How Immanuel Quickley has inserted himself into the Sixth Man of the Year race

NEW YORK — There’s a rhythm in Immanuel Quickley’s step. His grooving gait is easy to spot even as Quickley’s big, brown eyes hide under the hood of his sweatsuit for pregame warmups. He’s just a dancer. He cranks his shoulders when he finishes in the paint with the whistle. He pumps his fists, flashing three fingers before his face, whenever a big triple rinses through the net. And then he’s prone to prancing back on defense, smiling as if it’s all been choreographed for the Madison Square Garden crowd.

None of this is premeditated, but the Knicks’ string bean guard prepares deeply for each performance. Quickley has developed a compulsive film study habit during his third professional season, memorizing opponents’ play calls and tendencies to channel all that verve and guard better than he’s ever guarded before.

“He can think and he reacts and he can anticipate,” New York head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s undersized, but he’s a lot stronger than you’d think.”

The Knicks’ video staff wiredrops various clips following each game onto the Hudl app, loading video so Thibodeau’s full roster can stream it on their phones. It’s a common practice across the league, just as common as players ignoring the coded film until the playoffs. Quickley, though, requests a special cut. “The usual formula,” he calls it, getting his minutes from that night’s contest downloaded onto an iPad, plus the full footage of New York’s next opponent’s previous game, and then the Knicks’ own last battle against that upcoming team. The staff knows he’s digesting it on the plane, while getting his hair braided or while getting his hair cut. He’s always looking for clues. “What the other team likes to do, sets, out of bounds, it’s just little nuggets throughout the game that you need to take note of,” Quickley told Yahoo Sports. He returns the tablet to the team for its next round of video with the battery percentage nearly drained.

He has consulted with Jrue Holiday, seeking pointers from Milwaukee’s bulldog who can seemingly clamp any playmaker. Knowing Holiday worked with Knicks assistant Darren Erman during shared days in New Orleans, Quickley snagged the All-Star point guard’s number after a Bucks game and texted him for a tutorial. There was no secret sauce. No Holy Grail. “Basically, he just said it’s all effort. Most people in the league don’t try,” Quickley deadpanned. And if you package that intensity with instincts and intention, stops and steals often follow.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 20: Immanuel Quickley #5 dribbles against Jordan McLaughlin #6 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half at Madison Square Garden on March 20, 2023 in New York City. The Timberwolves won 140-134. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Now Quickley marks opponents’ best ballhandlers during critical endgame possessions, yelling out actions and jumping passing lanes with his lanky reach. New York’s defensive rating improves by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with Quickley on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, the highest increase of any high-minute player in the NBA. As key free-agent signing Jalen Brunson and All-Star forward Julius Randle power New York back toward the postseason, Quickley has emerged as one of the league’s odds-on favorites for Sixth Man of the Year. Not bad for a natural scorer whom plenty of scouts deemed a defensive liability coming out of Kentucky in the 2020 NBA Draft, where New York selected the sophomore at No. 25 overall.

Quickley shakes his head at that criticism, those braids splaying as he lets go of a snicker.

“I wouldn’t say liability,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve always felt like offensively, yeah, I could pretty much do whatever. Just being able to be on the floor more, the fact I’m on the floor through my defense, I’m able to show my offensive stuff and then the other stuff comes with it.”

There was a preview during the waning games of last season, when a spike in Quickley’s minutes over March and April set the stage for his joyful play to bring actual production. He was carpooling to the games above Penn Station with Knicks forward Obi Toppin, then jittering around opponents and finding cutters like his fellow 2020 first-round pick with ease.

Thibodeau historically demands much of his defense, but players who cover for the man at his side as much as his own assignment, those who rotate with precision and bring punishing physicality, have traditionally been granted carte blanche to fire on the opposite end. Quickley admits he took that setup too literally as a rookie, too eager to provoke swoons from the crowd. And Knicks fans surely swooned.

“I was just shooting every time I got it,” Quickley said. “And [the crowd] was kinda, like, into that. Now I’m starting to learn how to make reads when the big is up to touch, finding the pocket pass. When the low man pulls in, finding the skip to the corner.”

He’s grown craftier against larger defenders, shifting gears and bumping into his man at awkward angles. An earlier version of Quickley was far less tactful, had far less purpose to his herks and jerks.

“You gotta be able to cut them off,” Quickley said. “Try to find ways to kind of veer off, not get an offensive foul, where you can get to your shot or create for someone else.”

When he slithers around a screen and reaches the foul line, Quickley has come to view the space before him like an intersection. His description, not ours. He pauses before darting and dodging all incoming traffic, shifting among the noise as if controlled by a joystick.

