Immanuel Quickley ran to the corner. He received the pass. Set his feet squarely on the floor. Then a quick release. His follow-through stayed in the same position until the ball touched the net—poetry in motion.
Quickley’s corner 3 gave Kentucky its first lead of the second half, 58-57, against eventual NBA top overall pick Anthony Edwards and Georgia. It was the first meeting between the two SEC schools in January last year, 10 months ahead of the NBA Draft. Quickley’s big shot fueled the Wildcats win over the Bulldogs and perhaps his wild journey to the New York Knicks.
After the game, Dice Yoshimoto, who was Georgia’s director of basketball strategy and video at that time, quickly called Tom Thibodeau.
“Watch this kid, Quickley,” Thibodeau said of his conversation with Yoshimoto last year. “He’s like all the small guards that we had in Chicago. He said he had saved every big shot for Kentucky.”
At that time, Thibodeau was out of the league. He was still looking for his next NBA job. Still, that did not stop Thibodeau from following Quickley’s rise to becoming SEC’s Player of the Year under John Calipari at Kentucky. He called William Wesley (World Wide Wes), a powerful behind-the-scenes NBA power broker and a close friend of Calipari, to learn more about Quickley.
“Wes gave me the background on him. And so I continued [ watching him]. I don’t know where I was going to be, but he was someone who was on our radar,” Thibodeau said.
Five months after that phone call, Thibodeau and Wesley found themselves together in New York, tasked to help their close friend Leon Rose rebuild the Knicks franchise. Two months later, Yoshimoto rejoined Thibodeau in his staff. Kenny Payne, Calipari’s top assistant at Kentucky, also joined the Knicks, bringing a wealth of inside intel on Quickley.
Calipari had a glowing recommendation of Quickley ahead of the NBA Draft.
“Immanuel Quickley was the Player of the Year in our league. He’s right up there with the hardest workers spending the most time in the gym, most committed players that I’ve ever had,” Calipari told Empire Sports Media via Zoom call one month before the 2020 NBA Draft. “You better give him a second, third, or fourth look before you pass on him because he’s another one.”
“He spaces the court because he’s making threes. It’s what everybody knows. It’s where the league is going right now? You better be able to make threes. If you can’t, you better have some unbelievable talent; you better have ESP or something like that if you can’t shoot. The game has changed,” Calipari added.
Thibodeau didn’t need more convincing. It did the opposite as it took away some of the Knicks’ advantage on Quickley. Rival teams scampered to get a hold of the quick-rising prospect.
Quickley met with all NBA teams except the Portland Trail Blazers, who shipped their first-round pick for Robert Covington. The Knicks were one of the six teams who interviewed Quickley twice.
“As far as the Knicks are concerned, I think they know more about him more than anybody team in the NBA,” Jide Sodipo, Quickley’s trainer, told Empire Sports Media ahead of the draft.
It proved prescient.
Upon Thibodeau’s recommendation to get a shooter, Wesley reportedly pressed Rose and other front-office members to get Quickley on draft night. Some major sports outlets nitpicked that pick as a reach, but Quickley proved them wrong. He turned out to be a revelation in his rookie year.
On Monday night, it came full circle for Yoshimoto as Quickley did precisely the same play that made him text Thibodeau on that fateful night in January last year.
Quickley’s go-ahead corner 3 with 5:03 left fueled a gut-check 92-84 win over the Indiana Pacers that snapped their two-game losing skid.
Quickley tied Kemba Walker with a team-high 16 points on 4 of 4 three-pointers, each shot a big one.
He was in middle school when Walker had his Cardiac Kemba moment at Madison Square Garden.
The energy and the vibe of that shot and the celebration never left his mind. Quickley always dreamed of hitting big shots on the Garden floor. That’s one of the reasons why Quickley hops up and down the length of the floor in celebration of every big shot he makes.
“It’s just fun playing in the Garden. I ain’t gonna lie. The energy is just crazy,” Quickley said.
The shifty guard quickly became a fan-favorite in New York ever since his signature floater and a long three-pointer became a New York staple as a rookie.
So when Quickley hit the sophomore wall early this season, it was jarring to read a quarter of the #Knicks Twitter crucifying him. In his first nine games, Quickley’s shooting had regressed. He managed to make only 7 of his first 31 three-pointers. It wasn’t what everyone was expecting.
Quickley’s faith was tested. But he was unmoved and unafraid.
“I don’t really look at it as a slow start,” Quickely said. “I look at it as the ball wasn’t just going in and it’s eventually going to go in. The numbers are always going to fall in the place where they are supposed to.”
The early shooting slump did not deter Quickley. Instead, it drove him to work harder and cling to his faith tighter.
“Quick has to be the guy that’s in the gym the most out of everybody.” his teammate RJ Barrett said recently.
The Knicks’ Tarrytown practice facility became an extension of Quickley’s place, just 10 minutes away.
Quickley has always been a relentless worker who possesses a faith that is bigger than his trials. He got those two success-defining traits from his mother, Nitrease Quickley, the former Morgan State sharpshooter and currently a vice principal in Harford County, Md., and his father, Marcellous Quickley, a Christian pastor.
“If you just stick with it, you keep doing and keep working on all the things that you’re supposed to and keep your faith first, everything gonna falls into place,” Quickley said.
True enough, his shots began to fall. Over his last five games, Quickley’s numbers have risen to 13.0 points on a 49/56/92 shooting split, 2.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and only a single turnover in 21.5 minutes off the bench. He had connected on 14 of 25 3s. The last two were much needed by a struggling Knicks team on the brink. The first one tied the game at 74 against the Pacers and the second one, the go-ahead 3, lifted the Knicks over the hump.
“I think we all had a high sense of urgency. Coach [Thibodeau] stressed in the shootaround that we needed this one to get back on the right track,” Quickley said.
Quickley hitting big shot after big shot is nothing new to him and to people who know him. It’s the reason why Yoshimoto was so high on him. And it’s the same reason why Thibodeau and Wesley pushed for him in the draft.
“They (coaches and teammates) always give me a lot of confidence. Obviously, my faith is a big part of who I am so that gives me a lot of confidence when I’m on the floor, and then also I think playing at Kentucky where pretty much every game is a big game. So, it’s a combination of all that stuff,” Quickley said.
The former Nitrease Hamilton was Quickley’s first coach. She watched her son hit his first big shot when he was an eight, nine years old skinny kid. Since that moment, Quickley fell in love with the game.
“I hit a walk-off, stepback three for the game,” Quickley recalled. “Everybody was holding me up high. I’ll never forget that shot. It’s like a dream.”
Quickley is living his dream.
It was his fate to land on this Knicks team. It was his faith that guided him to navigate a difficult start to his sophomore season.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo