"Shooting specialist" was the label most scouts used for Immanuel Quickley before the 2020 NBA draft. But one month into the season, he's one of six rookies averaging double figures in points, producing in fewer minutes than the other five and doing so with trickery and skill that other teams couldn't see.
On Friday night, Quickley was at it again, this time scoring 25 points in as many minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the way to a 102-81 victory at Madison Square Garden. He was an efficient 9-of-17 from the floor (5-of-8 from the three-point line), and after the game, he talked about earning trust from head coach Tom Thibodeau:
Is Quickley suddenly the franchise's point guard of the future? It will depend on how he evolves and grasps the responsibilities that come with a new job description, given how rarely he was used to initiate offense through two NCAA seasons.
Sharing the ball at Kentucky with Ashton Hagans, last year's SEC assist leader, and Tyrese Maxey, the draft's 21st pick, Quickley spent 36.7 percent of the time spotting up as a sophomore, a role that masked some of the creativity we've seen in New York.
His shooting was well documented and the likely selling point for the Knicks, but their front office saw more. And despite being passed on 24 times and with most scouts unable to detect or acknowledge any upside, he still had fans around the NBA.
Per one rival scout: "I absolutely loved Quickley ... that was the truth, too. I thought he was underrated and consistently proved himself at Kentucky. I wasn't the only one, but there were plenty of people who weren't that high on him."
What Scouts Missed
Predraft, teams had trouble picturing his NBA fit and potential at 6'3" with a lack of explosiveness and coming off a season averaging 1.9 assists in 33.0 minutes per game. He didn't have the playmaking numbers or film to suggest he could play point guard at the next level. And given his body type and limited off-the-dribble reps, scouts couldn't envision an efficient, dynamic scoring off-guard.
Entering Friday night, his assist rate with the Knicks (22.8 percent) was double what it was last season at Kentucky (11.4 percent). Generating 1.0 points per possession running pick-and-rolls (73rd percentile), he's been the Knicks' most effective ball-screen player early (RJ Barrett: 32nd percentile; Elfrid Payton: 42nd percentile), thanks to his signature floater as well as an ability to keep defenders backpedaling and having the recognition to make reads as a lob passer.
Compared to the Quickley we saw at Kentucky, he's demonstrated more shiftiness and elusiveness with his change of speed and direction, somewhat unforeseen attributes that bode well for his potential to operate as a lead ball-handler.
As a scorer, he's seeing more opportunities to shoot off the dribble, a key strength of his. Last season, he graded in the 99th percentile on dribble jumpers but was limited to attempting just 32 all season (half-court), compared to 121 catch-and-shoot attempts. In 18.1 minutes per game this year, he's making 1.9 pull-ups per game (5.9 attempts) versus 0.5 made jumpers off the catch (1.4 attempts).
Otherwise, Quickley's touch on runners (44.7 percent) and free throws (92.3 percent) at Kentucky has carried over to the NBA, where he's regularly tossed in one-handers around the stripe and hit 38 of 40 foul shots.
Updated Projection and Role
For now, Coach Thibodeau values the rookie's shot-making, craftiness and energy off the bench. While this new version of Quickley appears to be more multidimensional than the collegiate one, he's still prone to wild decisions and low-percentage shots with the extra on-ball freedom.
Based on his start, it seems obvious that his floor now says sixth-man-type spark, a role he can effectively play now and later. The big questions in New York are about his trajectory, ceiling and if he's a long-term cornerstone starter alongside Barrett.
The fact that Julius Randle (6.0 assists) and Barrett (3.4 assists) have become plus passers should eventually make it easier for Thibodeau to promote Quickley into the first unit. Though the rookie needs to continue improving as a facilitator, Barrett and Randle reduce his need to transform into an assist machine, which is an unrealistic outcome.
At some point, Thibodeau figures to try Quickley with the starters. The topic surfaced after the rookie's dominant Friday night showing, but the head coach seemed less focused on who starts and more concerned with complementary and situational lineups:
No matter where Quickly plays his minutes, even if he looks comfortable, it won't prevent team president Leon Rose and general manager Scott Perry from pursuing point guards via trade, free agency or the draft.
The franchise is still in talent-acquisition mode, unable to afford passing on star-caliber players based on questions about fit. And Quickley and Barrett provide Rose and Perry with rebuilding flexibility due to their versatility and positional interchangeability. While we're waiting to learn how Quickley will develop his playmaking, he won 2019-20 SEC Player of the Year playing mostly off the ball.
No matter how he develops from here, whether he continues to build an identity around being a second-unit energizer or he blossoms into the team's answer at starting point guard, the Knicks can feel confident they added a keeper and building block in Quickley—a significant win considering where they got him.