Knicks light up hope in Thibodeau’s Garden return

New York Knicks

Tom Thibodeau has seen it all — from winning a championship in Boston to coaching young teams to the playoffs in both of his previous head coaching stops in Chicago and Minnesota.

But for the Connecticut native who bleeds orange and blue, there’s nothing like coaching at the Mecca of basketball.

No better place

Thibodeau reflected on his return to the Madison Square Garden as the head coach of the New York Knicks, the franchise that cultivated his coaching mind as an assistant coach in the ’90s. 

“It’s unfortunate the fans can’t be here,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks went up against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night for their third and first home preseason game. “But there’s no better place for big games in this building and the knowledge of the fans if you make a good basketball play it’s recognized.’’ 

For the first three quarters, Thibodeau must have felt he dodged a bullet.

For sure, he didn’t want the fans to see how the Knicks were getting kicked in the butt by a Cavaliers team that was without their key players Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Kevin Porter, Jr., and Larry Nance.

The Knicks were painful to watch in the first 36 minutes as they continued to shoot bricks. They looked like a puzzled kid who couldn’t solve the Rubik’s cube with the way they struggled against the zone. They were a dreadful 4-for-26 from the three-point region.

Keep the faith

The Knicks fell to as many as 18, 78-60, and some of the Knicks fans on the Twitter timeline have started to check out.

But Thibodeau kept his faith in his young team.

“Really, we just played hard. That was the message, the assistant coaches, coach Thibs. They just stressed to us to keep fighting, keep the faith. And if we keep playing hard, we can come up with a win,” rookie Immanuel Quickley said when Rebecca Haarlow asked him what the coaching staff’s message heading into the fourth quarter was.

And fight they did.

Dennis Smith Jr. played with heart. Quickley pushed the pace. Kevin Knox fought with moxie. Obi Toppin was slammin’ and poppin’ while RJ Barrett continued to barrel his way. Mitchell Robinson played disciplined basketball.

It all begins with defense

If the first three quarters were painful to watch, the fourth quarter was so fun to watch.

And it started with Smith Jr. getting stops. He had a block and three steals in a row — the last two ended up with Quickley assisting Knox for a smooth jumper and an alley-oop dunk that got them within 10.

The much-maligned Smith Jr. then hit a three-pointer that trimmed the deficit to seven, 86-79, before sitting out for good and handing out the backcourt reins to Quickley in the final seven minutes.

Smith Jr., who was never known for his defense, finished the game with five steals, two blocks on top of eight points, and four assists in just under 16 minutes of play.

It didn’t matter that it came at the expense of the Cavaliers’ third-string guards. What mattered to Thibodeau was the effort.

“I think the big thing was our defensive intensity picked up. We got energy from that. We got some stops. We got on the open floor. I thought Dennis got us going with some good pressure. And then Quick came in, and that change it some more. So that’s how we have to play,” Thibodeau said afterward.

Good sign

That magical 34-13 run in the fourth quarter saw the Knicks shot 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, with Knox knocking in a perfect 3-for-3. Quickley issued six of his game-high seven assists. Robinson had two blocks while Barrett fed Toppin for the exclamation dunk in the Knicks’ 100-93 win, their second in three preseason games.

“Sometimes when you get going with your defense, it’s funny the energy that it brings to your offense, and then all of a sudden a couple of shots go down. And things are good for you offensively. Obviously, you want to play your best in the fourth quarter. And so that was a good sign,” Thibodeau said.

There were plenty of heroes for the Knicks. And that’s how Thibodeau likes it.

“I don’t think we can pick and choose who’s gonna lead us. I think you want a team of leaders — the work part, the intensity part, the togetherness part. That’s everyone’s responsibility. And everyone’s responsible for bringing what they have every day. So we want to build that habit,” Thibodeau said.

Caution thrown

But while it felt good to win his first game back in The Garden, Thibodeau was quick to throw caution and pumped the breaks cognisant of the fact that it’s just a preseason game, still a part of their training camp. He underscored the importance of how they will respond after this win.

“So they’re young guys, I think they’re learning. If you win, you have the tendency to feel good. You can’t do that. You can’t let your guard down. If you lose, you have to view it as an opportunity to learn. That’s the way we’re training them to approach it,” Thibodeau quickly added. 

The 62-year old mentor said at the start of the training camp that the first order of business is to whip this young Knicks team into a good practice team with emphasis on defense.

And if the first three preseason games are any indication, although, against some of the weaker teams in the East, some progress is being made. They have managed to keep opponents from reaching the century mark.

While their shooting is still wanting, they have shown flashes of brilliance despite not getting down to the nitty-gritty of their offense yet.

“I think the guys have been terrific in practice. Defensively, they’re giving everything that they have. Offensively, when we get that part down, I think we’ll put ourselves in a position to win. I know that if we can defend and rebound and keep our turnovers down, you’ll gonna be in a position to win, and that’s what we’re striving for,” Thibodeau said.

Back to the future

For what’s it worth, this game showed a lot of promise, especially the young unit that finished strong with the Knicks’ lottery pick Toppin, the oldest at 22.

They played with a lot of passion.

They played tough defense.

They played for each other.

They were having fun.

