More than his outstanding three-point shooting, the biggest pull for the New York Knicks to gravitate towards Quentin Grimes in the first round of the NBA Draft was his impact on winning.
“That’s what we mostly talked about in my conversations with the Knicks and their scouts,” Kelvin Sampson, the University of Houston Cougars head coach, told Empire Sports Media on the phone.
“That’s the thing that they thought they liked most about Quentin as it relates to Thibs’ (Tom Thibodeau’s) culture. There’s a lot of similarities to the Knicks culture as far as what Thibs believes in and what we believe in here. That had a lot to do in them drafting Quentin.”
Grimes already knew he would become a Knick after the team executed a pair of trades during an eventful NBA Draft Night. Before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Grimes’ name, his camp was already excited in anticipation of the announcement.
— NBA (@NBA) August 4, 2021
As the Knicks Draft night plan unfolded, Sampson was on the phone with the team’s general manager Scott Perry, his long-time friend.
“I just remember Scott was asking me questions and telling me what their plan was. That was prior to the 25th pick. And they were really hoping he would be there at 25. They were worried that somebody was gonna take him before them. I think a lot of those moves (trades) were built around drafting Quentin at 25,” Sampson revealed.
“Scott Perry is a professional organizational guy. He knows what he’s doing. They had a plan going in. And they executed it flawlessly.”
The Knicks kicked the can further down the road when they traded their 19th pick to Charlotte for a future first-rounder. With the belief that Grimes would still be on board in the mid-20s, they swapped picks with the Los Angeles Clippers (21st for 25th) to net an additional future second-round selection and save some salary cap space.
So after his hometown team, Houston Rockets, selected Josh Christopher with the 24th pick, the mood at Grimes’ Draft party lit up and was ready to explode.
“When their (Knicks) pick came up, we knew that he was gonna be the pick,” Sampson said, recalling that memorable night. “But you know, you want to hear your name called. You don’t want to react prior to. Quentin just broke down. He was emotional. Because of all the hard work he and his family put into that moment. You just sit back, and I was just so happy for Quentin and his family because he earned that.”
Grimes strongly believed it was his destiny to become a Knick. His perspective changed over the last two years after his initial goal of becoming a lottery pick didn’t pan out. His Houston homecoming had a lot to do with it after a disappointing freshman season with the Kansas Jayhawks.
“I feel like I was picked in the perfect spot. I feel like some people might say I was picked too low or picked too high, something like that. But that’s why I got picked in the right situation,” Grimes said during his introductory press conference. “That’s why going to New York is going to be a match made in heaven.”
Thibodeau and the Knicks front office, led by team president Leon Rose, have created an environment in New York that made players fall in love with the process of getting better by making them accountable.
Grimes went through the same process in his two-year stint with the Cougars that rejuvenated his once flailing basketball career.
“I didn’t think Quentin had hit rock bottom yet when he arrived in our program,” Sampson said.
Grimes, the no. 8 recruit in his class, was a projected lottery pick before he went to Kansas. But things didn’t go according to plan, and his stock plummeted.
During his college debut, Grimes had a spectacular shooting display with 21 points on 6-of-10 three-pointers against Michigan State. But what followed next was a season of disappointment. His offense became erratic. He could only put up single-digit scoring in 17 of his next 35 games and missed 23 of his next 28 three-point attempts. He wound up with an 8.4-point average on a 38/34/60 shooting split that dimmed his prospect of getting drafted in the first round.
“Sometimes you had to fall even further before you can go back up,” Sampson said.
When Grimes couldn’t get a first-round guarantee, he decided to return to college, but he found out that his spot at Kansas was already filled up.
That’s when Sampson scooped him up as the Cougars were looking to replace Armoni Brooks, their best three-point shooter, who decided to go pro.
Marshall Grimes, Quentin’s father, reached out to Alvin Brooks, the Cougars associate head coach at that time.
“[Quentin] is a Houston kid. He was looking for a fresh start somewhere else. We didn’t recruit him out of high school as he narrowed his list down (to the blue blood schools) very early in the process,” Sampson said. “But this time around, his family, the familiarity of Houston and the success our program was having and also the reputation of our staff has in developing guards helped us.”
