesie instead, and a little pink backpack”.
None of that will affect Copeland’s popularity with Knick fans. Already honoured by supporters with the #FreeCope Twitter campaign to get him more minutes, the Orange, New Jersey, native is rapidly approaching cult hero status at Madison Square Garden.
Long-time Knicks fans will see similarities between Copeland and former MSG favourite John Starks. Of course they are completely different players but: both men had difficult routes into the league; both men knock down shots from beyond the arc; and both men play with the intensity that comes from wanting to wring out every drop from an opportunity it looked like fate would deny them.
In his first season with the Knicks, Starks appeared in 61 games, starting 10. He averaged 7.6 points per game, including 1.5 threes. Copeland’s stats are eerily similar: 6.7 points per game and just shy of a three-pointer per outing.
Could Copeland replicate Starks’ journey from bag-boy to NBA finalist? Only time will tell. The rookie’s first job is to improve his defence and find a way to crash the boards against bigger and stronger opponents.
But regardless of the outcome, MSG has already taken Copeland to its heart.
Follow Lee on Twitter @leeharveythinks