‘I love being the underdog’: Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley thriving in New York
The first-year guard has been the steal of the draft and a spark for the team
On Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, Immanuel Quickley was working himself into a lather while launching — and draining — one 3-point attempt after another on the basket just in front of the New York Knicks’ bench.
This wasn’t a pregame ritual before Tuesday’s game to help the Knicks rookie break out of a five-game slump. This was Quickley getting up shots more than an hour after ending his drought by scoring 17 points in a win over the Charlotte Hornets, and less than 24 hours before the Knicks would host the second game of a back-to-back the following night.
To use a term that’s loosely thrown around these days but applies here: Quickley is just built differently. He would go on to score 20 points off the bench in an overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night that extended the winning streak of the hottest team in the league to eight games and left the team’s loyal fans dancing in the streets outside the world’s great arena.
Following a 21-45 season, and the seventh straight campaign where they failed to reach the playoffs, no one saw this Knicks team coming. New York (33-27) is currently fourth in the East. Julius Randle, a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award, is playing at an All-NBA level. And Tom Thibodeau is in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
Then there’s Quickley, who has emerged as the biggest surprise of the 2020 NBA draft.
The Knicks selected the former Kentucky guard with the 25th overall pick, even though many draft experts considered him a second-rounder. The draft evaluations for the Quickley pick were harsh. One publication gave the Knicks a D-plus. But the 21-year-old is currently the fourth-leading scorer among rookies, despite coming off the bench, and could earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie team.
“There’s always going to be doubters out there and, honestly, I thrive on stuff like that,” Quickley said. “I love being the underdog, and I enjoy proving those people wrong.”
Confidence, for Quickley, has never been a problem.
For basketball fans in Maryland, the legend of Quickley surfaced during the 2016 Baltimore Catholic League championship. With his John Carroll School team down two in the closing seconds, the directive from Coach Tony Martin in the final huddle was clear: Quickley, then a sophomore, was “the first and second option.”
For Nitrease Quickley, Immanuel’s mother, the legend of her son surfaced years earlier in the 9- to 10-year-old title game of a Harford County, Maryland, rec league. It was a nearly identical scenario: Quickley’s Havre De Grace team trailed in the closing seconds and the directive from the coaches — including his mom, who was an assistant coach on the team — was to get the ball in his hands.
“Some people grabbed him, took his little frame and put him on top of their shoulders,” his mother said. “Just paraded him in the air around that middle school gym.”
That Nitrease Quickley coached her son’s rec league team was no surprise to anyone who knew her credentials.
As a 6-foot forward at Havre de Grace High School, she was a local legend, averaging 14 points and 14 rebounds as a sophomore while leading her team to the state final four. Those skills earned her a Division I scholarship at Morgan State University, where she averaged 10 points in two seasons at the Baltimore HBCU.
But she didn’t push basketball on her son.
“Actually, I didn’t want him to play sports at first,” she said. “I wanted him to be in the arts. He was playing a piano early, he had a drumstick in his hands when he was born and he played saxophone.”
He was also active in the church where his parents, Nitrease and Marcellous Quickley, are heavily involved. It was common for Quickley to attend church service two to three times a week.
But once Quickley got his first taste of basketball, under his mother’s guidance, he flourished.
“In terms of basketball,” Quickley said, “I definitely got a lot of stuff from her.”
His basketball development was so rapid that he was soon playing travel ball.
“When I first saw him in camp at 9, I knew he was special, and then when I saw him in eighth grade, I knew that this was a kid I wanted to play for me,” said Martin, who coached Quickley in his first two seasons at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, Maryland. “I’ve been coaching for 34 years and have coached some high-level guys, but there was something about IQ that was special. He was always in a great place mentally with his understanding of his game, and I’d always say — and this is a compliment — that he played like a 40-year-old man in high school.”
Hearing about the “40-year-old man” reference from Martin, Quickley laughs. “I was playing a lot slower in high school, especially in my freshman year,” Quickley said. “But I’ve always been able to use my IQ to the best of my ability.”
It was after Quickley’s play as a sophomore, when he was named player of the year by the league and The Baltimore Sun, that his mother began to understand just how special her son had become.
“He was in the 11th grade, and the calls wouldn’t stop,” said Nitrease Quickley, who is an assistant high school principal in Harford County. “He made the USA U-17 team, he played for an Adidas team and he began to travel around the world. And I was like, ‘OK, I’m tagging along.’”
Regardless of how accomplished Quickley became in basketball, his mother kept him grounded.
“I’d go out and score 35 points in high school, and when I got home she’s like, ‘Go take out the trash, go wash the dishes,’ ” Quickley said. “She’s always been the type of mother who always made sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
Nitrease Quickley was on a first-name basis with most major coaches in the nation. Kentucky coach John Calipari, knowing her work in education, began sending photographs of Kentucky players who graduated — including those who left school early to play professionally, and still returned to get their degree.