In a lot of ways, Sampson is very similar to Thibodeau. Both are hard-nosed coaches. Their teams love to defend. But the most striking similarity is both coaches benefited from a coaching sabbatical that allowed them to take a step back and see the current trends that made them better coaches upon their return.
Thibodeau visited many NBA teams in between his coaching stops from Chicago to Minnesota and New York. He learned how things are being done differently.
Sampson also had the same reckoning when he was forced out of his coaching post at Indiana University in 2008 due to recruitment violations.
Sampson revitalized his coaching career during his five-year show-cause penalty with an advisory role to his friend Gregg Popovich. At San Antonio, he saw firsthand how Tony Parker enjoyed freedom in running the Spurs’ offense. He also learned various offensive schemes as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets.
When he was eligible to return to NCAA, the Cougars hired him to rehabilitate their program.
Sampson returned to NCAA a changed man. His tough defensive philosophies were still there, but his deliberate style of offense — a trademark over three decades of coaching with Montana Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma, and Indiana — was replaced by the pace and space schemes and gave freedom to his guards as much as the NBA coaches do.
Sampson led the Cougars to the first round of the NIT twice during his first three seasons, followed by a Round of 32 appearance that snapped a seven-year NCAA drought. The next year, the Kentucky Wildcats needed a late Tyler Herro three-pointer to fend off the Cougars in the Sweet 16.
Sampson resurrected Houston’s basketball program that hasn’t been relevant since the Slamma Jamma era.
Their recent success under Sampson factored heavily in Grimes’ decision. As a sweetener, the veteran coach got a ringing endorsement from former NBA MVP James Harden who played with Grimes in a pickup game in Arizona during the pre-Draft process.
Harden and Sampson forged a good relationship during their time with the Rockets. The former Rockets star texted Sampson right after the pickup game with a glowing review of Grimes.
“He told me he thought Quentin was a really good player, which we already knew. We were already recruiting him. I think James endorsed me heavily to him [as a players’ coach]. I’m sure Quentin appreciated what James said,” Sampson said.
Sampson knew he had a rough diamond in Grimes. So he worked on rounding up the edges. In his mind, Grimes’ case was psychological more than anything else.
“Quentin had to do certain things. Coming out of high school, his whole game revolved around offense,” Sampson said.
They started to work on his rebounding. There was a rebounding drill specifically made for Grimes. Sampson would put a cover on the ring, and Grimes was the only one allowed to get the rebound. So every time his teammates shoot the ball, Grimes had to fight the whole team to grab the rebound.
Under Sampson, Grimes learned to be tough and competitive. Defense became a priority. The offense came only second. But the freedom on offense allowed Grimes to flourish and become a consistent shooter.
“Once he learned how to do those things, that’s when I thought his game had started coming around. Psychologically, the challenge there was getting his confidence up. Getting him to believe in things,” Sampson said.
“I think we do a great job in our program of creating adversity, whether it is through hard work or through my ability to get kids to places where they will push themselves. I think Quentin had to learn those.”
Grimes regained his confidence through hard work and preparation. An ethos that Thibodeau also preaches to his teams.
It was not by accident that Grimes’ numbers began to shoot up. His playing time from Kansas remained the same in his first year in Houston, but he put up better numbers across the board.
The Cougars were bound for another NCAA tournament with Grimes on board until the pandemic scratched the tournament.
“We could really see progress during his sophomore year,” Sampson said. “I think Quentin was excited about that. It’s why he didn’t put his name in the [NBA] draft after his sophomore year because he realized he still had more work to do. And good for Quentin. A lot of kids would hurry to get into the pros, and they’re not ready. Quentin wasn’t ready.”
Sampson thought another year with them would be better than Grimes ending up as a late second-round selection and getting relegated to the G League.
“Psychologically, he still had to be a better rebounder, a better on-ball defender and learn how to win and impact winning. Those are all things that are part of the culture we have. Quentin bought into our culture.” Sampson said.
Grimes continued his upward trajectory in his junior year, posting career-best numbers — 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from deep on 5.9 attempts — leading the Cougars to the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 1984.
