By the time Immanuel Quickley had wrapped up his basketball career at John Carroll in Bel Air last winter, he was lauded as The Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro Player of the Year, a top-five point guard by several national scouting services and a McDonald’s All-American.
And then the Havre de Grace resident began his freshman year at Kentucky, where the accolades were replaced by adjustments.
“It’s been really interesting,” Quickley said last week. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs. It’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be — just the day-to-day grind. But it’s been good overall. I’ve learned a lot of new stuff as a point guard that’s getting me better.”
Through 12 games, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Quickley has been a fairly steady contributor for the Wildcats (10-2), who rank No. 13 in the most recent Associated Press men’s basketball poll.
Quickley, 19, ranks sixth on Kentucky in scoring at 6.7 points per game, fifth in assists at 1.8 per game and seventh in rebounds at 2.0. He also owns the top vertical on the team at 37 inches.
At one point, Quickley started seven consecutive games, but has since been relegated to the bench each of the past four. He said he is not disappointed about losing a starting spot because he averaged more than 20 minutes in those four games as a reserve.
“I’ve helped the team coming off the bench any way I can,” he said, noting he scored 12 points in an 88-61 victory over Utah on Dec. 15. “So it’s not about not starting. It’s about with the minutes I have, coming in and playing hard and playing well.”
Wildcats coach John Calipari said the demotion to reserve is not a reflection of his assessment of Quickley’s potential.
“He’s really a conscientious kid, and I felt comfortable because I knew what I was getting,” Calipari said of starting Quickley. “And then I brought him off the bench only because I wanted to take it off of him and let him be more comfortable. I also want to play him at the wings. I want him to be a point guard and a wing. So we’re kind of playing him at both right now. It’s always a work in progress all the way until April.”
Quickley, who had a 3.6 GPA at John Carroll, said he has had to adapt to juggling his course schedule with two practices a day and weightlifting sessions. On the court, he has been trying to refine a shooting touch that has resulted in a .296 percentage from behind the 3-point arc.
“In high school, I was known as a shooter, and I still think I’m known as a shooter, but my numbers haven’t been as good as far as the 3-point percentage or as good as it could be,” he said. “So I’m just staying confident and staying locked in.”
Calipari said he has few concerns about Quickley because of a work ethic the coach compared to that of former Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who improved his shot and film study in early-morning workouts four to five days a week and is now starting for the Los Angeles Clippers. Quickley’s coach at John Carroll, John Zito, said his former charge is not the type to be content with his game.
“When I got there, literally on my first day on the job, I found him at the gym at 8 o’clock in the morning shooting,” said Zito, a former UMBC assistant coach who guided the Patriots for Quickley’s junior and senior years before becoming a real estate agent. “That was a testament to what was to come and who he is. He is a tireless worker, and if there is a small deficiency in his game, you can guarantee that he is going to work on that and turn his weakness into a strength.”
Quickley has also had to adjust to Calipari’s demanding coaching style. Calipari said he has stopped practice and tagged Quickley with a turnover even if he did not lose the ball simply because he did not run a drill or play according to its design.
“He’s got to get more comfortable and more trusting of his work,” Calipari said, pointing out that in an 80-72 win over then-No. 9 North Carolina on Dec. 22, Quickley got caught in a trap off a pick-and-roll, left his feet and threw the ball away. “And then you’re not trying to do everything. I’m still learning about him, and he’s still learning about what he’s got to do. It’s a process. His feel for what’s happening is growing every game, and some of this stuff, the experience you need, you’ve got to get that from the games. So it takes time, and you’ve got to get in games.”
Quickley said he welcomes Calipari’s critiques.
“I think the more a coach expects from you, it can only push you past all the boundaries that you think you have,” he said. “It helps you in the long run.”
Quickley, who has been practicing at Kentucky since June, recently returned to Havre de Grace to spend Christmas with his family for a few days. But he said he was anxious to return to campus to continue improving his skills.
Quickley said he has not given much consideration to being in the spotlight in the Baltimore area because of his affiliation with the Wildcats.
“I don’t really see it as pressure,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t even worry about what other people’s expectations are. I just go out every day and try to play hard and give it my all every time I step out on the court.”
Zito said Quickley, who is considering majoring in agriculture, has the mental and physical attributes to succeed in whatever field he chooses.
“I don’t know if anybody can put a ceiling on this kid because he works so hard, and anytime somebody is willing to do whatever it takes to get where they want to go, I don’t know that you can put a ceiling on that guy,” he said. “I hope he gets everything he wants, and I’m sure that’s to get to the NBA and have a great career in the NBA.”