Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego has taken a somewhat unusual approach to developing his No. 3 overall pick, LaMelo Ball. While lottery teams typically let their youngsters work through their flaws on the floor, Borrego has forced Ball to earn minutes off the bench, and he's been brutally honest about why he's doing it.
"If you're turning the ball over five times in 16 minutes, that ain't gonna cut it for me," Borrego told reporters in January. "If you're doing that on the offensive end, you better be bringing something defensively." Ball hasn't brought much defensively because most rookies don't. He's turning the ball over five times in 16 minutes because most rookies do. Borrego wasn't attacking his player by suggesting as much. He was acknowledging a typical reality of NBA basketball: No matter how flashy the numbers or highlights, rookies are almost always bad.
The reward of playing presently-bad players is the hope that it will one day turn them into good ones. It almost certainly will with Ball. The same can be said of No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, who leads all rookies in rebounds and blocks and is fourth in scoring, but whose Warriors have been outscored by 63 points with him on the floor this season. Ball's Hornets are minus-35 in his minutes. Of the 76 rookies that have taken the floor this season, 50 have negative net ratings. Among the 22 with positive ones, the overwhelming majority play for playoff teams. Giving rookies minutes is a sacrifice. Lose in the short term, win in the long term.
It's what makes Tom Thibodeau's approach to nurturing Immanuel Quickley so perplexing. The Knicks aren't losing in the short term with him. It's quite the opposite, in fact. By nearly any estimation, Quickley is already a winning player, one that has been largely immune to the failings of the typical rookie. Yet Thibodeau has not started him once and has limited him to fewer than 20 minutes per game, potentially doing so at the expense of New York's playoff hopes.
The Knicks are 2.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, and when he shares the court with New York's two other cornerstones, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, they are killing opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. These aren't exactly low-leverage moments, either. He's played 37.5 percent of his minutes in the fourth quarter, and his scoring efficiency has actually gone up later in games.
That late-game uptick isn't just relative improvement. In an admittedly tiny five-game sample, Quickley is averaging 3.8 points per game in the clutch. That would break Kyrie Irving's rookie record of 3.7 set during the 2011-12 season, and while some regression is inevitable over a more meaningful sample, it should be noted that his current pace is astounding even by veteran standards. There are seven active MVPs in the NBA. Only two of them -- James Harden (5.8) and Kevin Durant (4.3) -- are scoring more in the clutch than Quickley is. That leaves Quickley ahead of LeBron James (3.6), Stephen Curry (2.9), Russell Westbrook (2.4), Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.7) and Derrick Rose (1.4). Not exactly bad company to keep. Quickley is already more comfortable late in games than most veterans.
But scoring can be empty in rookies. Circling back to Borrego's criticism of Ball, Quickley practically never turns the ball over. He's done so only 19 times in 18 games, and rarely does he make the same mistake twice, aside from a slight propensity for getting himself airborne without a plan.
More often, when Quickley makes a mistake, he corrects it quickly (pun intended). Just consider this turnover against the Portland Trail Blazers. Quickley overthrows the lob to Nerlens Noel off the pick-and-roll:
Only a few possessions later, Quickley and Noel run a double-drag pick-and-roll alongside Obi Toppin. Watch the trajectory of the pass. This time, Knowing how much space Noel has, Quickley intentionally underthrows it slightly:
It's not as though Quickley's basketball IQ ever needed drastic improvement. He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the Knicks, after all. But it's moments like these that should encourage the Knicks more than anything. Quickley rarely looks like a rookie, but he's doing exactly what a rookie should do. He's learning. He's improving, and the numbers reflect that.
|Quickley Stats||Games 1-7||Games 8-18|
Field Goal Percentage
Rookie counting stats tend to fluctuate, but even with that slow start, Quickley is already second among his peers in scoring. Should he sustain something resembling his pace over the past 11 games, he'd run away from the pack, and he'd do so on efficiency trailing only Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton among high-usage perimeter rookies. Haliburton holds a similarly slim edge as a playmaker, though the assist numbers don't quite do it justice. A more accurate rendering of their effectiveness as ball-handlers is this: The Knicks are scoring 1.064 points per possession on offense derived from Quickley pick-and-rolls, while the Kings are scoring 1.092 on Haliburton's. Quickley is in the 74th percentile league-wide, while Haliburton is in the 82nd.
It's a minor gap that Quickley has cut into of late, and one that he'll need to if he plans to overtake Haliburton, who, like him, is actually earning his keep by a veteran's standards. Neither are turning the ball over. They've held their own defensively. They've proven capable of functioning both on and off the ball.
But Sacramento is empowering Haliburton to do those things. He's fifth on the Kings in minutes, and given their station as a lottery team, could barge his way into the starting lineup at any time. Haliburton hasn't needed handouts, but he's a lottery pick nonetheless, and the Kings entered the season planning to play him.
The No. 25 pick rarely gets such guarantees. Quickley's ascent has been a pleasant surprise, and it's one Thibodeau is still adjusting to. His workload is slowly increasing, but there are arguments against fast-forwarding his development. Maintaining efficiency not only while playing starter minutes, but playing against opposing starters, is difficult. Never underestimate the rookie wall. Thibodeau starters rarely see the bench at all. Quickley probably can't play 38 minutes per game yet.
But he's ready for more than what he's gotten, and that's precisely what has put him in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race. He is earning his minutes by playing more like a veteran than a rookie, and if the Knicks embrace that, they might be able to get their young point guard some hardware to show for it.