It was a throwback to the team of the ’90s that Thibodeau helped built under Jeff Van Gundy but, at the same time, opened a window to the future of how the Knicks will look like with him at the helm.

“You learn from each game. You’d rather win than lose. You take it for what it is. I think you learn from each game,” Thibodeau said, trying to put this win in its proper perspective.

“Obviously, you’d rather win instead of losing, and you take it for what it is, which is a preseason game. It’s an opportunity to evaluate where the team is with the season right around the corner. We really can’t waste one second every day about getting better and getting ready,” he added.

“It’ll be a different level when we get to the regular season, and we know that.”

Maybe it’s crazy to look into these meaningless games, but these matter to what this new regime has been building.

For the franchise that has long been wallowing in the darkness, Thibodeau has come back to the Garden and lit up the fire that may finally guide these young Knicks out of the tunnel. 

The Knicks fans, although they weren’t there to rock the Garden, are, for sure, starting to recognize it.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Bricks: Knicks suffer first loss under Thibodeau

After an impressive preseason debut, the New York Knicks went crashing back to earth following a 99-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons Sunday night. 

The defensive effort was nowhere near Friday night’s level as they fell to as many 15 points early on in this game. 

Shooting woes continue

The Knicks failed to dictate the tempo from the tip-off, with the Pistons setting the tone with their 2-3 zone. But it was a good test for the Knicks, as far as coach Tom Thibodeau is concerned.

“I like the situation we just went through because you’re playing the same team,’’ Thibodeau said. “Usually, you win a game against an opponent, and you play them again based on experiences in playoff basketball, that team comes with an edge. I felt that would happen. It did. I felt we were back on our heels at the start of the game. The start of the game really got us in a hole.’’

The slow start did the Knicks in.

They were able to make only 1 of 6 outside shots in the opening quarter. In contrast, the Pistons’ offense was blazing, sinking five treys, as they raced to a 31-20 start.

Overall, the Knicks only shot 8 of 33 from the three-point region. But it was a slight improvement from their 5 of 23 effort last Friday.

Starter Alec Burks is their best three-point threat by far, going 4 of 8 against the Pistons overall, including 3 of 5 Sunday night.

Rookie wall

Obi Toppin hit the rookie wall in his second preseason game. After energizing the bench last Friday, Toppin was part of the bench on Sunday that allowed the Pistons to break away for good.

Toppin wound up with only four points on 1 of 9 shooting and four rebounds this time.

“I don’t know if he was less active,’’ Thibodeau said of Toppin. “When the ball doesn’t go in for you, it can look that way. There are ups and downs in a season. We have a lot of players who measure everything with how it’s going offensively for them. You can’t do that in this league. There are some nights you shoot the ball better than others. When you don’t shoot it well, you have to have an understanding you can play well by doing other things.’’

The next two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers — the team that passed up on him at No. 5 — will give us the chance to see how he respond from a debacle.

Bench throws the monkey wrench

Toppin wasn’t the only one who struggled. Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox combined to shoot 2 of 11 from the field. Reggie Bullock went 1 of 7 from deep.

The Pistons outscored the Knicks’ bench, 60-26, with Sekou Doumbouya exploding for 23 points and five rebounds, while Derrick Rose added 11 points and eight assists.

“Some good and some bad tonight,’’ Thibodeau said of Smith’s play. “He wasn’t on the floor at the start of the game, and that’s what set the tone. [In] the second quarter, we got swallowed up, didn’t make good plays.’’

RJ getting more comfortable

The Knicks showed signs of life in the third quarter, with RJ Barrett and Alec Burks combining for 20 points. The Knicks were able to take a three-point lead momentarily on Julius Randle’s free throws at the two-minute mark, but Doumbouya willed the Pistons to tie the game 75-all. 

After allowing the Pistons to 31 first-quarter points on 11 of 20 field goals, the Knicks managed to limit them to only 68 points on just 37.5 percent shooting the rest of the way.

“I thought we played well in the third quarter. We had one good quarter of basketball,” Thibodeau said. “In the first game, we had 35, 36 minutes of good basketball. So we regressed today. We have to take with us what happened in this game. Look at it, learn from it, and make improvements.

After a horrible 0-6 start in the preseason, Barrett has since shot 17 of 27. He led the Knicks with 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting and, more importantly, went 4 of 5 at the free-throw line.

In two games, Barrett has led the Knicks in scoring with 20 points per game. His free throw shooting has improved tremendously, hitting 5 of 7 overall so far. Last season, he only shot 61.4 percent from the line.

“It’s (speed of the game) a little slower,” Barrett said. “I’m a little more comfortable. I kind of know what to expect a little bit more.”

Quickley quickly impresses

The Pistons recognized that the Knicks’ Achilles heel is the point guard spot. Every time the Knicks’ point guards try to set the table, the Pistons sent an automatic double or even triple-double coverage at times.

The Knicks’ other rookie Immanuel Quickley made his much-anticipated debut. His lone assist in nine minutes of action came off a triple-double coverage sent to him on top of the arc that led to a wide-open Toppin triple.

Quickley’s debut line was a quiet two points, missing his lone three-point attempt, two rebounds, and an assist. But Thibodeau liked what he saw from the rookie guard out of Kentucky.

