For the greater part of the past decade, the New York Knicks have been the laughingstock of the NBA. From the disastrous Phil Jackson era to fan-favorite Charles Oakley being forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden to the widely panned Kristaps Porzingis trade, the franchise has been a never-ending cycle of poor front-office decisions, public relations mishaps and terrible roster management. That’s not to mention their on-court results — the Knicks have more losses than any other NBA team since the 2013-2014 season.
However, in the year following Leon Rose’s hire as team president, the organization’s fortunes have begun to improve. New coach Tom Thibodeau has the Knicks playing his characteristically defensive-minded brand of basketball, as they have allowed the fewest points per game in the entire league so far. Julius Randle has blossomed into a capable facilitator and All-Star while improving his defense after a shaky first season. The team currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference with an 18-17 record as of March 1, well above even the most optimistic of projections. Perhaps most importantly, rookie Immanuel Quickley, despite not having started an NBA game, has already made an excellent case that he may be the Knicks’ long-term solution at point guard.
The Knicks have had a revolving door at their starting point guard spot since the days of Raymond Felton in 2014, but that’s certainly not for lack of trying. They’ve acquired Derrick Rose, Emmanuel Mudiay and Dennis Smith Jr. via trades. They’ve brought in Brandon Jennings, Trey Burke and Elfrid Payton through free agency. They’ve used first-round picks on Jerian Grant and Frank Ntilikina. None of these players gave the Knicks much production, let alone any significant hope for the future. Given these issues, it’s no wonder that many analysts had the point guard position at the top of the team’s needs going into the 2020 NBA Draft.
With the eighth overall pick, the Knicks had the chance to draft Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Haliburton to fill their position of need. They passed on him, instead selecting swingman Obi Toppin, the reigning Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year. They weren’t done though, as they chose Kentucky combo guard Immanuel Quickley with their second pick at 25th overall. The pick certainly raised some eyebrows, as the SEC Player of the Year was considered more of a shooting guard — the same position as their prized building block RJ Barrett. Quickley has used the public’s doubt as motivation to prove that he’s the player the Knicks have been missing.
After an encouraging preseason, Quickley was sidelined for four games after hurting his hip in the season opener. He didn’t let the slow start faze him, as he immediately established himself as the backup point guard by scoring 16 points in his second game back from injury — a victory over the Indiana Pacers. He continued his strong play by scoring double-digits in four consecutive games in mid-January before dropping a career-high 31 points in a close loss to Portland a week later. At the time, fans’ calls for Quickley to replace Payton as the starting point guard had reached a crescendo. Coach Thibodeau, notorious for playing veterans over younger guys, had other plans.
For the second time in his career, Derrick Rose was traded to the Big Apple. The move reunited Rose with Thibodeau, as the two had previously combined their efforts as members of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Chicago Bulls. Quickley didn’t sulk over the new competition for playing time. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to learn from the former MVP. The two have become close friends, as Rose has taken Quickley under his wing. The two often play in tandem on the court as the first guards off the bench. In last Thursday’s victory over the Sacramento Kings, Rose started his first game of the season and contributed 18 points and six assists. Not to be outdone, Quickley subbed in for his friend and led the way with 25 points on just 10 shots. It was his fourth 25+-point game of the year, tops among NBA rookies and one more than Rookie of the Year frontrunner LaMelo Ball.
If you look purely at Quickley’s stats, they won’t leap off the page. At 12.2 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game on 40 percent shooting, it’s more in line with a solid role player than a potential star. However, consider that he ranks in the top seven for field goals, three pointers made, assists and points in his rookie class. He’s third in the entire NBA in free throw percentage at 94 percent and has made 38 percent of his shots from behind the arc, more than respectable given that he attempts 4.5 per game. He’s inserted himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation after being an afterthought on draft night. And that’s all while playing just under 19 minutes per game and never eclipsing more than 30. The idea of Quickley getting to run with a starter’s workload is a tantalizing prospect for Knicks fans and front office members alike.
As someone who has been tortured by the Knicks’ ineptitude for the majority of my lifetime, I’ll readily admit that I took great pleasure in writing this article. For so long, the Knicks have tried to sell their supporters on the idea that they are a free agent destination, and that stockpiling cap space will eventually lead to multiple superstars playing in The Garden. The migration of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets demonstrated once again how that notion was a fallacy.
Although this isn’t the first time that this impression has been proven false, it will hopefully be the last. The Knicks have actually shown a willingness to develop their young talent after being repeatedly spurned by free agents, and they are starting to reap the benefits. They have promising pieces in Toppin, Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. Budding superstar Julius Randle, still just 26 years old, has expressed interest in extending his stay in New York. Now, the Knicks are projected to possess the most cap space of any team this upcoming offseason. There are multiple paths in which the team can proceed. Just as long as those plans involve Immanuel Quickley, I’m finally excited to see where they go from here.