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It’s Time for the Knicks to Unleash Immanuel Quickley

The no. 25 pick already looks like a steal, but he’s still coming off the bench. Lineup numbers indicate he’s a perfect fit in New York—and the rest of the NBA should take note.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most impressive thing about Immanuel Quickley is how quickly he scores. (Sorry.) The Knicks guard is tied for fourth among rookies in points per game (12.2) despite being 18th in minutes (18.8 per game). The no. 25 pick already looks like a steal, and his success is a good example of how valuable shooting has become in the modern NBA. The knock on him before the draft was that he was a 6-foot-3 shooter who couldn’t run point. Now, the question is whether someone his size even needs to run point if they can shoot like that.

Quickley has played a huge role in New York’s unexpected success this season. He has made the most of his opportunities, coming off the bench and transforming the Knicks’ offense with his ability to shoot off the dribble from anywhere on the floor. They are no. 29 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (27.7 per game). His ability to launch 3s (8.7 attempts per 36 minutes of playing time) removes the cap on their offense and makes life easier for everyone else. Quickley can flip a game in a few possessions. He scored 25 points in 20 minutes in a 140-121 victory over the Kings on Thursday. The Knicks’ second unit was so dominant that Sacramento coach Luke Walton was breaking clipboards in frustration:

Defenses have to be aware of Quickley at all times. He’s a knockdown shooter with a quick release who doesn’t need much time to get his feet set. Don’t pick him up in transition, or lose track of him for even a few seconds in the half court, and it’s almost an automatic three points:

The numbers indicate that his shooting is no fluke. His free throw shooting (93.8 percent on 3.3 attempts per game) is even more impressive than his 3-point shooting (37.1 percent on 4.6 attempts). That trend goes back to his two seasons at Kentucky, where he shot 89.5 percent from the free throw line on 3.3 attempts per game. Quickley should be an elite shooter for a long time.

But what makes him special is his combination of shooting and ballhandling ability. He already knows how to use those skills to terrorize defenses in the pick-and-roll. Quickley gets 47.3 percent of his offensive possessions as the ball handler in the play, and is in the 89th percentile of scorers. It’s easy for him to dance around a screen to create his own shot:

The other thing that separates Quickley from his peers is his ability to draw fouls. He’s a modern guard with an old soul. He knows how to put a defender in jail, and force the referee to blow the whistle:

Refs don’t usually give rookies many calls. Quickley is second among rookies who have played in at least 25 games in foul rate (.348). It’s no coincidence that no. 3 is Facundo Campazzo (.306), a 29-year-old EuroLeague veteran who is a rookie in name only. Quickley’s former Kentucky teammate Tyrese Maxey’s struggles getting to the line (.106) are far more typical.

That ability to draw contact has saved Quickley on nights when his shot isn’t falling. He shot 1-of-12 from the field and 7-of-7 from the free throw line in a loss to the Magic last week. He’s far from a finished product. He almost never gets to the rim and shoots only 41.0 percent from 2-point range on 5.0 attempts per game. He relies too much on the floater, which accounts for 36.1 percent of his total shots.

There are enough rough spots in Quickley’s game that it’s somewhat understandable why Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has not leaned on him more. He’s the fifth guard in the rotation behind Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Alec Burks, and the newly acquired Derrick Rose. Catch a game in which he has only two short stints off the bench, like when he played nine minutes in a win over the Wolves last Sunday, and it’s hard to see what the fuss is about.

But Thibodeau’s reluctance makes less sense once you consider how Quickley fits with the other key players in New York. The Knicks go from a net rating of plus-4.5 in 548 minutes with him this season to minus-1.6 in 1,036 minutes without him. There’s still a lot of room for them to improve because Thibs has relied so much on a starting lineup that hasn’t worked. The Knicks’ normal starters (Payton, Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson) are the most heavily played lineup in the league (391 minutes) despite having a net rating of just plus-0.9. Replace Payton with Quickley and that number skyrockets to plus-26 in 24 minutes.

Quickley complements the other starters better than Payton. The latter is a traditional floor general who is at his best when he can control the tempo of the game and run the offense. But that’s what Randle and Barrett want to do. Those two don’t need another playmaker. They need someone like Quickley who can open up the floor and be a release valve in the half-court offense. Payton, who is shooting 24.1 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts per game, destroys the spacing of a team that never had much to begin with. And while he’s a better defender than Quickley, Barrett and Bullock can handle the tough assignments on that end of the floor.

The fit between Randle, who was just named to his first All-Star Game, and Quickley is most important. Randle is a point forward who is averaging career highs in touches (82.2 per game) and assists (5.5). His ability to run point at his size means that a point-guard-sized shooter like Quickley doesn’t have to. It’s a perfect blend of skills. The lineup numbers indicate that the two should be playing together all the time:

Quickley and Randle

Combination Minutes Net Rating
Combination Minutes Net Rating
Randle + Quickley 252 plus-13.6
Randle + no Quickley 954 minus-1.7
Quickley + no Randle 296 minus-4.7

That should be the takeaway for the rest of the league. Quickley wouldn’t be this good if he were on a team that forced him into a more traditional role where he had to balance scoring and passing. He needs the freedom to bomb away from deep. But the converse is even more important. Playmaking bigs like Randle need volume 3-point shooters like Quickley. Both kinds of players were rare a generation ago. They will be commonplace in the years to come. The NBA has more point forwards and point centers than ever, and players who can shoot off the dribble with unlimited range are coming out of the college game at increasing rates.

Now, traditional point guards are the ones caught in the middle. A team has more flexibility when it builds an offense around a 6-foot-8 player like Randle than a 6-foot-3 one like Payton. Quickley would have been stuck in a sixth man role not too long ago because he isn’t a primary ball handler and doesn’t have the size to guard wings. But the Knicks could benefit from his elite 3-point shooting for nearly the entire game if they wanted to. They lucked into a weapon that warps defenses with the no. 25 pick. It’s time for them to use it.