“I like him,’’ Thibodeau said. “[He had] some jitters early on. He’s not afraid of competing. We didn’t see him shoot the ball. He’s a knockdown shooter. We like to see more of those. We see him do it in practice all the time. When he raises up to shoot, you think it’s going in.’’

We should see more of Quickley when the Knicks will host the Cavaliers on Wednesday and Friday at the fan-less Madison Square Garden to wrap their preseason schedule. Both games will be aired live on MSG Network at 7:30 p.m. E.T.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Fantastic Four: Tom Thibodeau lists most conditioned Knicks

Run, Knicks, run!

That’s how Tom Thibodeau plans to roll out his young and athletic New York Knicks beginning in the preseason.

The Knicks will face the Detroit Pistons on the road Friday at 7 p.m. E.T.

“I would assume that’s the plan. Every day we do a lot of transition drills, guys getting up and down. Everybody work super hard to get into shape to play that way. That’s the plan, so let’s see if we can execute tomorrow,” Dennis Smith Jr. said on zoom call Thursday after the Knicks wrapped up their short training camp.

The Knicks were tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic for 23rd place in pace at 100.9 last season. The Milwaukee Bucks led the league at 107.2.

Thibodeau never cracked the top-15 during his two seasons with a young Minnesota team. But to his defense, he surrounded Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with veterans and played to their strengths, especially when Jimmy Butler came aboard.

This Knicks team is far different than what he had in Minnesota. So he’s playing the hand that has been dealt to him.

Tough cookies, fit rookies

To be able to sustain an up-tempo game, they need to be in their best shape. Thibodeau was pleased, especially with four players who showed up for the training camp fit and ready to go.

“Our two young guys, obviously they have a lot to learn, but in terms of commitment and conditioning, they’re really, really impressive,” said Thibodeau referring to his rookies Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.

Both rookies benefited from the extended period of preparation for the Draft and the short turnaround time.

Toppin and Quickley will have their first taste of NBA action Friday night as they will mix it up against fellow rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart of Detroit.

For them, this amounts to their summer league.

“I didn’t think the speed of the game would be too much faster, but it’s actually been a lot faster,” Quickley said. “I feel like Kentucky, they do a great job of preparing, but until you get out there and experience a full practice and going up and down really fast, there’s really nothing like it. I think the speed of the game has been the biggest jump, and I feel like I’m making a great jump. Every single day I feel like I’m getting better.”

Quickley could be in for a rude awakening on Friday when he and Toppin will experience the intensity, albeit watered down, of a real NBA game.

It will be a good gauge for both Thibodeau and Pistons coach Dwayne Casey on how their rookies and newcomers will fit into what they’re trying to do.

“The college game is very different from the NBA game. So there’s an adjustment period that you go through,” Thibodeau said.

There will be rookie jitters for sure. But Toppin and Quickley have sounded confident throughout the camp. The Knicks fans are anxious to watch them walk the talk.

Big bets on vets

It will be exactly nine months since the Knicks last played an NBA game. Among the holdovers and veterans, two Knicks have impressed Thibodeau with their conditioning.

“I would say the vets who stood out the most were actually two – I would say, Julius, who’s in great shape, and Kevin Knox is in really good shape as well,” Thibodeau said.

Both forwards have chips on their shoulders. Randle will be in his second season with the team, hoping to become a better leader. Knox, meanwhile, is aching to bounce back after a lackluster sophomore season.

Despite being the most conditioned Knicks, they will not necessarily garner the most minutes. Thibodeau will use the preseason games to experiment on different combinations for his regular-season rotations.

“We’ve been mixing and matching, and we’re still evaluating. I’m gonna meet with the coaches,” Thibodeau said.

“Obviously, there will be a larger rotation in this first game. But we’ll use it for preseason games and probably some games into the regular season as well before we settle in for our final rotation.”

While the Knicks rotation will be unpredictable, one thing is sure.

Run, Knicks, run!

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Tom Thibodeau on Knicks offseason moves: ‘We wanted to be disciplined’

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks have always been under the microscope.

So the Knicks went into the offseason with so much anticipation from their fan base and around the league.

Armed with a massive $40-million cap space, the Knicks have struck out anew in a free agency devoid of franchise-altering stars. But it’s not that they didn’t try to go after second-tier stars Gordon Hayward and Fred Van Vleet or inquired about the Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

They did.

But they resisted the temptation of recklessly throwing big money on stars on the decline.

For a change, the Knicks showed restraint.

“I like it,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said on a zoom call with reporters Tuesday on how their front office operated with prudence during the offseason.

“Obviously I had input with Leon. And that’s all did I ever asked for – just to have a voice heard and that happened. We understood coming in what the challenges would be. We’re excited about the people we do have. We understand that it’s important for us to build a winning culture. And if we can do that, good things will happen,” he added.

The Knicks ended up doling out short-term contracts to veteran role players Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, and re-signing Elfrid Payton to a more team-friendly deal.

Patience is now Thibs’ virtue

Thibodeau, a win-now coach, shows extraordinary patience as the Knicks’ new regime under his friend, team president Leon Rose, kept their massive space for next summer’s loaded free agency.

Thibodeau will use next season to lay the foundation of the rebuild.

He referenced his brief stop in Minnesota, where in the first season, he missed the playoffs despite having former lottery picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. And he also mentioned how the Philadelphia 76ers went through losing seasons despite having rising stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

“Obviously, a couple of different roads you can go down. If you study it and look at how teams are built, I went through this in Minnesota – the draft is critical, free agency is critical, player development is critical and trade opportunities are critical. When you look back at Philadelphia, what they went through, obviously, they went through a lot of losing and were able to get Embiid and Simmons, and when they had their veterans, that’s when they took off,” Thibodeau said.

Both the Timberwolves and the 76ers enjoyed success when veterans came to show the way for their young stars.

‘We wanted to be disciplined’

A common denominator for the Timberwolves and the Sixers is Jimmy Butler.

When Thibodeau traded for Butler in Minnesota, the Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. When Butler forced his way out of Minnesota that cost Thibodeau his job, the Sixers felt Butler’s impact. They came to a Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater away from going into the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I think you look at four avenues and try to build your plan that way. I thought we had a well-thought-out plan. We took advantage of some things that we thought would be good for us. But we wanted to be disciplined. And we were,” Thibodeau said.

The Knicks did take advantage of teams like the Utah Jazz and the Timberwolves who wanted to shed salaries and got plenty of future second-round picks and young players Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans in return.

The Knicks made underrated, smart moves and operated as a small market team, which can be attributed to the forward-thinking of chief strategist Brock Aller, who came from the Cleveland Cavaliers and assistant general manager Walter Perrin, who came from the Jazz.

And to top it all, the Knicks had a good draft with a couple of sneaky moves that landed them College Player of the Year and Brooklyn native Obi Toppin from Dayton and SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley from Kentucky to add their collection of young talents.

‘We can’t skip steps’

With a young core devoid of a veteran of Butler’s caliber, Thibodeau plans to build a winning culture that will make New York an attractive destination for stars.

“There will be other opportunities as we go forward but we concentrate on players that we have here. Concentrate on our improvement and hopefully, good things will happen,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau’s move to get Butler in Minnesota has been viewed as skipping steps but for him, having that right guy to lead them over the hump is the next step after laying down the foundation.

“The first step is practicing the right way. Having professionalism and togetherness that will allow us to reach whatever our potential is. And we want to build a winning culture and that happens day by day. So oftentimes you’re not gonna jump from one point to the top of the league in a short amount of time. So, you have to go step by step. We can’t skip over any of those steps and hopefully, we have the right guys to build that culture,” he continued.

Chess, not checkers

The odds are stacked against the Knicks this season, but Thibodeau and Rose are playing chess, not checkers.

Vegas oddsmakers have the Knicks tied with the Cavaliers for the fewest projected victories at 22 ½ while ESPN is more generous with a 24.7-win projection.

“The focus for us and for our team has to be on doing the right things every day. If we do that, then we’ll improve and get better. And that’s all we have to think about. It doesn’t matter what outside people think,” Thibodeau said.

Another season of losing isn’t what the Knicks fans are expecting from the new regime. But Thibodeau knows New York basketball by heart.

“I think the one thing about New York fans [is that] they’re knowledgeable about the game. I think if they see a team that’s out there working as hard as they can, playing smart and playing together, that will be recognized. And if we’re taking all the little things, the big things will end up taking care of themselves. And if we work on improving each and every day, good things are coming,” Thibodeau said.

Knicks fans have suffered long enough, and they can’t wait for the good things to come.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: ‘Gym rat’ Immanuel Quickley ready for training camp

New York Knicks, Immanuel Quickley

New York Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley hasn’t changed his routine even after getting picked in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft.

There’s not a single day he missed going to the gym.

Even during the Draft Night, Quickley’s mother had to talk him out going to the gym.

That’s how dedicated Quickley is to his craft. He’s been preparing hard to prove that he’s worthy of the first-round selection when all mock drafts have slotted him late in the second round.

“He’s been in New York all month and in the Knicks’ facility since last week,” Quickley’s former AAU coach-turned personal trainer and adviser Jide Sodipo told Empire Sports Media.

Before Quickley was cleared to work out in the team’s practice facility in Westchester, he frequented the gym of former Knicks trainer-turned-independent NBA Skills trainer Chris Brickley in downtown New York. Quickley has also linked up with former NBA sharpshooter Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who is also working out Knicks guard Dennis Smith, Jr.

‘Nothing has changed’

For Quickley, the NBA Draft Night wasn’t the culmination of his hard work. It’s only the beginning of another mission, another challenge to overcome.

Sodipo has been with Quickley every step of the way since he was in eighth grade. And even now that Quickley has already reached his NBA dream, Sodipo never left his side. He’s accompanying Quickley to navigate his rookie season in the Big Apple. 

Sodipo worked him out every day in a gym near Quickley’s residence to prepare for the Draft. While Sodipo is proud of Quickley’s progress, he’s even prouder that his ward has kept his feet on the ground even after the high selection.

Quickley has been using that as a motivation to earn his spurs in the cramped training camp that will begin Tuesday. They will only have ten days before the Knicks play their first preseason game in Detroit.

