Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley have continued to grow as the season progressed. Neither Knicks rookie has shied away from the postseason spotlight.
NEW YORK, NY — Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley had no choice but to grow up as quickly as possible when they were drafted into the NBA. Joining a Tom Thibodeau-coached team with veterans at every position, it was uncertain how much these two rookies would be able to contribute to this Knicks team at the start of the season. Any chance they had it doing so meant they had to prove their worth and then some.
The results were mixed. During the regular season, Quickley’s stock soared. The 25th overall pick’s scoring repertoire provided value off the bench, making him one of the best rookies this season and an instant fan favorite in New York. Conversely, Toppin came along slower than one would hope for an eighth overall pick who turned 23 during the season. He was perhaps the second-worst player in Thibodeau’s rotation during the season, good for nothing on a consistent basis except for a few powerful dunks.
In the playoffs so far, both rookies have shown in flashes that they’re up to the challenge. In the first two games of their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, the neophytes took turns electrifying the Garden with dazzling highlights and confident performances. Following Monday afternoon’s practice, Tom Thibodeau said he has been “very pleased” with the two rookies during the postseason.
OBI JUST BLEW THE ROOF OF THE GARDEN pic.twitter.com/uvIkWGfCcB
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) May 27, 2021
Quickley scored 10 points in his playoff debut, which featured a pair of deep triples that ignited the MSG crowd. A player of such a high confidence level was tailor-made for postseason basketball. “I love the challenge of being in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s really interesting with the defensive chants that the fans are giving, all the energy on every single play. It’s always cool to watch it on TV as a kid but now to be actually in it, it’s even more special.”
Despite having his share of fun in the postseason, it has mostly been tough going for Quickley in his debut playoff series. He put a goose egg in the scoring column in Game 4 after only posting four points in each of the previous two games. For a player whose only consistent skill is scoring, putting up eight points over three games is brutal.
Quickley has to figure out other ways to help the team. It’s a tough ask of a rookie with a score-first mentality to make significant adjustments to help his team. But this isn’t the first time he has been advised to do that.
“All the advice that I’ve gotten throughout the season has been, ‘You’re not always gonna shoot the ball great, but what else can you do to help your team? Whether that’s defense, whether that’s talking, energy, getting steals—what else can you do to help your team win?'”, Quickley said. “The shots will start falling, but what else can you do to help your team win is something you can always look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself.”
“He’s had some shots that he normally makes,” Thibodeau said of Quickley. “But he can play well without shooting well and I think he learns as he goes.” The expansion of his game isn’t just key for New York’s hopes in this series but also their future ambitions. Quickley should be able to carve out a role with this team thanks to his scoring prowess. The size of that role will be determined by how well-rounded he can make his game.
Toppin has been able to maintain a solid performance baseline across New York’s four playoff contests, shooting above 50% from the field in each. The team leans less on his scoring abilities than Quickley’s, but he has still been very useful. His quick decision-making, whether it leads to an attempt to score or just a pass back to the perimeter, allows the offense to keep the pressure on Atlanta’s defense. He has also continued to be a sound defender, which was not something anyone familiar with his game would have expected in his rookie season.
Even as he continues to look more comfortable on the court with each game, Toppin isn’t the type of talent that can swing the momentum for this series back in New York’s favor all by himself. His solid play is a very promising sight. It’s just not an incredibly impactful one given his other limitations. Surrounded by the right personnel, he can be a cog in a useful lineup, but not much more.
The Knicks are face-to-face with the offseason going into Game 5, as the Hawks lead the series 3-1. Deficits of that size have been historically improbable to overcome. But Quickley and the Knicks won’t hear any of it. “When we came into the season, everybody was expecting us to be in the lottery. And for us to even be in the playoffs is great,” he said. “But I don’t feel like our team is done and I don’t feel like our team feels like we’re cone yet. We love it when people count us out. That’s what we’ve hung our hat on all year.”
Immanuel Quickley: "I love it when people count me out. I feel like that's kind of how my whole life and basketball has been." pic.twitter.com/uWNip6rhHj
— Sam (@BySamDiGiovanni) May 31, 2021
It’ll take much more than confidence to keep fighting. The last two games of the series saw the Knicks lose by a combined 28 points. Although they fared much well in the Garden, Atlanta has completely figured out the Knicks’ defense and has stifled their offense frequently enough to deny the possibility of an offensive shootout. Unless the Knicks miraculously discover a method of juicing their offense or stifling Trae Young, Toppin and Quickley’s rookie journeys are about to end.
Still, there shouldn’t be too much crying that it’s over, or that it wasn’t enough for New York to advance to the second round. During the offseason, all there is to do is admire the steps each rookie has taken and hope that they continue to do so. Neither rookie was a widely heralded pick, yet both played roles in the biggest turnaround in franchise history and didn’t crumble when the games’ stakes became higher.
Toppin and Quickley showed improvement as the season progressed. And for Thibodeau, that’s all he demands of them. “Each game will teach you something, each practice will teach you something. Both guys have had a great approach from the moment they’ve gotten here and I think it’ll serve ’em well,” he said. “I think they’ll continue to learn and grow. And that’s all you can ask of someone.”