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When Immanuel Quickley is in rhythm

The sheer joy of watching IQ.

New York Knicks vs Brooklyn Nets Photo by Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

I’ve been a Knicks fan for a long time. Some might say, too long. In that time, a lot of players have come and gone from this franchise, and I have fell hard for can’t miss prospects that missed, and veterans I’d dreamed of us signing during their primes only to discover they were washed from the moment they slipped on their Knicks jersey. But there have been few players, potentially none, that have the charm, the spark, the fascinating magnetism, that second-year all-purpose guard Immanuel Quickley brings to the court with him every night.

He’s my favorite player on the team, my favorite Knick in decades. And love, being enamored, is a natural response to having a great player on your team. But he’s not a great player, at least not yet, and in some ways that makes him more interesting to me, more alluring. Quickley has something else, something the Knicks have only seen a few times this century. He is constantly, endlessly, surprising. Here’s a brief clip of the first time his essence shone through, for me, a moment that stood out in my memory, from the day we drafted him. It was the second I got over my disappointment he wasn’t RJ Hampton.

The NBA remains fascinating. We love sports, and we love basketball in particular, because it’s real life. It’s full of shock and surprise. No outcome is preordained, anything can happen at any moment. But when Immanuel Quickley is at his best, he reminds us that while every NBA possession is an act of reaction and improvisation, a large majority are storyboarded to death. They end in dreary inevitability. Lebron drops his shoulder and bulls a weaker defender to the rack, James Harden employs his arsenal of feints and hesitations to earn another trip to the stripe. Chris Paul uses that lunge step and cross to hit a carbon copy of the tens and thousands of pull up Js he’s made a legendary career on. That most NBA offenses have game scripts that with a few viewings, for at least the first three quarters, become as guessable as they are unstoppable in volume and gamed out advanced analytics.

But with IQ’s hands on the wheel, the Knicks’ offense is something else. It’s exciting, and surprising, and occasionally dark and unhinged. What I love about him is he’s like Ghostface on Supreme Clientele, a performer who can disrupt what appears to be a stolid Wu-Tang posse cut 16 bar verse, with a sudden, inspired digression into Mary Poppins via Shaolin slanguage. There are players who I love to watch thinking through possessions, the philosophers and professors, but Quickly at his best isn’t doing that. He’s Borroughs on a potent cocktail of uppers and downers, channeling ancient spirits and letting the voices in his head speak through him. He makes decisions with the ball that scare me, that I openly disagree with, but when everything is working he’s always right.

So, why not? Here’s a sudden pull up from 30, early in the shot clock with the floor decently spread and every rational and logical reason to explore your options, that happens to splash the net and knock a defense grasping for expectation on their heels. Here’s a devastating first step

(Is there any more appropriately named athlete in the history of professional sports?), getting from the perimeter to the nail with Giannis speed despite having half the stride, that seamlessly melds into a floater, shot with the casual quality, and high percentage outcome of a free throw.

And that floater, it’s nothing less than a revolution. The shot was once the last resort of the sinner who barged his way into the teeth of a busy interior with no real plan (also, Miles Simon. Shout to the God Miles Simon). But in IQ’s hands, along with a few other guards of his generation who are slightly older, it’s evolved, it’s been weaponized as a longer range tool akin to the big man’s hook shot during the prehistoric days of the sport. This random and difficult to defend mid range weapon is arguably more dangerous than a pull up, if (a very big if), it’s actually falling, because it comes with less preamble. There’s no stop, there’s no gather, it’s a flick of the wrist, a fluid movement off the bounce coming up naturally from hip to shoulder. It’s happening before you realize it’s happening, that he’s not going to hesi and cross and fade, he’s not taking it to the rack, he’s not kicking out. It’s there, and then it’s gone.

And it’s not just the release time, but the remarkable similarity between how he’ll hoist a lob to Obi or Mitch, and that floater. The moves are camouflaged and extremely difficult to read before it’s too late. Quickley is like a pitcher who hides what they’re throwing through identical arm angles or a tricky windup motion to shield grip, giving the batter as little time as possible to guess what is coming where. A help defender in no man’s land after IQ routinely blows by his first impediment on the perimeter understands this batter’s plight. To play up and contest the floater, or stay home to take away the lob. Depends on if you’d rather get decapitated, or uppercut off a stone catwalk and impaled on a bed of spikes at the bottom of a pit. It doesn’t really matter, you’re already dead either way. He’s an animal that feeds on hesitation and uncertainty on the part of a defender, because Immanuel Quickley was simply born without a concept of either.

The player Quickley reminds me of the most is Steve Nash. *Relax!* I’m not saying he has, or will ever have the two time MVPs efficiency, or his extra sensory playmaking abilities, or even the shooting touch he didn’t employ nearly enough, but there’s something IQ does, that Nash excelled in, that reminds me of him. Nash never picked up his dribble. He’d float, take a possession through its paces, prod the electrified fence of the perimeter looking for dead spots, exploring his insatiable curiosity, and if he didn’t like his options, he’d simply sit out the motion, would hold his dribble and wait to see what would come next, like a quarterback with next level athleticism escaping the pocket on a broken play and going schoolyard, and Nash would do the same, reversing the court, letting the bodies collide and separate where they may, thriving in chaos.

And this is Quickley. He’s a consummate opportunist. A mad man who dodges raindrops, a psycho and a genius. On Monday, we learned Kemba Walker is out of the rotation, and potentially off the team. I don’t know what this portends for IQ, perhaps it’s a lateral move, but it certainly won’t hurt his role on the team. What I can tell you is Kemba, who I dearly love, is the type of mechanical, practiced, and studied offensive weapon that makes Quickley such a revelation, such a provocation, a new variant in contrast.