“Nothing has changed. He’s still a gym rat,” Sodipo said of Quickley. “He’s a special young man, very focused. He’s a young man that really loves the game.”

‘It feels like Kentucky all over again’

Quickley will be tested towards the end of the week when group practices will be allowed. If there’s anything that is going his way, it’s the fact that he’s been in this type of situation before. His rookie season seems like Kentucky all over again.

Of course, former Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne will ease his transition to the team. But Quickley has to compete again and prove he’s worthy of a spot in the Knicks’ crowded backcourt that will have playoff veteran Austin Rivers and holdovers Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith, Jr., and Frank Ntilikina.

This is one reason why Quickley has stuck with the Wildcats even after a disappointing freshman season. Rather than run from it and look for a school that will give him playing time, he embraced the challenge to compete again in a crowded Kentucky backcourt in his sophomore year.

He adjusted his game from being a point guard to playing off the ball on his way to becoming the SEC Player of the Year.

John Calipari, Quickley’s college coach, knows that his stint with the Wildcats has prepared him for this challenge.

“I think what you’re going to find out is a guy that mentally is ready, is on a mission, is a gym rat, is a culture guy. Great faith, a big family that unconditionally loves him, and he knows it, and he’s comfortable in his skin,” Calipari said via zoom last week. “They made a great one. It was a hell of a pick.”

It was a hell of a ride for Quickley, too, just to get here.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley was a lowkey steal in the first round

New York Knicks, Immanuel Quickley

Most didn’t project that the New York Knicks would select Immanuel Quickley with the 25th overall selection in the first round of the 2020 NBA draft. In fact, Quickley was marked as a second-round talent heading into the draft, but he represents a fantastic shooting guard who can also develop into a starting point guard in the future.

During his first season in Kentucky, Quickley averaged 5.2 points and 1.2 assists per game over just 18.5 minutes on average. In year two, his minutes skyrocketed to 33 per game, averaging 16.1 points, 1.9 assists, and 4.2 total rebounds. Oddly, his ability to create plays was not his focal point, focusing more on his shooting efficiency and spreading the floor.

It is seeming that Quickley is very similar to former Knick Tim Hardaway Jr. in a few ways, but notably his ability to shoot the long ball and create space on the floor with his mobility. He’s not an elite passer or dribbler, but he did finish the 2019–20 season with a .417 field-goal percentage and .428 percentage from three-point land. He’s also a .923% free-throw shooter.

Kentucky men’s’ basketball coach John Calipari had nothing be great things to say about Quickley:

“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.

“Last year, we went to three guards. I wasn’t doing that early in the year, but as the year went on, I just said, ‘Immanuel Quickley, he needs to be starting.’ That means somebody else couldn’t start. [Quickley] ended up being Player of the Year in our league, but he trusted me to figure it out.”

Quickley solves an everlasting struggle for the New York Knicks:

The Knicks’ biggest struggle in 2019 was their ability from beyond the arc, ranking 27th in overall efficiency in that specific category. Quickley brings a smooth shooter and transition player to match up with eighth overall pick Obi Toppin.

With President Leon Rose electing to acquire draft capital instead of spending money on max contracts, it seems as if the Knicks are prioritizing their youth foundation and focusing on their development. This is extremely beneficial for players like Quickley, who otherwise wouldn’t have received significant minutes, hampering their progress. Hopefully, the 2020–21 season will offer plenty of value in terms of development, making the Knicks a more attractive team to free agents in the future.

Keep The Faith: Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley wants to prove doubters wrong

New York Knicks, Immanuel Quickley

There were a lot of emotions when New York Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley heard NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his name on NBA Draft Night.

Quickley quickly had a FaceTime call with University of Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari right after and the first thing he said:

Quickley’s faith had never wavered even when people began to dismiss him after an underwhelming freshman year at Kentucky. Coming in as a five-star recruit, Quickley struggled to find his footing, averaging only 5.2 points on a 37 percent clip in 18.5 minutes of play.

“I feel like the “they” can be anybody. You’re trying to not only prove people wrong but prove yourself right. I feel like a lot of people after my freshman year at Kentucky gave up on me and said – I should transfer, I should leave, I’m not going to be good enough. I just screenshotted everything I saw that said I wasn’t going to be good enough,” Quickley said on MSG Network’s new morning show MSG A.M.

“And I took it to my workouts and made a list of goals and things like that. That’s the stuff that I’ll take with me even to the next level as far as just trying to prove other people wrong, trying to prove myself right, and to just continue to keep working hard.”

Quickley, a devout Christian, showed his faith is bigger than the challenges he faced.

Even when he started his sophomore year riding the bench with fellow sophomore Ashton Haggans and freshman Tyrese Maxey starting at Kentucky’s backcourt, Quickley didn’t sulk.  

He trusted the process. He had so much faith in Calipari.

Quickley became a Calipari fan during their stint at Team USA that settled for the bronze medal in the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup.

Canada, led by his future Knicks teammate RJ Barrett’s 40 points, ousted them in the semifinals, 99-85. Quickley averaged 6.7 points and had a total of 17 assists in seven games to help Team USA salvage a bronze medal finish.

