The Butterfly Effect: Has Immanuel Quickley unexpectedly become the Knicks’ best asset?

Note: this post was originally published for The Strickland. Give them a click!

I never check a weather forecast until 1 or 2 days before.

It’s simply far too difficult to predict – infinitesimal changes on one side of the globe can cause massive swings in the climate on the other. As the old saying goes, a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a tornado in Tennessee. The Butterfly Effect – a tiny, seemingly irrelevant occurrence may cause colossal consequences weeks, or even years, later.

On July 1st, 2019, the New York Knicks verbally agreed to sign Reggie Bullock to a 2-year, $21 million contract. 

Six days later, July 7th, the San Antonio Spurs verbally agreed to sign Marcus Morris to a 2-year, $20 million contract. The Spurs, a model NBA organization, traded rising floor spacer Davis Bertans, the best Latvian player in the NBA, to clear salary cap space for Morris.

However, a few days later, upon completing Bullock’s physical, the Knicks uncovered a previously undisclosed injury, and voided the contract. Somehow, Marcus Morris caught wind of this, and behind the scenes got in touch with the Knicks’ front office. Turns out they had been willing to pay him $15 million dollars in a one year deal. Morris could grab 50% more money in year one, join a poor team to get a lot of usage, then leverage that visibility into even more money the following season. It sure is a shame that Spurs deal isn’t official yet…

Morris spurned San Antonio to sign with the Knicks, and New York was able to restructure Reggie Bullock’s contract to bring him in anyway. 

Morris went on to outplay, in all likelihood, even his own expectations with the Knicks – and somehow, New York manifested a 20 point-per-game scorer on an expiring contract, one of the most tradable assets in the NBA, out of thin air. Despite that fact, and the Knicks being 16-36 by the deadline, many in the front office had zero intention to move him.

There clearly was much internal turmoil over this decision. Specifically, reports indicated then-team president Steve Mills wanted to keep the then-30 Morris, at odds with general manager Scott Perry, who preferred moving him for more future-looking assets.

Eventually, Perry won out, in both the decision and his job status, as Morris was traded to the Clippers for a package including their 2020 first-round pick, while Mills was ousted from his team president role. 

Flash forward to November, and, after the Clippers failed to advance to the Western Conference Finals in the Playoff bubble, the Knicks would own the 27th choice in the draft in addition to their own 8th pick. Leon Rose and the new Knick front office had plenty of scouting (and connections) around this pick, and the day of the Draft, Rose began to pull some strings.

Mid-day on the 18th, New York packaged that 27th pick alongside the 38th to move up to 23 in a deal with the Utah Jazz. During the draft, they traded back down, using the 23rd pick on behalf of the Oklahoma City Thunder to select Leandro Bolmaro from Barcelona. In exchange, the Knicks received picks 25 and 33 – a nearly magical come-up from the 27th and 38th choices they had when the sun rose that same morning. On behalf of the Knicks, with the 25th selection, the Oklahoma City Thunder chose Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard, Kentucky.

On February 8th, 2021, here is my fluid yet confident ranking of the New York Knicks’ assets:

  1. Immanuel Quickley
  2. RJ Barrett
  3. Own 2021 pick
  4. Own 2023 pick (“double draft?”)
  5. Mavs 2021 pick
  6. Own 2022 pick
  7. Julius Randle
  8. Mitchell Robinson
  9. Own 2024 pick
  10. Obi Toppin

How did this happen? Without that failed physical by Reggie Bullock in early July of 2019, debatably the number one asset on the team would be elsewhere – or perhaps even undrafted, based on much early analysis of that 25th overall pick:

Quickley wasn’t the most highly-touted prospect, but he did come into the Draft with one truly elite skill: shooting. At Kentucky, he shot 42.8% from 3 on a robust 4.8 attempts per game. He shot over 92% on his more than 5 free throw attempts per game. It seemed he could help a team space the floor, but without any on-ball skills, would likely flame out as a low-usage bench piece.

As of today, Immanuel Quickley has the highest usage percentage among all qualified rookies in the NBA.