Based on the way I’m discussing IQ, it may sound like I’m talking about one of the five “best” young guards in the league. But I’m not at all, yet. Will he ever get there? I think he has the raw materials, but there are plenty of fans who don’t see what I see, or straight dislike him, disagreeing with me. They don’t believe the bug is the feature, but the feature is a bug. These skeptics have never, and maybe will never convert. And for all I know, they could be right. At the moment, he can be, at times, as frustrating for the impatient as he is a joy for those in love with what he could be.

Earlier this season, Quickley struggled with his shot. At one point, he was shooting a “ghastly 26.2% from the field, and 21.4% from three.” The writer of the piece I’m quoting here said you’d be a fool to invest in Immanuel Quickley’s stock when he wrote this in early November. Which makes me think of my dad, a conservative investor, but one of the great things he taught me is when you’re invested in a stock you truly believe in, and it goes through a period of what you believe to be short lived turbulence, that’s when you throw your chips. You average down, and that’s where you make your money. With conviction.

But don’t get it twisted folks, some nights the shots aren’t falling. The feats that thrill us, the long contested floaters, the ridiculous pull up threes, are exposed for the poor decisions they would be in mortal hands, which his suddenly become. Suddenly he looks young and excitable, overwhelmed by his own emotions and motor, moments that may be too big for him. And some nights that’s all you’ll get. Thibs will pull him, or even let him play, and he never stops grinding, but his own abilities seem to fail him, and his decision making makes you question everything that came before this moment, and perhaps, everything you thought might be coming.

But what’s remarkable about Quickley is even in these moments of darkness, not even on a different night, on this very hypothetical “bad” night, when everything is going wrong, something shifts. Maybe a song that moves him comes on the arena PA system, or a defender makes a remark about his mother, or the moon is in retrograde and hits a certain fated mark on its journey through the night sky, and it all clicks into place.

He emerges from a crowd in the key with an easy layup, then a brilliant pass to set up a brilliant pass, then bodying a star who outweighs and outclasses him on defense and forces that star to fall back on the possession, then one of those incredible threes that can even electrify a road crowd, and the Knicks are suddenly back in a game they had played themselves out of, and it’s all thanks to the sparks of mad inspiration flying off this baffled king composing, and all things seem not just possible, but probable. Here’s an example of my favorite instance of one of those streaks, I painstakingly clipped together his fourth quarter highlights specifically for this “column”, a batshit comeback that came up just shy against the Bucks, at home, in early November:

Today, we remember how frustrating it was to root for John Starks. The horrific Finals performances, the times the shot wasn’t on and he didn’t show. And we repost “The Dunk” and have nice things to say about a nice man who played a crucial role in our childhoods, but I think we’ve all lost how exhilarating it could be to live and die on a touch that came and went. The agony when he was off, but the ecstasy of when he was on. We were drunks at the roulette table putting it all on black, and some nights we caught the bad bounce, but when it was good? Friends, when we hit on our number? There were few sensations I ever experienced, the nirvana Starks took you to on those nights when the net was the size of a swimming pool and there was nothing for the perimeter defender butchers of the 90s in the East to do but look towards the heavens, tear their garments, and beg for mercy.

And that’s where we’re heading with Immanuel Quickley. With all due respect to the stat fetishists of the world, keep your dreary PER wunderkids. Bask in the architectural perfection of a geometrically spaced floor with a Deep Blue at the helm who dissects a defense in the same two or three ways over and over again. The Knicks won’t win a championship this year with any amount of monotonous strategic number crunching. I want to live in the spectacular now. I want to live and die based on the music playing in the Garden and how it hits our sophomore guard’s ears. I want the nights when he and Obi are synced like conjoined twins with phantom limbs.

Which isn’t to say his advanced stats are bad or that he plays stupidly. The numbers are actually quite good. I’m a journalist, so I looked this up and can confidently report this season:

  • He’s 158th in VORP
  • He has the 6th best True Shooting percentage amongst point guards
  • He’s third on the Knicks in offensive win shares behind Alec Burks and Mitch
  • His PER is 15, a mere 20.5 points behind reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.

But we have yet to create a metric that measures why IQ is so special. Why the people whining about his shortcomings are wrong for the same reason the Jeter DRS maniacs were wrong. Both of these camps missed the point, which isn’t to say they didn’t have a point.

But seriously, what is it you dour Texas Instrument virgins really want? To win as much as possible? How much do you think that maxed out total is, really? You want to lose in the first round by the exact same number of games, but do it at home rather than away? Give me sex and magic. I’ll take those four glorious wins, those nights I can fall asleep sated and well fucked, and I’ll take the requisite four nights of anguish with a smile. We all die, but how many of us really, truly live? Certainly not Utah Jazz fans.

Immanuel Quickley will probably “improve”, and become more efficient. More judicious with his wild heaves off the bounce, his sudden and shocking floaters, because that’s the way the league works now, we teach the math. And I’d guess his offensive win shares will tick up by tenths, but if the change on the floor is noticeable, I won’t be able to escape the feeling that we lost something in the exchange. I’ll miss those nights when I scream at my television because my favorite Knick took a terrible shot…..until it goes in. I’ll appreciate the .3 games a year we improve by, but I’ll also miss those moments of genuine surprise, and awe, the subtle reminders why we love this sport and these athletes, the ineffable quality of watching a game with absolutely no idea what is coming from one second to the next. Reshape your brain. You are the architect of your own happiness, you get to decide what you love about this team, and this sport.

Next game, or maybe the game after that, for at least a little while, Immanuel Quickley will get hot. And when he does, you’d be wise to remind yourself that this is it. This is what life is for. Bask in it friends. This is what true joy looks like.