Little did he know that Calipari was also a fan of Quickley, the third-ranked point guard of the 2018 class.

Calipari made him a priority during the recruiting process.

So when Quickley was struggling at Kentucky, Calipari wasn’t quick to give up on him.

Calipari didn’t dive into Quickley’s struggle. What he saw was Quickley’s drive.

“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.

“Last year, we went to three guards. I wasn’t doing that early in the year, but as the year went on, I just said, ‘Immanuel Quickley, he needs to be starting.’ That means somebody else couldn’t start. [Quickley] ended up being Player of the Year in our league, but he trusted me to figure it out.”

When Calipari gave him his shot to start, Quickley quickly seized the opportunity.

Quickley went on a tear, punching in double-digit scoring in 20 consecutive games — the longest streak by a Wildcat since Malik Monk (30) in 2016-17. His marksmanship was on full display, hitting at least one three-pointer in his last 11 games, including a career-high eight on his way to a 30-point performance in a 69-60 win against Texas A&M last February.

He wound up his sophomore year as the SEC Player of the Year after averaging 16.1 points, deriving his points from high-volume three-point shooting and getting to the line.

He averaged 2.1 threes on a remarkable 42.8 percent three-point shooting clip. And he hit 92 percent of his 5.2 free throw attempts.

“For me, it’s more I knew I could do it all along. It’s really just about everything coming together. And once you get that opportunity on the floor, just seizing the moment. And really just not looking back. That’s what I feel like happened. I was given that opportunity, and as soon as I got it, I ran with it. And that’s what I’m going to look forward to at the next level,” Quickley said.

When the pandemic canceled the college season and moved the NBA Draft, Quickley faced it like the way he did at Kentucky: being patient and keeping his faith in the process.

“The hardest part this year was how long the wait was. In a usual draft process, you get done with the basketball season in April if you go far, and the draft is in June. But for us, it ended in March, and the draft was in November. So it was just a really long wait, and you had to really be patient with the process. And I feel like it’s going to help us in the long run as far as being in the NBA,” Quickley said.

Quickley embraced the long wait and saw it as an opportunity to prepare himself better for the NBA grind. His long-time trainer and former AAU coach Jide Sodipo tirelessly worked with him to improve all the aspects of his game, especially his shooting, which will be his biggest weapon at the next level.

Calipari was quick to say Quickley’s shooting will be a boon to a Knicks team who finished 27th in three-point shooting last season.

“He (Immanuel) 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 said.

Sodipo has so much faith in Quickley that his game will translate better in the NBA than in Kentucky.

“He brings more to the game than just his shooting. You’ve only seen around 50 or 60 percent of his game [in college], I can tell you. And that’s gonna surprise a lot of people,” Sodipo told Empire Sports Media on the phone.

Quickley had met almost every NBA team, but none had the intel like what Kenny Payne, the former Calipari’s lead assistant, and Kentucky’s chief recruiter, brought to the Knicks.

“As far as the Knicks are concerned, I think they know more about him more than anybody team in the NBA,” Sodipo said before the draft.

Quickley, who was projected as a late second-round pick, was already more than happy to be selected in the first round. But he became doubly excited when he learned that the Knicks have traded for his rights because he gets to be reunited to be with Payne, the man who stuck with him and worked with him on closed doors throughout his roller-coaster ride in college.

“At Kentucky, he was someone who would scream at you on the court or in practice. But he would be that first one with you in the gym that same night or early morning. He was someone that really sacrificed not only on the floor but off the floor too. As far as me getting to the Knicks, he is someone that is going to push me. I know he’s going to push me to be the best I can be and take what I want. And I’m just glad to have him,” Quickley said.

Quickley will be fighting for his spot in the Knicks’ crowded backcourt with holdovers Dennis Smith, Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and Elfrid Payton, plus newcomers Austin Rivers and Jacob Evans, two-way player Theo Pinson and undrafted rookie Myles Powell.

Quickley has been in the same tough spot before. He already knew how to attack it.

This is the ‘why’ he was talking about.

He chose to stick with the loaded Kentucky team because he knew he’d face the same adversity in the NBA.

“They said I couldn’t do it.”

But Quickley has a faith bigger than the chip on his shoulder.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Grading the New York Knicks draft picks and UDFA signings

New York Knicks, Obi Toppin

With the 2020 NBA Draft finally, in the books, the Knicks had themselves a busy and productive night. After all the trades they made, they came away with two draft picks and one undrafted free agent. I’m going to offer my grades and analysis for each of the three acquisitions.

NBA Draft Round 1 Pick 8: Obi Toppin, PF, Dayton

The Knicks started their draft off with a bang by taking the Consensus First Team All-American and John R. Wooden Award winner in Dayton’s star big man, Obi Toppin.

When they were on the clock, there were a number of intriguing options available. Aside from Toppin, Iowa State guard Tyrese Halliburton, Israeli forward Deni Avdija, and Florida State wing Devin Vassell were all still on the board. The reaction amongst the media and Knicks fans at the selection of Toppin was mixed as usual. I would have preferred Halliburton, but you can’t really criticize the Toppin pick.

