It’s every NBA fan’s least favorite time: the dog days of the offseason.
Along with the horrifying lack of basketball, it brings a flurry of tiresome debates: Why NBA 2K ratings are underrating my favorite player on my favorite team, why it’s heresy that a bad veteran is ranked below a rising star in ESPN’s NBA Rank, and of course, LeBron vs Michael Jordan.
There is very little to argue about within the Knicks fanbase following a successful season and with one of the most debated Knicks ever, Frank Ntilikina, likely on his way out. However, one debate has had some momentum behind it: Is Immanuel Quickley a point guard?
IQ, who played the position full-time in high school before a hiatus at Kentucky, will tell you he is.
Many critics, who have seen his 2 assist per game average and his propensity to chuck shots at the drop of a hat, will tell you he isn’t.
While trying to answer this question myself, I find myself pondering a different question altogether: Does it matter?
One of the biggest buzzwords in the NBA right now is “position-less,” though you won’t find many rosters that aren’t starting some form of shorter player responsible for bringing the ball up. That’s about where the necessity of a pure point guard in today’s NBA stops.
In 2021, nine of the top 20 qualified assist leaders were 6’6” or taller—and that’s not counting 6’9” LeBron James, who would have joined them with his 7.8 assists per game if not for injuries. Distributors are necessary, but the bulk of it does not have to come from a traditional point guard.
It’s even more interesting to see this as a debate within the Knicks fanbase when we consider what happened with last year’s squad. Elfrid Payton, who’s started nearly every game of his seven-year career largely off his reputation of being a pure point guard with 6.2 career assists per game, was anything but pure last year, contributing just 3.2 assists per game. Instead of Payton, it was the Herculean 6’8” Julius Randle leading the Knicks offense with six assists per game, though it was a rather weak offense until the team acquired Derrick Rose.
While Rose got the offense humming, he has often been considered more of a shoot-first PG throughout his career, with an average of just 5.5 assists per game in his 12 seasons. It should be noted that Randle (27.2%) had a higher assist percentage than Rose (26.3%) for the Knicks last season. But when the offense was clicking and the Knicks were winning games, did anyone truly care where the assists were coming from?
Rose’s game, however, exemplifies what may be the most valuable skill for a point guard to have in today’s NBA—penetration. In just seven more minutes per game, Rose nearly doubled Quickley’s drives per game with 11.6 drives to Quickley’s 6. It’s a tendency coach Tom Thibodeau values tremendously, arguably to a fault. It likely played a role in his fixation with starting Payton, who averaged 9.3 drives per game despite doing very little upon getting to the rim.
The pressure Rose puts on the defense with his drives makes life easier for everyone else, and he’s also able to make the simple open reads off that pressure more often than Quickley.
In Rose’s first game with the team, he nearly immediately fed Obi Toppin for one of his first pick and roll points of the season. Meanwhile, Toppin went viral the game before when Quickley was running the show, for begging to get the ball from him while wide open.
Even when Rose doesn’t make the open read or finish his layups, his misses are still put back for a layup 9.4% of the time, tied with Payton for the eighth-best mark in the league.
One of the biggest knocks on Quickley is his athleticism. While his floaters have become a beloved spectacle, they are largely born out of necessity from not being able to get all the way to the rim for a layup off the glass. Quickley is tied for the fifth-lowest percentage of shots at the rim in the entire NBA, with just .059% of his shots coming from 0-3 feet, a rate reserved mostly for shooting specialists and soon-to-be retirees who can’t get to the hoop without a walker.
All hope is not lost, though. Seemingly lost in this conversation is that Quickley is just a rookie and by all accounts a tireless worker. Plenty of Kentucky players have developed into solid-to-good passers after demonstrating very little capability in that department in college and their first years in the league.
Quickley’s college 1.5 assist per game average seems dreadful until you learn that Tyler Herro, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, and Bam Adebayo averaged just 1.65 assists per game at Kentucky. In the NBA, they averaged at least 4.8 last season.
They also serve as evidence of the evolving NBA. Adebayo, is easily the best passer and leads the group with 5.4 assists per game, serving as a point forward for the Heat much like Nikola Jokic does alongside ‘point guard’ Murray.
Despite Quickley’s athleticism woes, it’s not like he was a dreadful passer either. As the full-time backup lead guard before trading for Rose, Quickley averaged 2.7 assists per game to just 1 turnover per game in 18.9 minutes per game over his first 21 games as a pro. Considering he hadn’t played the position in college, it’s a relatively impressive feat especially when his running mates were arguably the worst offensive supporting cast in the league—Austin Rivers, deer-in-headlights early-season Obi Toppin, No-hands Nerlens Noel, and Kevin Knox.
Quickley even had a higher assist-to-turnover ratio than passing maestro Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball (2.19 to 2.16), along with a 90th percentile turnover ratio of just 8.2%.
Quickley is a smart player. Despite his lack of rim attempts, one of the most efficient shots in basketball, he’s still able to retain a solid efficiency for a young point guard with a 56% true shooting percentage, due to both his three point ability and knack for drawing fouls. Quickley’s 30% free throw rate is the 60th-highest mark in the NBA, even more remarkable when you consider he’s hardly drawing those off contact at the rim but rather through baiting defenders through fakes and rip-throughs like a seasoned veteran.
Considering Quickley is intelligent enough to study and perfect the games of clever veterans like Lou Williams, the mentorship of Rose, Kemba Walker, and even Alec Burks should rub off on him. If can outsmart and outplay NBA players as a rookie, Quickley can likely figure out how to get the rim at a higher rate.
He showed promise in this year’s Summer League as well, averaging the second most-assists per game in the league with 7.8 dimes against just 2.4 turnovers (and 20.2 points), joyously throwing lobs to Jericho Sims and kick-outs to Obi Toppin and Deuce McBride.
That’s no easy feat in Summer League, where teams have little offensive structure, inexperienced rookies, and unproven/bad players fighting for jobs. The fact he is a willing passer is a good portion of the battle, and supports Immanuel’s argument that he is, at heart, a point guard.
Should Quickley prove incapable to make the leap to be a point guard after a single season in the league, it brings us back to my initial question—does it matter?
Through his first 32 games, IQ averaged the most points per 36 (23.9) for a rookie since David Robinson in 1990 until Rose and Burks limited his role a bit. he still finished with 21.2 points and 3.4 made threes per 36 minutes, which were second in this year’s rookie class, would have led the prior class, and are the highest marks for any Knicks rookie ever.
The Knicks were seven points better per 100 possessions with him on the court—the fourth-best mark on the team—and they had a ludicrous plus-15 net rating when Quickley shared the court with Rose.
If Quickley’s peak is being a catalyst to an elite multi-guard lineup like last year or similar to the lineups the 2012-13 Knicks ran (when no one argued who among Kidd/Felton/Prigioni was the real point guard), that’s a pretty great outcome for the 25th pick.
Point guard or not, the Knicks have a special player, and I wouldn’t pigeonhole him as anything beyond that after just one season.