Still, she was biased.
“I wanted him to go to Morgan, I wanted all my kids to go to Morgan,” she said. “But when you have Coach Cal at your house showing you photos of players who have made millions of dollars, I didn’t really push that. I love my experience at Morgan, and how Morgan cared for the individual student. But do you have a better chance if you go to Morgan or to Kentucky?”
Quickley’s first season at Kentucky was uneventful. He averaged 5.2 points in seven starts. But no one was alarmed. Devin Booker, one of the best young guards in the NBA, didn’t start a game during his single season at Kentucky and was still selected with the 13th pick of the 2015 draft. There has been an overabundance of talent at Kentucky, which had 31 players on opening day NBA rosters this season.
“When kids come to Kentucky,” Calipari said on an MSG Network show this week, “they bet on themselves.”
It paid off for Quickley his sophomore year. He averaged 16.1 points in 20 starts while helping the Wildcats win 17 of their last 20 games. He led the SEC in scoring and 3-point shooting. And he was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
But when a worldwide pandemic hit, Quickley was robbed of a potential coming-out party in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. So after he declared for the NBA draft, there were quite a few experts who weren’t convinced Quickley had first-round potential.
“He’s not big, he’s not strong and so he doesn’t pass the eye test,” Martin, his high school coach, said. “Those experts want to protect their jobs, so they want to make the safe bets and they’re afraid to go out on the limb. Anyone that knows IQ and has followed his journey knew that he was going to prove himself in the right situation.”
That situation came when the Knicks, according to a report, acquired Quickley at the urging of executive vice president William Wesley, aka World Wide Wes. New York has proven to be a perfect fit for Quickley.
“We’re in an environment where guys love to be in a gym, and enjoy other people’s success,” Quickley said. “When you are going to work with people that are fun to be around, it just makes for success on the court as well.”
Quickley’s ability to hit 3-pointers (38.7%) — his favorite player growing up was Steph Curry — has helped the Knicks to the league’s sixth-best shooting percentage (38.3%) from downtown. A year ago, the team ranked 27 of 30 teams in 3-point shooting.
But Quickley possesses other offensive tricks, including his ability to put defenders in jail (coming out of pick-and-roll situations when a defender is on his back), and his knack for hitting floaters in the lane.
“His float game is off the charts for a young guy,” said LA Clippers forward Paul George, after Quickley hit 25 points in a loss to the Clippers on Jan. 31. “What I love the most, which is a hard quality to find, is that he was fearless.”
Which goes back to the mindset Quickley showed during that Tuesday night shooting session on April 20. He thrives on proving his doubters wrong.
“He’s been great,” Randle said. “For a rookie, he plays with extreme confidence.”
On Thursday, the day after the Knicks won their eighth straight game to match the team’s longest win streak since 2014, Quickley was the dominant image on the New York Daily News‘ coveted back cover. He has become a symbol of the Knicks’ success this season.
Not bad for the recipient of a D-plus draft grade.
“He’s a great worker, a great teammate and people like to play with him,” Thibodeau said. “He’s adjusted well to the NBA game.”
And he’s still learning.
When the Knicks acquired Derrick Rose in a February trade, there was concern the deal would impact Quickley’s minutes. But Rose, in his second stint with the Knicks, has emerged as a mentor for Quickley.
“He’s taught me a lot, on and off the court, and he’s given me a few books I’ve been reading,” Quickley said, holding up a copy of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success given to him by the veteran guard. “It’s always good to have somebody, an MVP of our league especially, who’s been around in those big games.”
While it’s a shame the Knicks have finally found success during a season that’s been mostly absent fans due to the pandemic, Quickley was able to have his biggest fans in attendance on April 18 when Nitrease and Marcellous Quickley saw their son play in the pros for the first time in person.
“It was exciting because it was just my second time to see an NBA game in my life. My parents took me to a Bullets game to see Charles Barkley and the Sixers when I was 10,” Nitrease Quickley said. “We got in through the VIP entrance, they treated us like family and I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m at an NBA game to see my son play.’ For me and my husband, it was unbelievable.”
Quickley is usually so locked into the game that, according to his mother, he has never acknowledged his family cheering contingent at games. “He doesn’t think it’s cool to wave,” she said. “But he waved at us three times.”
It was a special moment in a season full of highlights.
For Quickley, of course, there’s more work to be done.
“A lot of people didn’t think we could make it in the playoffs, so being in the position we’re in is great,” Quickley said. “We’re not satisfied where we are. We feel like we can accomplish a lot more.”