Toppin is an electric and explosive player with great athleticism. He is capable of scoring all over the floor and possesses a smooth jump shot as well. He is a human highlight-reel who dominated college basketball last season at Dayton, finishing with a stat line of 20 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 70% from the field and nearly 40% from three. Toppin should become an instant fan-favorite and provides the kind of box-office appeal that can make the Knicks a fun team to watch again.

There certainly are criticisms with Toppin’s game, which is why he fell to the Knicks. He isn’t a very strong defender, although he’s already spoken about how excited he is to work at and improve his defense under Tom Thibodeau. He also is 22 years old, which is pretty old for a rookie, but that hopefully means he’ll need less time to develop and will be ready to make a big impact immediately.

It wasn’t a secret that the Knicks wanted Toppin badly, probably stemming from his CAA connection. They were trying to trade up to draft him, but fortunately, they didn’t have to. Toppin is a very good player who should help this Knicks team on day one. Getting the best player in college basketball last season at number 8 is a steal, and Knicks fans should be happy about the pick.

Grade: A+

NBA Draft RD 1 Pick 25: Immanuel Quickley, G, Kentucky

After originally packaging picks 27 and 38 to move up to pick 23, the Knicks then made a savvy move by trading pick 23 for pick 25 and 33. So they essentially turned picks 27 and 38 into picks 25 and 33. With the 25th pick, the Knicks selected Kentucky sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley.

While this selection may have come to the surprise of some, as most people had Quickley listed as a second-round pick, there’s a lot to like with Quickley.

Arguably the Knicks’ biggest team need was shooting, and Quickley brings that. He was a sniper for John Calipari last season, putting together a solid stat line of 16.1 points, 2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds en route to being named the SEC Player of the Year.

His shooting percentages were phenomenal, as he shot nearly 42% from the field, 43% from three, and 92% from the free-throw line. Quickley also has shown promise on defense, averaging a steal a game. He is limited in other areas of his game, but Quickley’s ability to space the floor and shoot at a high level is a perfect fit for the Knicks and helps fill a big need.

As for those saying the pick is a reach, that might have some truth to it, but how many late first-round picks really pan out in the NBA? Not a very high percentage. Quickley also has a skill set that should translate well to the NBA, and the familiarity is there with the Knicks coaching staff through Knicks assistant coach and former Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne. Therefore, considering all those factors, is getting Kentucky’s leading scorer and the SEC Player of the Year with the 25th pick really that much of a reach at all? A solid pick for the Knicks.

Grade: B

UDFA Signing: Myles Powell, G, Seton Hall

After trading pick 33 for a 2023 second-round pick, which was a questionable move, the Knicks were done drafting after the Quickley pick.

Once the draft ended, however, they ended up snagging arguably the top undrafted free agent available in Seton Hall’s star guard Myles Powell.

Powell was one of the most dynamic players in the country over his four years as a Pirate, with this past year being his best. He averaged 21 points, 3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.2 steals as he lead Seton Hall to a Big East championship. He also won the Big East Player of the Year, was a Consensus First Team All-American, and won the Jerry West Award for the best shooting guard in the country.

Many were surprised to see Powell go undrafted, which might have to do with him being a senior and the fact he is undersized for the shooting guard position, but he is an electric scorer who has a legitimate shot to make the roster. At the very least, he can be the type of player who provides instant offense off the bench for the Knicks. If he can improve his shot selection a bit and strengthen his defense, he has the chance to be a huge steal.

This was a fantastic pick-up by the Knicks, as they grab an experienced, talented player who plays with a chip on his shoulder. Powell also has plenty of familiarity at Madison Square Garden, having played there many times in college. This is the kind of under-the-radar move that can pay off in the long run for the Knicks.

Grade: A

Overall, the Knicks had a very productive draft night, adding two talented players who will help right away and can be foundational pieces going forward. Throw in a dynamic undrafted free agent in Powell, and Knicks fans should be feeling very good about the three players they added to the team. Hopefully, this group can help the Knicks compete for a playoff spot this season and beyond.

Overall grade: A-

Knicks Draft Watch: John Calipari warns NBA teams not to sleep on Immanuel Quickley

The New York Knicks have met Kentucky Wildcat Immanuel Quickley twice ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft. 

Devin Booker and Tyler Herro were two of the most recent former University of Kentucky guards who got overlooked in the NBA Draft.

Immanuel Quickley is poised to be the next sleeper in the Draft from Hall of Fame coach John Calipari’s program.

“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. “You better give him a second, third, or fourth look before you pass on him because he’s another one.”

Booker and Herro were selected 13th overall in the 2015 and 2019 NBA Draft, respectively. And they have both outplayed their draft position.

With Herro’s rousing rookie season still fresh in league scouts and executives’ minds, the sweet-shooting Quickley has seen his draft stock rise with more and more teams showing strong interest recently.

According to his trainer and former AAU coach Jide Sodipo, Quickley has talked to almost all NBA teams except the Portland Trail Blazers.

And of the 29 teams, Quickley has already interviewed twice with the Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, and the Miami Heat.

“They were trying to find out more about his character. Not only about basketball. What kind of a young man he is,” Sodipo told Empire Sports Media over the phone. “And as far as the Knicks are concerned, I think they know more about him more than anybody team in the NBA.”

