Knicks: Immanuel Quickley finds old form by playing freely

The New York Knicks’ failure to play to expectation this season has been primarily tied to Julius Randle’s regression.

But there’s more to that.

Injuries to key players Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose have pulled the Knicks back from recapturing last season’s form. Then there was the failed Kemba Walker experiment. But buried underneath those is Immanuel Quickley’s sophomore slump.

There was so much hype about Quickley after his exciting rookie year. But it quickly died down when he started his sophomore season poorly while he watched his draft classmates Desmond Bane and ex-Kentucky teammate Tyrese Maxey rise to become Most Improved Player candidates.

In a seemingly lost season, Quickley found himself. After a heartbreaking scoreless game on Valentine’s Day, Quickley bounced back in the next seven games, scoring in double figures in six of those.

Quickley is averaging 16.9 points per game and hitting 48.6% from deep since then.

Before this solid seven-game stretch, Quickley’s numbers are disheartening — 9.2 points per game on 36 percent shooting. Worse, his outside shooting slumped to 32.2 percent, down from 38.9 percent last season — a concerning trend for someone who was primarily drafted because of his ability to shoot the long ball.

So what changed?

“Quick’s been playing great,” Randle told reporters after they rallied from 20 points down to beat Sacramento.

Quickley scored a season-high 27 points on 7 of 10 shooting. It was his second straight game scoring more than 20 and the first time it happened this season. He had 21 points in the Knicks’ lopsided win over the Los Angeles Clippers last Sunday.

Curiously, it coincided with the Knicks’ first win streak since early January. Quickley impacted winning, registering plus-15 against the Clippers and plus-10 against the Kings.

“I think the biggest thing with him is he’s playing free. He’s kind of clearing his mind and going out there and hooping and trusting his work. He’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around, especially for a kid that young, so he’s just got to keep going, keep playing like that,” Randle added.

Quickley is a gym rat. But it hasn’t translated well earlier in the season as he transitioned from playing off the ball to more of a lead guard.

The injury to Rose put more pressure on Quickley in the second unit backcourt. It also didn’t help that Alec Burks was in and out of the second unit because of Walker’s woes.

But over the Knicks’ last two games, Quickley played freely playing alongside RJ Barrett and rookie Miles McBride.

“Deuce makes it easy because he picks up full court,” Quickley said of his new backcourt tandem. “I usually do that. But he does that a lot. So I let him do that.”

McBride averaged 19 minutes over the past two games. Though his numbers (2.5 points, 1.0 assist) don’t show his real impact, his defensive toughness and scrappiness have freed up Quickley from the pressure of guarding lead ball handlers. That resulted in Quickley spending more of his energy tracking defensive rebounds to initiate a faster pace on offense. Since playing with McBride, Quickley had collected 16 rebounds and 10 assists in two games.

“[McBride] can do everything. As far as getting in the lane, he can create. He can finish at the rim. He can shoot the ball. So he makes it really easy. You know, it makes my job easy. And we have great chemistry, so it makes it easy for both of us,” Quickley said.

He’s also benefitting playing alongside Barrett, who is becoming a regular fixture playing alongside their young second unit composed of Quickley, McBride, Cam Reddish, and Jericho Sims.

“I feel like I’m defending a little bit better. So that’s helped me out trying to rebound a little bit more,” Quickley said. “Find other ways to affect the game other than just scoring. That always helps. You got some great teammates. RJ and Julius played great tonight. And we get some wins now. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Barrett’s playmaking and being a release valve on offense have taken the attention off Quickley, resulting in more space to hunt down for his shots.

“I just think that he’s being who he is as a player,” Randle said. “[Quickley] is not really worried about playmaking and stuff like that. He’s a scorer. He’s a shooter. He can shoot the ball and knows how to put the ball in the basket. That’s who he is at heart, and he’s not worrying about the other things as much.”

Randle was quick to add that he still believes Quickley can run the team, but he just wants him to be true to himself so he can spread his wings.

“I’m not saying that he can’t do it. He can,” Randle said. “But those things naturally will happen if he is who he is, which is a scorer. And because he works on all the other stuff, he’ll have counters, and he’ll be able to get to that, but naturally, he’s just gotta put the ball in the hoop. That’s what he does.”

The Knicks have been grooming Quickley to run the point as early as the NBA Summer League. But maybe Quickley is more than just a point guard. He can flourish more if they accept him for who he is and not what they want him to be.

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