An abbreviated training camp and shortened preseason schedule, compounded by injuries to several players, left Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau grappling with lineup changes over the first five weeks of the season.
Now that the Knicks, who were 9-13 before facing the Bulls last night (Wednesday, Feb. 3), have their full roster healthy, Thibodeau has settled on a 10-man rotation that includes the team’s two first round picks. Obi Toppin, selected fourth overall by the Knicks in last November’s NBA Draft, is still trying to find his footing after missing three weeks due to a strained right calf.
After playing in the Knicks’ season opener Dec. 23, the 6-foot-9 power forward from the University of Dayton didn’t return to the lineup until Jan. 13. Going into last night’s game, the Knicks’ second of two straight games against the Bulls on the road, the 22-year-old Brooklyn native was averaging 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12. 2 minutes of playing time.
Conversely, Immanuel Quickley has excelled in his transition from a sophomore at the University of Kentucky to the Knicks’ second unit point guard. The Baltimore-area product’s emergence may soon result in him supplanting Elfrid Payton in the team’s starting lineup. The 21-year-old Quickley, taken 25th by the Oklahoma City Thunder then traded to the Knicks, was second in scoring (12.6) among all rookies prior to facing the Bulls in the rematch.
He has already posted 31 points in a game (Jan. 24 vs. the Portland Trailblazers), and registered 25 points twice, against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers last Friday and Sunday respectively. In the Knicks’ 112-102 loss to the Bulls on Monday, Quickley finished with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He was also shooting 94% from the foul line.
Toppin’s and Quickley’s spots in the rotation have consequently moved forward Kevin Knox and guard Frank Ntilikina further down the bench. Ntilikina has dealt with a sprained right knee for much of this season and has appeared in only four games. Last week, Guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has seen action in just three games, requested he be assigned to the Westchester Knicks of the G-League, which begins its season later this month, to hone his skills.
It could be a favorable move for Smith, acquired by the Knicks in February 2019 from the Dallas Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. Former Knick Trey Burke, who was a lottery pick of the Utah Jazz (No. 9) in 2013, expressed three years ago how playing for the Westchester Knicks during the 2017-’18 season helped him improve his overall skill set, particularly facilitating an offense. Burke is now a key reserve for the Dallas Mavericks.
Knox had been getting regular minutes for most of the season, seeing action in 20 games up until Sunday. However, he had a DNP (did not play) versus the Clippers and another the following night.
“He’s situational for now,” said Thibodeau on Monday regarding Knox. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t change. His shooting is a big part of what we need. So we want him to continue to work. He’s an important part of our team.”
Both the 22-year-old Ntilikina, drafted No. 8 by former Knicks president Phil Jackson in 2017, and the 21-year-old Knox, chosen No. 9 a year later by Jackson’s successor, Steve Mills, are attractive to other teams as they are still young, developing players. The possibility of the pair being packaged in a future trade if they remain out of the Knicks’ rotation is highly plausible.