“A lot of guys just play green light, red light, start and stop,” Quickley said. “But you gotta be able to play at a yield pace or a yellow light to see what’s happening and see what’s going on.”

That surveying begins on the bench. New York scripts its opening action for every game, and as Brunson sets the table for the Knicks’ first possession, Quickley leans forward from his seat and watches how that night’s challenger chooses to defend what he already knows is coming. His eyes follow the next seven minutes of action, readying to round the bend and collect Brunson’s baton. You know his feet want to dance.

“The game is already moving,” Quickley said. “So I have to be aggressive right from when I get in.”

Over 28.2 minutes per game, New York’s top reserve is posting career bests in points (13.6) and rebounds (4.1) while distributing 3.2 assists per game.

Just don’t mistake Quickley as instant offense and simply that. He has embraced his current role as understudy, in case there’s any confusion. Before training camp, Quickley purchased a composition notebook so he could take a pen, “That way you can’t go back and erase it or change it,” and scribble the same message over and over again, filling an entire page with a single mantra. There is one sheet covered top to bottom with “Sixth Man of the Year.” There is another piece of paper, though, lined with, “I’m a starting point guard.” Over and over and over again. Quickley once wrote he’d start before his second year at Kentucky, and clipped that scrawling to his refrigerator.

Throughout this interview at the Knicks’ practice facility, Quickley was unwinding a strand of black medical tape around his index finger, stretching it into a web across his left hand. When asked about thriving particularly as a conjurable scorer off Thibodeau’s bench, he released the adhesive and waved off the notion like he was scratching the record straight.

“I don’t want that to be what this is,” Quickley said. “I don’t want everybody to think I just want to be a microwave guy. I don’t want to give that impression for my career. Because eventually, I want to be a starter down the line. You don’t work your whole life to … you know? But I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do. It’s about winning, at the end of the day.”

The annals of Sixth Man of the Year winners are rife with permanent reserves like Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford. But there are also the James Hardens and Tyler Herros, who claimed the honor before graduating to an opening lineup and a chase for more.

Quickley has offered true glances of that ability, starting 15 games both with Brunson and without. Perhaps more telling: Thibodeau regularly chooses to close contested games with those two guards manning his backcourt. Quickley won’t turn 24 until June, just a few weeks before he becomes extension eligible entering the final season of his rookie contract, which prompted New York to at least gauge rival teams’ trade interest for Quickley this past winter. Although the dynamism that attracts opposing front offices is also what had New York enamored with Quickley since he overcame a sluggish first season under John Calipari at Kentucky.

His driving scoop layup sealed New York’s double-overtime victory over Boston early in March. It kissed high off the glass to notch his 38th point. And as the ball bobbled atop the rim, Quickley skipped along the length of Boston’s bench, hopping as if trying to will the ball home, like each high-step could shake the parquet just right. R.J. Barrett, New York’s starting swingman, couldn’t help but join Quickley’s jig, strutting in tandem back toward Thibodeau’s huddle.

“I definitely think it hypes up my teammates. When you know your team’s in double overtime and somebody’s just skipping all over the floor. It just sends a message,” Quickley said. “I’m not tired. I’m having fun. We can go to two more overtimes if y’all want to. I’m gonna be here.”

He bent that game like few playmakers can, while also coaxing an audience in the arena and on national television to boot.

“He’s not afraid to take big shots,” Thibodeau said. Knicks assistant Dice Yoshimoto was on Georgia’s staff during Quickley’s sophomore season at Kentucky. And when the longtime Thibodeau lieutenant joined New York before the 2020 NBA Draft, Yoshimoto insisted it was Quickley who delivered the Wildcats’ crucial buckets throughout SEC play. Knicks faithful have noticed Quickley’s propensity for drilling 3-pointers that spark an opponents’ timeout. His springy jumper looks even more coiled before unfurling an attempt with larger stakes.

“Being on the road, and everybody’s just like, ‘Ahh!’ You can hear the gasp from the fans and them being upset and being angry,” Quickley said. “But there’s no place like the Garden, when you hit those big shots and everybody’s going crazy.”

Fans have gone wild for his highlights all season. They go wild just when he rises from his chair and strips his royal blue sleeves to reveal that No. 5 jersey. Quickley has captured something within that Midtown arena. Now he may join Randle and Jimmy Butler, not to mention Knicks teammate Derrick Rose, in a list of players Thibodeau has seen claim an end-of-season award. It would bring his preseason notebook scratch to life.

“I’m definitely a big believer,” Quickley said, “if you write something down, and you look at it and you see it and you work for it, you can achieve.”