Of course, the Knicks have former Kentucky lead assistant and chief recruiter Kenny Payne in their fold. Payne has the intel that might help persuade the Knicks front office to take a gamble on Quickley’s potential.

Quickley could be in play for the Knicks’ 27th or even 38th pick if he’s still on board. But Sodipo has a firm belief that his ward won’t last past the first round.

In most scouting reports, Quickly is a scoring guard with a knack for hitting the outside shot. It’s the same type of profile that has made Herro a riser in last year’s NBA Draft.

“He (Immanuel) 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 said.

Quickley further cemented his status as a reliable scorer when he ended his collegiate career with 20 consecutive double-digit scoring games — the longest streak by a Wildcat since Malik Monk (30) in 2016-17.  On top of that, he has also hit at least one three-pointer in his last 11 games, including a career-high eight on his way to a 30-point performance in a 69-60 win against Texas A&M last February.

Quickley has the shooting skill to carve out a role in the modern NBA. But he is more than just a shooter, according to Sodipo.

“People don’t understand that he was a pass-first point guard all of his life. He loves to share the ball and bring out the best in his teammates. But you know, when you go to a school like Kentucky, you have to sacrifice,” Sodipo explained. “Sometimes, you have to play a role. That’s what’s asked of you. What he did was he made the most out of it.”

To better understand and appreciate Quickley, you have to look at the roster makeup of the Wildcats.

During Quickley’s freshman year, Kentucky had a crowded backcourt with Hagans, Herro, and Quade Green.

Then in his sophomore year, Tyrese Maxey came in. Both Maxey (29.2 percent) and Hagans (25.8 percent) didn’t shoot well from the outside, and Quickley quickly jumped into the opportunity.

“Last year we went to three guards. I wasn’t doing that early in the year, but as the year went on, I just said, ‘Immanuel Quickley, he needs to be starting.’ That means somebody else couldn’t start. [Quickley] ended up being Player of the Year in our league, but he trusted me to figure it out.” Calipari said.

After averaging just 5.2 points per game as a freshman, Quickley led the Wildcats in scoring (16.1 ppg), made 3-pointers (62), 3-point percentage (.428), free throws made (144), attempted (156), and free throw percentage (.923) during as a sophomore to become the fifth SEC Player of the Year under Calipari.

That’s part of the myth surrounding former Wildcats who have exploded in the NBA. Because Calipari’s program has been perennially loaded with talent, players like Booker, Herro, Bam Adebayo, and now Quickley have been victims of circumstances that, in a way, held their game back.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why Quickley has the “Sleeper” tag.

“He brings more to the game than just his shooting.  You’ve only seen around 50 or 60 percent of his game [in college], I can tell you. And that’s gonna surprise a lot of people,” Sodipo said.

 

Quickley can get hot quickly on offense. He could find a role similar to what Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams have perfected in their respective long NBA careers — offensive spark off the bench.

Defensively, Quickley has the length (6’9 and 3/4″ wingspan from his Draft Combine measurement last week) and the quickness to be a disruptor.

If there’s anyone who knows Quickley’s game in and out, it’s Sodipo, who’s been coaching Quickley since 2015.

“He can handle the ball. He’s a true point guard that can score. He has a great basketball IQ. He’s great in pick and roll. He’s a great defender and can rebound, and that’s his game that people don’t know unless you really watch his game and go back to his freshman year, his high school years,” Sodipo said.

Quickley was a decorated high school player and was one of the nation’s top point guards. He was a McDonald’s All-American and the 10th best prospect by Rivals.com and 12th by ESPN coming out of high school in 2017.

In his sophomore year, he hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to lead The John Carroll School Patriots to a 51–50 win over Mount Saint Joseph High School in the Baltimore Catholic League championship. He earned All-Metro Player of the Year recognition.

In his junior year, he averaged 23.7 points and 7.2 assists per game and was named to the First Team All-Metro. As a senior, he normed 20.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 3.7 steals per game and led the team to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title.

He was a shotmaker and a playmaker in high school, but he had to adjust his game in college to fit within Kentucky’s system.

Throughout the years, Sodipo has come to know Quickley deeper than everybody else in the 21-year old’s basketball circle.

“He’s a special young man, very focused. He’s a young man that really loves the game,” Sodipo said.

Quickley comes from a family with a reputable background that speaks volumes of his character.

“His mother is a high school principal. His father is a church minister,” Sodipo said.

Quickley’s faith and a balanced lifestyle have helped him navigate a bumpy collegiate career where he understood that he had to earn his spot despite being a five-star recruit out of high school.

“He’s always in the gym, getting better at his craft. He’s somebody that he wants to get better,” Sodipo said.

“But when he was growing up, he’s played drums and other musical instruments. He’s been studious and religious. He’s a really fine, talented young man.”

Quickley checks all the boxes for teams looking for a high-character guy who has NBA skills to match.

Sodipo has been training him non-stop in a private gym just five minutes from the Quickley’s residence.

“We’ve been working on his game, getting stronger, working on his strength and conditioning, shooting, ball handling, passing drills and everything,” Sodipo said.

Quickley is determined to prove to everyone that he’s more than just a shooter and a sleeper in this unpredictable Draft class.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo