Immanuel Quickley stared at the court. In front of him stood his new teammates, his new coaches. Excitement welled up inside him. It was his first practice as an NBA player—as a New York Knick.
Quickley had dreamed of being here ever since he was a fifth-grader playing rec ball, back when his mother and coach, Nitrease, told him to take it easy on the other kids. “I’m going to need you to not take the ball from them,” she told him one game during a timeout. Quickley returned to the court and snatched the ball from the player he was guarding.
He was just as persistent that fall afternoon in 2020, as his first Knicks practice began. The coaches quickly divided up players for teams. But when they got to Quickley, they handed him a green-colored jersey, which signified that he would be relegated to the third—and potentially even fourth—practice squad. Green? Really?
Quickley had been a first-round draft pick, no. 25, out of Kentucky. He was the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Sure, some critics doubted his potential as an undersized, 6-foot-3 combo guard, but third or fourth practice squad?
Instead of taking it personally, Quickley simply nodded and took the jersey. He draped it onto his body and soon, that’s what everyone else became: just bodies to score on, to plow through.
You gotta prove yourself again, Quickley thought to himself.
“I looked at it as a challenge,” Quickley says, smiling, on a Friday morning in early October. Sitting in his apartment in White Plains, New York, his thin braids droop across his forehead.
He is used to challenges. Likes them; expects them, even. Some people have questioned his size and his abilities since childhood. One critic gave the Knicks a D+ for selecting Quickley in the first round; Quickley kept a screenshot of that post. Another said he wasn’t even on most teams’ top 40. But his precocious talent and infectious enthusiasm have allowed him to blossom into an integral piece of the Knicks. A fan favorite.
The Knicks faithful love him for his competitiveness, his court vision. His pull-up jumper, his silky catch-and-shoot 3. He dazzles around the perimeter, rising above the defense with his signature floater, and energizes off the bench, embracing whatever role he’s given. The joy he plays with is palpable. He averaged 11.4 points in just 19.4 minutes per game last season while shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from deep. New York’s net rating with him on the floor was plus-6.6, third highest among players who played at least 10 games.
His charisma meshes perfectly with this Knicks team, a ragtag assortment of players, all with something to prove. And it’s made Madison Square Garden fun again, alive again. Quickley helped the Knicks make the postseason for the first time since 2013 earlier this year and could make a splash once again this season. As seen in a viral clip of Knicks fans screaming and celebrating after the season-opening double-overtime thriller win over the Celtics last week, there’s hope in New York, excitement. And it’s clear: The once-dormant Knicks are back.
With a crowded backcourt of Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose, and with Julius Randle taking his play to another level, Quickley will once again have to earn his spot. He played just eight minutes in the team’s season-opener win. “First year’s over with,” says Nitrease. “We’re starting all over again from the bottom.”
Quickley is playing with urgency, as if he’s cognizant that his dream—and his team’s dream—could be swallowed up at any point. But he’s enjoying the moment, too. He remembers one home game last year, during the regular season, when he kept hearing a familiar voice scream his name:
“Quick!” Then a pause. “Quick!” Another pause. “Quick!”
Who is calling me?! Quickley thought. The screaming persisted, and finally when Quickley turned around, he saw Knicks superfan Spike Lee.
Quickley smiles, remembering each word Lee said to him: “I love your game! I need a jersey,” Lee told him. Lee later called Kentucky coach John Calipari and said, “I love your guy,” referring to Quickley. “This kid. The way he handles himself. His demeanor! He never stops. His spirit!”
Part of that spirit is how keenly aware he is about how others perceive him—and may always perceive him. Quickley thinks this might always be his destiny: to show, to prove, to earn his spot every day as if his previous day’s performance had been erased. “Even now,” he says, “it’s still like that—I’m still proving myself.”
Throughout his life, Quickley has been intentional about setting goals. Even now, when he’s reached a pinnacle of basketball playing in the NBA, he spends hours contemplating his goals and writing them down in a notepad. He’s done that since his freshman year at Kentucky, when he tore pieces of paper out of the notepad and tacked them onto his room’s refrigerator and microwave.
“Let me go get my notepad,” he says on this October afternoon. When he returns, sitting on his couch, he pauses to look down at the pad for a second, turning the pages. The book is sacred to him. He doesn’t share it with many people. Writing is a form of accountability for him.
Even though Quickley’s only 22, he’s constantly thinking about where he is, where he wants to be, and how to bridge the distance between the two. “If you’re not setting goals, you’re just waking up every day and going through the motions. You go to sleep, you wake up, you go to work, you go back home,” he says. “I feel like every day that I wake up, I’m trying to do something to try to be legendary.”
He reads some of the goals he wrote for himself last year, before the start of the 2020-21 training camp:
I will succeed, show confidence, and be fearless every time I step on the floor.
I’ll go hard to get better every day.
I’ll average nine points, three rebounds, three assists, and shoot 90 percent from the free throw line and 40 percent from 3.
I’ll read my Bible and pray every day.
I’ll make the All-Rookie team and the USA vs. World game.
He has new goals for the 2021-22 season. They’re posted by his dresser and next to the sink in his bathroom, so he can see them when he brushes his teeth. He doesn’t want to reveal them just yet. He’d rather show them on the court. “I feel like he’ll always play with a chip on his shoulder,” says Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey, a close friend of Quickley’s and his former Kentucky teammate.
Even in Year 2, there is both an experienced swagger and a childlike wonder in how Quickley carries himself. He appears ready for anything on the court, but he’s still in awe that he’s even there. He has basketball posters on his bedroom walls—one of a Kobe Bryant quote, and one of a Michael Jordan quote—as if he is back in his childhood bedroom, still dreaming of making it one day. His face melts into a sheepish grin recounting the first time he saw Stephen Curry warming up on the opposite end of the floor when the Knicks played the Warriors. Quickley couldn’t stop watching Curry, mesmerized by the shots he was making. This dude is really NOT human! Quickley thought. “That day,” Quickley says, “I was starstruck.”
Then there was the time Quickley dropped 31 points in 24 minutes going toe to toe with Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers. He remembers looking up at the scoreboard with three seconds remaining in the game and seeing his point total. “That was so crazy,” he says. “Like, this is crazy! This is a video game!”
But it isn’t. It’s his life now. A life where he texts with Lillard; where Curry gave him a signed jersey. Where this past summer he chatted with Jay-Z, who told him to aim high, to not give up, and to figure out a way to persevere. “Just don’t quit,” Jay-Z told him.
It’s exhilarating and strange for Quickley, ascending into this newfound fame. He doesn’t see himself as others do. He’s almost oblivious to the attention, preferring home-cooked food to any fancy meal he can buy. His grandmother, Ellen Hamilton, still saves him leftovers whenever she cooks, writing her nickname for him on the plastic container: “the Chosen One.” His grandfather, Marion Hamilton, insists on dropping off his favorite childhood juices, Welch’s Grape and Ocean Spray Cran-Grape, to Quickley when he travels to New York.
Sometimes he just wants to slip into his old life as Immanuel. “I just be wanting to ride the train by myself,” he says. His crew was horrified the first time he suggested it. They still have to remind him: “You’re not a regular person anymore. You can’t just ride the train.”
Nitrease, especially, worries. She has to remind her son that he has to be aware of his surroundings because people want things from him now: money, clout. He can’t afford to be careless. “He doesn’t know he’s famous. He has no clue,” she says. “He thinks he’s a little kid from Havre de Grace, [Maryland].”
Quickley always dreamed of playing Division I. But he didn’t expect to struggle as much as he did initially. His freshman year at Kentucky, he was trying so hard to be perfect in practice, to make every shot, but he was a pace behind. Calipari has a saying: “You have to play really fast, but your mind needs to move slowly.” But both Quickley’s feet and his mind were moving too fast. He had to learn how to play more on instinct.
He vowed to get better, and at times he’d be in the gym until 2, 3, or 4 in the morning, shooting hundreds of jump shots, working on ballhandling, pushing himself through sprints.
Calipari believed in Quickley, so he pushed him, as he did with each player. “He knows you can do it. But at the same time he’s going to challenge you to see if you believe in yourself, which is the biggest thing,” Quickley says. “And my freshman year, I didn’t believe in myself.”