He also posted his best defensive rating per 100 possessions at 90.1, a 15-point jump from his freshman year.
Grimes made it personal to defend the opposing team’s best player. He was a big part of why the Cougars were the second-best defensive team in the NCAA last season, allowing only 58.2 points per game behind Loyola Chicago’s 56.1-point average.
“He really bought in (to our culture). He’s such a great kid. I thoroughly enjoyed coaching him. To see his progress — almost every game we played this year, he was the best player on the floor — and his confidence took off. His belief in winning grew each game,” Sampson said.
Grimes became the first Cougar to be drafted in the first round since Cadillac Anderson went 23rd in 1987.
In Grimes, the Knicks got a ready-made rookie who can contribute from day one but still has so much room for growth. His appetite for learning is insatiable.
The rookie swingman started his Knicks career poorly, just like the way he did in college. After drilling his first shot — a three-pointer — in the NBA Summer League, he would only hit four of his next 21 attempts from long distance.
But even if his shots were not falling, Grimes didn’t stop playing.
He rebounded the ball, made plays for his teammates, and played resolute defense.
Sampson was not worried, but still, he sent a text of encouragement to his former star.
“He started out like a rookie,” Sampson said. “I’m sure there were some anxiety and nerves. He was playing with a shoot-first point guard, whereas he played with a pass-first point guard in college. So he’s gonna have to be able to adjust with different styles and players, knowing that he’s not gonna be the first option. It took him a game or two to adjust, but once he did, you saw how good he is.”
Grimes finished the Summer League on a bright note. His final numbers were solid: 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.0 assists with nearly a steal and a block per game.
Grimes shrugged off his poor shooting start and ended up with a staggering 41-percent clip on nine three-point attempts.
In a loaded Knicks team, it will be hard to replicate those numbers in the regular season. Minutes would be hard to come by for rookies. But Sampson believes Grimes can earn his way into the rotation.
“He’s a smart kid,” Sampson said. “He knew that he’s not gonna be the first option. But even if you already know that, it will take some time to adjust.”
“He’s gonna be filling in a role. If you think about the NBA, everybody is a role player. For the best guys on that team, that’s their role. For the guys who take the most shots, that’s their role. So Quentin will settle into a role. Once he does, he has to accept it. Be the best that he can be at it. Each year, try to get better. That’s the key,” Sampson added.
Grimes’ initial role could be a 3-and-D spark off the bench when the veterans ahead of him, such as Alec Burks, Evan Fournier, and RJ Barrett, go down with an injury or having off nights. But during his introductory presser, Grimes was adamant that he’s more than just a 3-and-D guy.
“If you watch [Quentin] play with the Knicks this summer and with us and also at the [Draft] Combine in Chicago, he showed that he could make plays. He is an outstanding defender and a three-point shooter. But he also can put the ball on the floor and create,” Sampson said.
“But as a rookie, he’s just gonna go get in and sacrifice and figure out what coach Thibs wants him to do and do that. If he wants him to be a and 3-and-D guy, then be that guy. If they give you the freedom to do some other things, then make sure you’re ready to do that.”
Sampson, like Thibodeau, has built a reputation as a winner everywhere he goes. Grimes has been wired like a Thibs’ guy. So there’s no doubt in Sampson’s mind that Thibodeau will be able to find a role for Grimes.
“The Knicks organization knows how to win,” Sampson said. “Thibs has been doing that longer than anybody that has been commenting or writing or talking. He knows what he’s doing. He’ll put Quentin in the best position, and more importantly, their team to succeed.”
The Knicks identified what Thibodeau wanted and needed to succeed. Their thorough scouting and sleuthing led them to Grimes, an underrated talent and a high-character guy who will put in the work and put winning above all else.
“Good players, at some point, have to embrace winning over statistics. If all you care about is statistics, then you’re not about winning. Winning is far more important than putting up stats,” Sampson said. “Coaches want to see how much you impact winning, not how many points you can score.”
That is what the Knicks saw in Grimes. The former five-star prospect overcame adversity and repaired his shattered confidence once he embraced the Cougars’ culture and learned to impact winning. Sampson unlocked his true gifts and, in the process, molded him to become a quintessential Thibs guy.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo