Kentucky always knew it wanted Immanuel Quickley. The Wildcats became the first elite program to offer a scholarship to the 6’3 guard out of Maryland as he made his initial ascent up the class recruiting rankings at the onset of his junior year of high school.
Quickley mulled over the offer as he flew to Egypt in the summer of 2017 to play for John Calipari in the U19 FIBA World Cup with USA Basketball. Though the team would eventually get upset by R.J. Barrett and Canada in the semifinals of the tournament, Quickley knew he had a strong rapport with his head coach. He would commit to Kentucky shortly after he got home, giving the Wildcats their first pledge in the 2018 class.
At the time, Kentucky was still going hard after Barrett and Zion Williamson on the recruiting trail. They would end up with Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, and E.J. Montgomery instead. As a consensus five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Quickley appeared set to inherit the team’s starting point guard spot from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a true freshman, hoping to follow the same path to the NBA so many Kentucky guards had taken before him. The only problem was that Calipari wasn’t done building his roster just yet.
Just a few months before the season started, another five-star point guard recruit, Ashton Hagans, announced he was bypassing his final year of high school to join the Wildcats immediately. Quickley’s starting spot was gone just like that. Hagans and Herro would establish themselves as Kentucky’s starting backcourt by December, relegating Quickely to a bench role where he never truly found his footing. He ended his freshman year averaging just 5.2 points per game.
If Quickley questioned his place in Lexington at the onset of his sophomore season, he never showed it publicly. With Hagans returning and another elite guard in Tyrese Maxey entering the program, Quickley knew he wasn’t going to have the full-time point guard role he had been preparing for all his life.
Kentucky needed him off the ball. It needed him to be more of a scorer than a facilitator. More than anything, it needed him to space the floor and knock down outside shots.
Instead of sulking or transferring, Quickley embraced his role. It might have ended up saving Kentucky’s season. As the calendar prepares to turn to March, Quickley isn’t just Kentucky’s leading scorer — he’s the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year, too. In the process, the improvements he’s made in his game have directly addressed the Wildcats’ biggest problems.
It wasn’t long ago that Quickley felt like an afterthought at Kentucky. Now no one around the programs wants to think of where they’d be without him.
Quickley has been on a tear for the last two months
It’s no coincidence that Quickley’s emergence as Kentucky’s leading man has coincided with the team playing its best basketball of the season. As the Wildcats have won seven straight and 11 of their last 12, it’s Quickley who is carrying the offense and giving the team the go-to perimeter scoring option it desperately needed.
Over his last 10 games, Quickley is averaging 20.6 points per game on 47.4 percent three-point shooting while making 91 percent of his free throws (on 6.9 attempts per game). On Saturday, he scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half to help the Wildcats beat Florida.
22 points in the second half!— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 23, 2020
That escalated ... Quickley pic.twitter.com/xYXzlmBgw3
Quickley was even better two days later, dropping 30 points on Texas A&M that included 8-of-12 shooting from three-point range:
Quickley is now at just about 60 percent true shooting on the season while sporting a 23.3 usage rate. That is remarkable efficiency for a player who had trouble finding or creating his own opportunities as a freshman. This year, Quickley is thinking less and playing more on instinct. He owes it all to the major strides he’s made as a shooter.
After hitting 34.5 percent of the 87 threes he attempted as a freshman, Quickley is now hitting 43 percent of his 133 attempts (and counting), blossoming into a quick-trigger shooter from three-point range who combines volume and accuracy. It’s boosted an offensive profile that now looks as impressive an any in college basketball this season.
Immanuel Quickley as a sophomore
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Quickley is scoring in the 93rd percentile in all half-court possessions. He’s been incredible at the end of the shot clock, scoring in the 89th percentile with under four seconds remaining. He’s also been excellent at shooting off the dribble, ranking in the 98th percentile on 26 possessions. His floater grades grades out as “very good”, as well.
Factor in that Quickley is also great from the foul line, and there simply aren’t any holes in his shooting profile. Calipari and Kentucky thought he could be a capable shooter. Did anyone think he could shoot like this?
Quickley’s development has addressed Kentucky’s biggest issues
You aren’t going to believe this, but the current Kentucky squad isn’t a great outside shooting team. In what seems to be an annual issue under Calipari, the Wildcats are again struggling to beat defenses from the perimeter.
Right now, Kentucky ranks No. 348 in DI in percentage of field goal attempts that come from three-point range (26.9 percent). Kentucky is getting less than 21 percent of its points off three-pointers, per KenPom. When the Wildcats do shoot from deep, the shots go in 33.7 percent of the time.
Imagine how bad it would be without Quickley?
Kentucky has a skilled facilitator in Hagans and a guard who can break down the defense and do a little of everything in Maxey. What they were lacking is a spot-up threat off the ball and someone who can run offense in a pinch when their primary actions break down. That is exactly what Quickley has given them.
This is far from Calipari’s best team, but they could still make noise
Kentucky has a glistening 23-5 record, but the statistical models aren’t as impressed as human voters in the polls. Kentucky is just No. 27 in KenPom’s efficiency rankings vs. No. 8 in the AP poll.
Right now, Kentucky ranks No. 29 in offensive efficiency and No. 41 in defensive efficiency. Those are the lowest marks on either end of the floor the program has seen since 2013, the Nerlens Noel-led campaign that saw the Wildcats miss the NCAA tournament after their star center went down with a knee injury. Calipari has designs on accomplishing much bigger things this year, and it’s only possible because of Quickley’s late breakout.
It’s not just shooting where Quickley has improved: Calipari has praised him for getting better defensively, and finding his way to the rim more often. Like P.J. Washington a year ago, Kentucky’s hopes rest on a breakout sophomore who made meaningful strides after an underwhelming freshman campaign.
Right now, it feels like Kentucky will go as far as Quickley can take them. That’s a much happier storyline than anyone would have thought a year ago.