Not only has Quickley taken on a significant load in his rookie minutes, but he’s performed efficiently in them:

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks’ offense scores an additional 3.8 points per possession when he’s on the court vs. when he’s off, which ranks third on the team – despite his coming off the bench and rarely playing alongside the team’s best players.

This ability to contribute to efficient basketball with such a significant offensive responsibility is nearly unheard of among rookies in the NBA. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at FiveThirtyEight’s offensive RAPTOR statistic, which takes those on-off differentials a step further by doing a bunch of fun calculations behind the scenes to control for teammates, opponents, and more to measure points contributed to offense relative to league average. Here are the top-15 rankings for all NBA rookies since the 2016 season:

Yeah.

The advanced impact metrics love Quickley, who has seen his value skyrocket since being selected 25th overall in November. Per Kostya Medvedovsky’s DARKO, which is a statistic meant to be predictive of an NBA player’s future talent, we can visualize how his stock has ballooned, and compare his “True Talent” progression to that of other young NBA guards:

Plot object

So, how is it possible that the kid could be this good? Well, the Knicks have their fair share of connections at the University of Kentucky, and it’s clear they knew something about Quickley the rest of the league didn’t – he’s a point guard, and a point guard who can do masterful things with the ball in hands. Amazing, considering maybe the biggest knock on him during the draft was his projected inability to contribute on the ball. 

The situation harkens back somewhat to that of Devin Booker, who played for Kentucky before eventually being drafted 13th overall, now viewed as a steal, in the 2015 NBA Draft. Next to Karl-Anthony Towns and the Harrison twins (remember them?) in John Calipari’s system, Booker ranked 7th on his own team in assist rate. By age 23, Booker was an NBA All-Star averaging nearly 7 assists per game.

Quickley got plenty of burn at Kentucky, but most of the playmaking duties were given to Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans, keeping IQ’s pick-and-roll and pull-up three abilities untapped. That is, until he stepped onto an NBA court. Through yesterday, Quickley is shooting 37.0% on 2.8 pull-up threes per game. Damian Lillard is shooting 36.6% on pull-up threes. Kevin Durant is shooting 41.7%.

As touched on early with advanced metrics, IQ has had a massive impact on the scoring when he’s on the floor. Sure, he can shoot and score individually. And he can do it at extremely high usage for a rookie. But it’s about way more than that – what his being out there, and specifically his pull-up shooting abilities – do for the Knicks’ offense as a whole.

Let’s deep-dive one of his best games this season – his coming out party of sorts on national TV against the Los Angeles Clippers. 

There is a ton to unpack in this play, which ends in his now-signature floater:

First off, let’s appreciate him being guarded 30+ feet from the bucket:

This is even more fascinating when you realize that Quickley’s perhaps best-known skill is his floater. A rookie who the Clippers have never seen before, who’s best-known for his in-between game, and LA is checking him out here to start possessions – but it gets better. 

Obi Toppin sets a screen 25 feet away from the cup, and the Clippers are forced to switch

The Knicks do a good job here of play design to take advantage of Quickley’s unique talents – which is impressive considering they haven’t had a point guard who can make pull-up threes since, I don’t know, Raymond Felton? Mitch comes up for a second screen – again, a good distance past the three-point line, and Marcus Morris (somewhat ironically) has to fight his way over it:

This changes the entire context of the offense, effectively creating a 5-on-4 in the halfcourt because of how serious a threat IQ is with a pull-up jumper.

This is why a lead ball handler who can hit pull-up threes is debatably the most important player archetype for any team to have in today’s NBA. Players who are a threat this far from the basket with the ball in their hands can completely warp a defense and create easy opportunities for not just themselves, but everyone else. It’s like a hockey power play – someone is going to be open.

This doubling has become a common occurrence – to the extent that after Saturday’s victory vs. Portland, Tom Thibodeau had this to say:

Quickley does a great job of keeping the defender behind him on his hip – something he seems to have already perfected as a month-3 rookie (more on that in a bit). He then effectively has created a 3-on-2 – he has an open lane, with Mitch and Burks easy pass options if a defender commits:

He makes this look so easy, and seemingly does it every time up the court. Here it is again a few minutes later – defender goes over the screen, Quickley snakes around, stops to get the defender on his hip, then attacks:

If the defenders do collapse on the drive, he’s shown the ability to make quick (lol) decisions and hit the open man in his power play:

Remember the assist/turnover ratio chart from earlier? Quickley had 0 turnovers in this game, despite being pretty clearly the talk of the defense. Tantalizing on-ball skills combined with good decision making? It’s the Diet Coke and Mentos of a deadly offensive player (does that work?).

And by the way, here’s what can happen when the defenders don’t commit 25 feet away:

Quickley’s a threat off the ball, too, where he can not only hit the three, but has shown an adeptness at attacking closeouts. This one’s easy, where he breaks down the big with barely any effort:

But how about this one later in the game, when he freezes, oh, Kawhi Leonard, with the split-second hesitation before blowing by him for yet another floater:

Okay, so Quickley has shown the ability to score in a bunch of different ways, and can make the right pass, too. But he’s only shooting 41% from the field this season, and can barely score at the rim. Is that enough for him to be – and project as – such an efficient offensive player?

Maybe not, but there’s something else – the 21-year old rookie is already a savant at both getting to the line and scoring while he’s there.

The above table, per Cleaning the Glass, shows a taste of IQ’s wizardry. His aforementioned propensity to get his trailing defender on his hip has led to an extremely high FFLD (floor fouled percentage; non-shooting fouls drawn per play), 87th-percentile among NBA point guards. Quickley is also already better than average at drawing shooting fouls (SFLD) and and-ones – and when he gets to the stripe, he’s an absolute sniper at 92%. Skills like these make Quickley a near-lock to be an at least average-efficiency offensive player, even if he’s slumping from the field.

He’s no slouch on defense, either – many considered him undersized entering the draft:

But that was when evaluators thought he was a shooting guard, who can only spot up and play off the ball – not initiate efficient offense at the point of attack and draw doubles 25 feet away. Now, 6’3” with a 6’8” wingspan, Quickley can defend both guard positions, and projects long-term next to the vastly improved defense of RJ Barrett.

How’s this for a “how it started vs. how it’s going”:

(John, credit for admitting fault so soon.)

And that finally gets me to maybe the most under-reported facet of Quickley, and the tipping point for why I consider him probably the Knicks’ best asset:

Because Quickley was such a late pick, he makes absolute pennies on his rookie contract, and the Knicks will have dirt-cheap team control of this burgeoning young guard for the foreseeable future. To put his contract size in perspective, here are the highest-paid players on the Knicks – who still have by far the most cap space in the NBA – this season:

RJ Barrett’s been a hugely positive story this season as well, and has finally flashed some 3rd-pick star potential, but consider this – in the 2022-2023 season, Immanuel Quickley will make less than a quarter of what Barrett will be making – despite both still being on their rookie contracts!

So much has been made of Quickley not starting for the Knicks yet this season, and rightfully so, as there are plenty of reasons why that’s disappointing. For one, his floor-spacing ability makes him clearly a more natural basketball fit than Elfrid Payton next to focal points RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, especially when non-shooter Mitchell Robinson starts as well. If IQ’s trajectory continues, though, he’ll be a lock as the Knicks’ starter long-term, and these first couple of months will be but a distant memory. 

There is something to be said for him coming off the bench – at least for now – and continuing to bulk up those tantalizing on-ball muscles that got zero use at Kentucky, and will certainly decline when he plays next to Barrett and Randle. Now, dealing for Derrick Rose certainly raises some question marks – most notably playing time, and hopefully not ball handling duties – but you never know what the rest of the moves will be before the deadline. 

Maybe I’m overly optimistic. Probably. But the Knicks have a completely new development staff this season, and until now at least, they appear to have been playing the long game with Quickley, a diamond in the rough who, if not for a butterfly flapping its wings in the summer of 2019, likely wouldn’t be a Knick at all. Sure, you might quibble on my assets ranking, but one thing is for certain – Immanuel Quickley has a chance to be an important piece for the New York Knicks for a very, very long time.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

follow Derek on Twitter @d_reif

follow Corner Three on Twitter @corner3sports

follow The Strickland on Twitter @TheStrickland

cover art by @aighttho

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s