It was draining to show up, night after night, knowing he probably wouldn’t play much the next day. He’d start just seven times that season and would often return to the gym after games, trying to outshoot his frustration. “I’d see him in there doing 17s,” says Riley Welch, his former Kentucky teammate.
It was comforting to come to the court when most were sleeping. He’s been doing that since his days at The John Carroll School, befriending the janitors to open up the gym for him. But the nights in Kentucky were lonely. “Those days were hard,” he says. “It still kind of hurts my stomach, just even talking about it.”
One night, after a poor outing against Louisville, where he went 0-for-2 from beyond the arc and finished with just two points, he went back to his room with his mom. He was at a breaking point.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said. “This is just hard.”
“Joy comes in the morning,” she said, repeating a phrase she often told him as a child. “Seasons remind us all that nothing remains the same and all things change. This particular season will eventually pass, and you will be stronger because of it. The only way to get to spring is to go through winter. The only way is through.”
She tried to instill that same lesson of persistence when her son was a teen. She would tell him that life isn’t fair. That people were going to tell him “no.” That what separates people is mental toughness. “The battleground is in our minds,” she’d say. He’d have to work for everything.
Nitrease was a former basketball player for Maryland’s Harford Community College and then Morgan State. She taught Immanuel, whom she calls her “mini-me,” how to shoot free throws, how to bend his knees and follow through. She used to beat him one-on-one when he was a child, able to shoot over his tiny body. She used to do all sorts of things to get him out of bed in the morning back then, including throwing ice-cold water on his face. She knew that he was serious about basketball when he woke all by himself at 6 in the morning one Saturday, tiptoeing into her bedroom, whispering: “Mom, wake up! Can you take me to go play?”
She knew then that no matter what happened next, he had a deep love for hoops. And that he was going to do whatever he could to chase his dream. So years later, when her son questioned his place in Kentucky’s rotation, she had faith he would figure it out. He wasn’t going to quit. He wasn’t going to leave Kentucky. But the future looked murky. “There were a thousand calls for him to transfer,” Calipari says. But, that night, talking with his mom, Quickley vowed to keep moving. Nitrease told him to trust that things would work out: “God’s got you.”
Sometimes pausing between drills, alone in front of the basket at night, he’d envision himself five years down the road. He didn’t know where he’d be, but he knew this situation couldn’t last forever. He had to focus on getting better, so he’d be ready.
His grandfather has a saying, “What God has for you is for you.” As lost as he felt, Quickley kept shooting.
He worked in the offseason on his weaknesses, his conditioning. He spent time watching more film and focusing on scouting reports. Right before the start of his sophomore season, he walked into Kentucky’s locker room and made his intentions clear to a few players who were there, including Maxey, who had just joined the team.
“This year, I’m on a mission,” Quickley said. “We’re gonna win. And I’m going to the NBA. I’m getting drafted.”
Maxey just stared at him, trying not to laugh. “It was like, ‘Well hello, nice to meet you too!’” Maxey says. But Maxey respected Quickley for what he said that day. He could tell Quickley wasn’t going to be deterred. The two began shooting together at 6 a.m.
Quickley wasn’t yet breaking through. He still wasn’t starting regularly, and he had back-to-back poor performances against Utah and Ohio State. Calipari kept challenging him. “Immanuel was not going to allow Cal to break his spirit,” says Joel Justus, a former Kentucky assistant coach, now at Arizona State. “Sometimes you gotta go through the fire to learn who you are.”
Something changed in Quickley after Christmas break. He seemed calmer, more confident. He made the right reads. He knocked down clutch shots. He became a team leader, scoring in double figures in 20 straight games to end the season, including dropping a career-high 30 in a win against Texas A&M. The more comfortable he became, the less he stopped trying to be perfect. He began to trust his instincts.
One afternoon, during a practice scrimmage, players kept grabbing jerseys rather than sliding their feet and playing defense. Quickley’s defender grabbed him hard, and the two got into it.
“That’s it!” Calipari yelled. “Everybody on the line!” Players started heading to the baseline when Quickley screamed, loud enough for the entire gym to hear: “WE’RE NOT RUNNING.”
The three words hung in the air for a second. Players were silent, wondering if what Quickley just did—challenge John Calipari—actually happened.
