It's Time To Talk About Immanuel Quickley
Few could have imagined that the New York Knicks would be one of the feel-good stories of the 2021 season. HC Tom Thibodeau galvanized the fan base, restoring a sense of pride and, most importantly, hope in one of the NBA's most beloved franchises. Credit also goes to new Team President Leon Rose and General Manager Scott Perry for assembling a roster of players that fit Thibodeau's scheme and culture during this COVID impacted offseason. Julius Randle has morphed into one of the league's most dangerous weapons in the frontcourt, extending his range and using his brutal combination of size and explosiveness to punish defenders in the post. Mitchell Robinson continues to improve and display flashes of DPOY potential. R.J. Barrett doesn't show any signs of falling into the dreaded sophomore slump; he's bigger, stronger, and upped his shooting percentages across the board.
Yet, Arguably the biggest surprise of the season has been the play of Kentucky rookie Immanuel Quickley, who is amassing a cult-like following in NYC. Let's take a look at why this unheralded rookie has managed to surpass expectations in the Big Apple.
The Knicks began the season with more questions than answers at point guard; many believed Frank Ntilikina and Elfrid Payton would jump to the front of the depth chart under Thibodeau because of their defensive quality. Others hoped Dennis Smith Jr would show up to camp healthy and in shape, ready to show why the Knicks brass coveted him in the Porzingis deal. I didn't hear any evaluators singing the praises of Immanuel Quickley; he was an afterthought, off the radar, a raw 1st-round developmental project destined to spend the better part of his rookie season suiting up for the Westchester Knicks of the G-League.
Kudos to Thibodeau and his staff for fostering a culture in New York that embraces competition and celebrates readiness. Thibodeau emphasized conditioning and preparation early on in the process, and it is starting to pay dividends. Quickley made his first start in the Knicks' final preseason game versus Cleveland, replacing an injured Elfrid Payton. Quickley notched 22 points in 29 minutes, shooting 3 of 5 from behind the arc in a dominant Knicks victory. I.Q.'s output was impressive enough, but it was how he did it that captured the imagination of Knick fans. Quickley scored from all three levels, using various runners, floaters, hesitations, and crossovers to decimate the Cavs and show the coaching staff that he deserved an opportunity to compete for a spot in the rotation.
Fast forward to March, and the hype and enthusiasm surrounding I.Q.is reaching "Linsanity" levels amongst the orange and blue fanbase. Through 2 ½ months of play, Quickley has averaged 12.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.4 APG while shooting .38 from three and .94 free throw line in just under 19 minutes per game. Players across the league are beginning to take notice as well, with Paul George calling I.Q. "fearless" and Donovan Mitchell tweeting, "that boy Quick is so tough." His promotion to the starting lineup seems like an inevitability to most, even in light of the Derrick Rose acquisition. Still, I'm starting to believe that Thibodeau has different designs for the "precocious neophyte" this season.
The Knicks are currently 18-17 and stand in 4th place in the Eastern Conference. Julius Randle has established himself as the Knicks focal point offensively. Still, most of the roster is devoid of scoring talents and is mostly comprised of veteran role players, leaving little to no margin for error. Scoring, more explicitly, shooting doesn't come easy for this group. Quickley's emergence on the 2nd unit has been providential for the Knicks, his ability to play off the ball allows for creative pairings in the backcourt. You are just as likely to see Quickley lined up next to Alec Burks as you would Austin Rivers; his efficiency and productivity make him an invaluable part of Thibodeau's bench. Quickley has played with the starters and complements Julius Randle particularly well with his ability to play off the ball. Randle's ability to draw double teams forces defenses to choose the lesser of two evils schematically.
So if I.Q.'s is leading the 2nd unit, does that mean he isn't the Knicks point guard of the future? That's a loaded question, but the short answer is no, Quickley's tour on the 2nd unit doesn't disqualify him from the conversation. Quickley's productivity, poise, and decision-making all point to him being a starting-caliber talent. Thibodeau is already letting Quickley close games, which speaks to the level of trust his coaching staff and teammates have in his play. Still, like Vinnie Johnson, Louis Williams, Jamal Crawford, and Jason Terry before him, he'll have to bide his time on the bench for the sake of the team.