As the Knicks have struggled, like many teams, to mix and match lineups through injuries and COVID-19 absences, coach Tom Thibodeau has tried to keep his second unit as intact as possible. And with good reason since on many nights they have been more reliable than the starters.
And it is with that in mind that Thibodeau has mostly clung to keeping Immanuel Quickley out of the starting lineup, even as he has grown into one of the more reliable offensive options on a team often in need of another weapon.
With Evan Fournier back from a one-game absence with a thigh contusion, Quickley was back in a reserve role, a third guard with the ability to replace either starter.
Quickley started Saturday in Boston with the team shorthanded, marking just the second time this season that the second-year guard has not come off the bench. He shot 7-for-11 and scored 18 points in that game, one of the few positives on the offensive end for the Knicks as they produced a season-low 75 points.
He stepped in that night because Fournier was out of action, joining Alec Burks in the backcourt with Burks having already moved up from the second unit with mounting point guard injuries. With Kemba Walker missing his sixth straight game with left knee soreness Monday night and Derrick Rose sidelined for more than a month rehabilitating from ankle surgery, Quickley has come forward.
While his minutes have risen in his second season, his scoring output has not gone up with it. It has declined slightly to 10.7 points per game this season after 11.4 last year. But over his last seven games (interrupted by a four-game absence with his own entry in the NBA’s health and safety protocols) he has averaged 14.1 points per game while shooting 43.5% from beyond the arc.
But his scoring ability has never been in doubt. The next step for Quickley is to become more of a point guard. While he entered the league as a combo guard out of the University of Kentucky, the changes in the way a point guard plays the game these days — see Steph Curry or Damian Lillard as examples — has made it more of a fit for Quickley.
"There’s stretches in the game where you have to settle the team down and get the team organized," Thibodeau said. "I think that will come in time. The more he does it the better he’ll get at it. I love his versatility. You can play him with the ball, you can play him off the ball, and that’s what makes him so valuable to us."
His per-36 minute numbers have reflected this effort with less field goal attempts and free throw attempts and assists rising from 3.7 per 36 last season to 4.1 this season. But learning to lead the team is more than just his own numbers and it’s something he and Thibodeau said he is trying to accomplish.
"He just talked to me one-on-one about that" Quickley said after Saturday’s game. "I’ll be the first one to tell you I’m not perfect. I want to be, as much as I can be. But just trying to take command of the team and put guys where they need to be whether it’s offense or defense. Just going through things like this it helps out a lot. I’ll be better. We’ll be better next game."
Said Thibodeau, "I thought he played really well. The first half he had us organized and had real good looks. . It was a good start for him and then I want him to take more control in the second half, and I think he will. He’s done a good job for us."