One day, Immanuel Quickley isn’t getting off the bench. A week later, he’s a fan favorite, the supposed answer to the Knicks’ point guard problems.
It’s happened fast for the team’s second first-round pick. Five impressive preseason quarters and the team’s rabid fan base seems to be in love with him.
“It’s been really cool to see,” Quickley said Monday following practice over Zoom. “Just a blessing, thank God for the opportunity of being in New York and being a Knick. …. I’m glad I’m here.”
After helping the Knicks rally past the Cavaliers in their third exhibition game, the 6-foot-3 guard was a star in the finale as a starter, scoring 22 points and adding five assists and five steals in a blowout of the Cavs. After that game, coach Tom Thibodeau said Quickley had a chance to be the starter if he continued to perform, adding that he was given the opportunity due to his strong work in practice.
It would still seem likely Quickley will come off the bench on Wednesday against the Pacers in the opener as veteran Elfrid Payton’s backup. Payton started the first three preseason games and sat out the fourth with a minor hamstring issue. Thibodeau wouldn’t reveal his starters, though he did say performance will trump experience, as he has said throughout the preseason.
“Everything is based on merit,” the first-year Knicks coach said. “You evaluate practice, who’s practicing well, you take that further with the games, you take that information. If someone is practicing well, that is important to us, and then when you have your preseason games, if they play well and the team is functioning well when they are on the floor, that’s important as well. You play the people you feel are going to give you the best chance to win.”
It’s been a wild two months for the former Kentucky star and SEC Player of the Year. On draft night, he was a surprising first-round selection of the Knicks, going 25th overall, despite being projected in the middle of the second round. Expectations were low. He didn’t even get off the bench in the preseason opener and played nine so-so minutes in the second game.
In the third contest, Quickley earned praise for keying a comeback victory with nine points and seven assists in 24 minutes, and got the start in the fourth and final preseason game with Payton out.
“I don’t think he’s surprised any of us,” Payton said. “We know that he’s talented. … It’s not really surprising.”
Quickley pointed to two factors for his seamless transition after waiting so long, from March until October, to find out where he would be playing.
The players he’s competing with for minutes, Payton, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., have provided guidance. They all have helped him.
The other factor is the two years he spent at Kentucky. He was pushed by coach John Calipari and his staff on a daily basis. Minutes had to be earned.
“I feel like coming from Kentucky,” Quickley said, “I really have an edge in transitioning to the NBA.”
How much of an edge remains to be seen. The games begin for real on Wednesday. At the very least, Quickley has earned a chance to prove he can contribute.