Immanuel Quickley doesn’t forget. He hasn’t forgotten his game-winning shot in the Baltimore Catholic League championship game five years ago. He hasn’t forgotten people questioning coach John Calipari for recruiting him to Kentucky. And he hasn’t forgotten the New York Knicks receiving a D+ grade for drafting him in the first round of the 2020 NBA draft.
Each moment circles through Quickley’s mind, serving as a constant reminder of his journey from being a slender playmaker for John Carroll to playing under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden. “Man, it was a dream come true,” Quickley said on making the NBA. “There’s no better feeling than to be able to do what you love every single day.”
It took a few games for Quickley to realize that being an NBA player was his new reality. Growing up, Quickley watched superstars like LeBron James and Prince George’s County native Kevin Durant on television. When Quickley plays NBA 2K, he loves using the Golden State Warriors and shooting 3-pointers with Stephen Curry. However, sharing the court with the NBA’s elite was an experience like no other.
“Whenever I play with the Warriors, I’m always trying to get like 60 points with Curry,” Quickley said. “Watching him in the games is surreal.”
All Quickley’s mother, Nitrease, cared about during his first few games was: don’t hurt my baby. “He’s playing with these 7-foot grown men, and my son is just finishing his sophomore year of college,” she said. “I’m nervous because I [didn’t] want him to get hurt.”
Quickley, however, held his own. The Havre de Grace native played a key role off the bench for the Knicks, averaging 11.4 points per game while shooting 38.9% from the 3-point line in 19.4 minutes per game. He scored 20 or more points in 11 games and had a season-best 31 points on 5-for-8 shooting from deep against the Portland Trail Blazers in February.
Quickley was built to compete against the best. Growing up in Maryland, he faced high-level talent daily. There was never room to be timid. “Maryland is one of the best basketball places all-around,” Quickley said. “If you can get out of there, you can [go] anywhere.”
Quickley recalls playing against Phoenix Suns rookie and former Mount Saint Joseph and Maryland star Jalen Smith at the Garden and thinking about how they went from competing against each other in high school to sharing an NBA floor.
After months of little to no fans inside the Garden, the stadium was electric when the Knicks took on the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. Fans packed the arena and celebrated on the streets after New York’s Game 2 victory while taunting Hawks star Trae Young. Even though the Knicks were knocked out of the first round, Quickley soaked in the energy Knicks basketball brings to the city — something that’s been missing since former Towson Catholic star Carmelo Anthony was in town.
“The Garden is crazy, especially when it’s packed,” Quickley said. “So being able to get a taste of the fans being in there for playoff basketball in a rookie season is all I could really ask for.”
Former John Carroll basketball coach Tony Martin noticed Quickley’s confidence growing throughout his rookie season. Martin recalls confidence being the key factor in Quickley’s jump to becoming The Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro Player of the Year as a sophomore. “With rookies you can always see the learning curve,” Martin said. “For some, they’ll say he over-achieved.”
Quickley was raised to set goals and work beyond the bare minimum to achieve those goals. At the start of his sophomore season at Kentucky, he knew that he wanted to play in the NBA despite starting just seven games as a freshman. So, he became the Wildcats’ leading scorer and the SEC Player of the Year. When he arrived in New York, Quickley wanted to make an All-Rookie team. He wanted to average a certain amount of points, and most importantly, help the Knicks reach the playoffs.
Quickley, who was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie second team, checked off every box while proving that a D+ draft grade was a mistake. “Some of those goals made me cry,” Nitrease said. “When you’re a rookie, you don’t know if you’re going to play, but he was determined.”
Calipari knew Quickley would be better than what the critics assumed because of his former point guard’s willingness to outwork anyone. “I heard this to be true that he’d be the first in the gym,” Calipari said. “[He] wouldn’t leave until everyone else left.”
During the recruiting process, Calipari recalls Quickley’s strong family bond and willingness to bet on himself. Those same values attracted Knicks president Leon Rose. Calipari remembers Rose calling him after an interview with Quickley, saying, “I’ve never seen an interview like this kid.”
When Quickley was in seventh grade, he tiptoed into Nitrease’s room at 6 a.m., asking her to take him to Baltimore to work out. Before the draft, Quickley was trying to get a quick workout in. Even after the Knicks selected him with the 25th overall pick, Quickley was still itching to get shots up. “It came to fruition at a very young age that he wanted to be where he is right now,” Nitrease said.
The gym is where Quickley forged his efficient free-throw shooting. Nitrease taught her son the importance of proper stance, ball placement, and envisioning the ball going into the basket from the free-throw line. Quickley led all rookies with an 89.1% free-throw rate.
The guard has also developed a signature floater, which he relied on during his rookie season. For Quickley, the shot seems to be automatic. “It [was] part of our skill development package since his freshman year,” Martin said. “We would go from one foot, two foot, right hand, left hand, all those things.”
Above all else, Quickley’s basketball IQ is his biggest asset.
“His IQ was much more superior than all his peers in high school,” said former Mount Saint Joseph and Maryland standout Darryl Morsell, who transferred to Marquette after four years with the Terps. “No matter what you do, he’s going to play at his pace.”
Martin believes in symmetry. He watched Quickley make a major leap in his game from freshman year to sophomore year at John Carroll and Kentucky. He thinks Quickley can do the same on the pro level. “That’s just been the pattern,” Martin said.
During the NBA Summer League, Quickley has shown even greater confidence in his offensive abilities, averaging 20 points and close to eight assists per game. In his second summer league game, Quickley had 32 points and eight assists while sending Indiana Pacers rookie Chris Duarte skating across the floor in a viral moment.
“I want to make sure that I continue to keep making strides to get better,” Quickley said. “At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
The years of playing in Baltimore and Kentucky allowed Quickley to embrace the spotlight, even the one in New York. In return, the city has embraced him. Calipari recalls going to a Knicks game and running into film director and Knicks superfan Spike Lee, who told him; “I love your kid.”
“The ups and downs of the NBA are not going to take hold of him,” Calipari said. “I see a bright future.”