Surprisingly, Calipari just nodded, told the players to keep playing. Nobody ran. That was the moment Quickley realized he had conquered something within—and showed the rest of his teammates and coaches who he really was. Had this happened his freshman year, Quickley wouldn’t have said anything—to his coach, or the defender who’d grabbed him initially: “I didn’t want no confrontation then because I didn’t know who I was.”
This time, he knew that knowing who he was didn’t have anything to do with scoring points or playing big minutes. Knowing who he was meant knowing that no matter what happened to him, or what people said about him, he wouldn’t give up on himself.
That conviction carried over to his first NBA season, in which Quickley played with confidence and maturity coming off the bench. He controlled the offense in critical moments late in regulation. And he was an integral part of the Knicks’ surprising run to the postseason and in their first-round series against the Hawks.
In Game 1, Quickley played with poise and sparked a critical run to keep the Knicks in the contest. With eight minutes left in the second quarter and New York down nine, Quickley calmly pulled the ball out to the top of the key and drained a deep 3. He didn’t look like a rookie—he looked like someone relishing a moment he had envisioned in his head so many times before. He finished the night with 10 points and three assists in 21 minutes. Though the Knicks lost that game (and ultimately the series, 4-1), it was clear Quickley had the potential to be an impact player.
Quickley spent last season learning how to navigate the ups and downs of the NBA, he says, which included focusing on what he could control, trying to get better every time he was on the floor, and maintaining confidence even when he struggled. “When we went on our [nine-game win] streak, maybe five of those games I didn’t play great,” he says, referring to the April stretch in which New York tied for the franchise’s second-longest winning streak of the past 25 years. That pushed him, but so did the nights that he struggled, like his 1-for-11 outing against the Jazz in January. He learned to be adaptable, regardless of minutes. “Your role changes throughout the season,” he says.
He was even more motivated this offseason to keep improving, to keep making a case for his role. He looked poised in summer league this past August. In one game, when the Knicks were playing the Pacers, Quickley breezed down court and saw Indiana guard Chris Duarte on his tail. Quickley crossed Duarte over badly, and Duarte fell to the ground as Quickley nailed a stepback 3. The play made the rounds on Twitter. Quickley talked a bit of trash, and he finished with 32 points and eight assists in the Knicks win.
Later that night, Quickley returned to his Las Vegas hotel room and turned on SportsCenter, thinking, Damn, I might be on Top 10! Soon the no. 4 play came on: Duarte throwing an Obi Toppin shot out of bounds with a monster block. Quickley was getting excited, anticipating that his crossover would be next. He took both of his phones out—one for Snapchat, one for Instagram—and held them up to the screen, ready to record.
Up came no. 3, then no. 2, and finally no. 1: Duarte’s buzzer-beater shot before halftime. Not Quickley’s crossover. Not Quickley’s silky stepback.
Quickley threw his phones down in irritation. “Couldn’t believe it,” he says, laughing. He smiles, then immediately stops laughing. His eyes narrow, his cheeks tighten. “I won’t forget that, either.”
He can’t. That thing inside him, that determined, gnawing thing that makes him slip out at night and return to the court, won’t let him.
There are weaknesses to perfect, such as defense. That’s been a focus for him as he starts his second NBA season. He could once again be an X factor for the Knicks come playoff time, and even more so if he makes leaps on defense. That is, after all, core to the Knicks’ identity and coach Tom Thibodeau’s philosophy. Quickley thinks Jrue Holiday is the best defender in the league and continues to seek him out for pointers. “Jrue says it’s effort, energy, and knowing people’s tendencies,” Quickley says. Holiday shared with him that being great defensively also has to do with experience; just getting older, smarter.
Quickley is a bit wiser now that he’s no longer a rookie and no longer learning on the fly, but he isn’t the least bit satisfied with his performance. “I need to keep working,” he says.
So he returns to the facility, as the sky melts from blue to black. His friends, his family, are sleeping. He loses himself in the rhythm of each catch and shoot, each pullup. He remembers each slight, each miss. He stares ahead at the hoop. Time stretches, hours collapse. He can hear his mother’s words.
Joy comes in the morning.