Just weeks before training camp began Elfrid Payton was announced among the casualties of a salary cap clearing measure by the new Knicks front office, the option for his contract this season not picked up. At the same time Immanuel Quickley was hearing his name predicted to be called somewhere in the second round of the NBA Draft.
With the low expectations, the two have emerged as the point guard combination for the Knicks, helping lead the team to some early success.
Payton re-signed with the Knicks, settling for a lower paycheck than he would have had, a subject he didn’t want to talk about Wednesday. And Quickley, after some draft-day maneuvering, was picked by the Knicks at No. 25 overall. Payton has since been embraced by the new coach, Tom Thibodeau, and Quickley has become the favorite of the fan base.
But with injuries shifting and limiting the lineup almost daily, the Knicks have managed to find their way with the point guards helping guide them on the floor. As the Knicks readied to face the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden Wednesday they were without Frank Ntilkina and Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock was questionable and Dennis Smith Jr. was just returning from injury.
"It’s been tough," Payton said. "But everybody here is capable. We have more than enough for our team. Coach says that all the time. Everybody is going to be ready. It’s always next man up. And I think we’ve been doing a good job with that."
"Figure it out. Next man up energy," said Austin Rivers, who missed all of training camp and the first four games with a groin strain. "Guys like Theo [Pinson], Iggy [Brazdeikis], whoever else, those guys are going to have to step up and be ready to go. And guys who are playing have to be prepared for heavy minutes. Just go out there and compete.
"We have a lot of guys banged up. Even the guys who are playing are banged up. So that’s just basketball. It’s the NBA. It’s a long season. Guys have to take care of themselves. It’s a long season so guys will take care of themselves but whoever is in the game we have to know what we do, how we play. I think if we play hard, we play with an edge, we have a chance to win every night. No matter who is on the floor. That’s the NBA. That’s our job."
Whether it is the players or the influence of the coach, the shifting rotations have fit together nicely and one of the more productive units has been when Rivers and Quickley have been paired together. It has been limited by injury, but without even having a full practice session together they have found each other on the floor. And when the Knicks came from behind to win in Indiana Monday, they were closing the game out together. This has prompted Knicks fans - and players - to try to find a nickname for the duo.
"Things just work," Rivers said. "I don’t know how to explain it. I know how he likes to play. It makes it so easy because he’s so confident and vocal. Sometimes rookies are quiet and unsure. It’s hard to play with someone unsure where he’ll be at or what to do. He makes every movement – whether it’s right or wrong – confidently. It’s just easier to read and play with.
"I’m kind of similar that way in terms of playing with confidence. We are just able to play with each other and fit. I’m constantly looking for Quick because I trust him to make the right decisions. At his age, his first year, he just doesn’t play like a rookie. Anytime you play with someone like that you can naturally fit in.’’