It looked as promising as any development in this poor season. Immanuel Quickley rushed the ball downcourt and saw Obi Toppin sprinting step-for-step with his defender. Well aware of his teammate’s explosiveness, Quickley lobbed a lead pass that assumed Toppin would break away, and he did for an easy dunk in Sunday’s third quarter.
The past few weeks have painted a potentially rosy picture for the Knicks’ future, unless the sight has been a mirage.
Without Derrick Rose or Kemba Walker blocking him and with a longer leash from coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Knicks have been out of the playoff picture, Quickley has run — and perhaps that’s the operative word — with the opportunity, looking comfortable orchestrating the offense after a rookie season in which he mostly played off the ball.
Without Julius Randle blocking him and getting his first extended minutes in months, Toppin has kept up his energy level and even showed a peek at a jump shot that has never been in his arsenal.
Do the Knicks need a point guard this offseason? Perhaps their money is better spent elsewhere if Rose and Quickley can be the answers.
Do the Knicks need to get rid of Randle? His regression has made him expendable, and Toppin may be helping the case that the Knicks have another power forward who should be starting.
It looks as if the Knicks’ haul from the 2020 draft can be legitimate pieces of the 2022-23 season and allow the front office to direct its resources elsewhere — but the steps forward are also coming at the tail end of a lifeless season.
The Knicks will have to decide what is real. What does Quickley’s triple-double in Sunday’s win in Orlando mean for his future?
“I thought he made a conscious effort to get the ball moving side-to-side — that was the biggest thing,” Thibodeau said after Quickley’s 20-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist performance. “Any time you get a guard rebounding like that, that allows you to get out on the open floor and run.”
The aptly named Quickley brings a different dimension to a slow team. His quickness has always been there, but his shooting touch left him for much of the season. Last year he shot 38.9 percent from deep, which had fallen all the way to 32.9 percent through February.
But as he has played more, his shot has returned. In the 18 games since March began, he is draining 40 percent of his 3-point attempts and shooting 44.4 percent from the field, including significantly better when he gets free looks.
Thibodeau isn’t alone in calling out his play since the All-Star break, and his teammates are noticing his shooting and his ability to run the offense have improved.
“He’s gotten a lot better at the reads, getting the opportunity to do it now,” RJ Barrett said. “You see it — with 10 assists, 20 points, 10 rebounds. He’s really out there doing it all. He’s poised. He’s been great for us.”
But he and Toppin are excelling for a team that is out of the playoff chase.
Toppin, the No. 8 overall pick, played more than 20 minutes just once in his rookie campaign and has been relegated to around 15-minute spurts of energy for most of this season.
The Magic are tanking, and most of Toppin’s career-high-tying 20 points Sunday came against Chuma Okeke and Moe Wagner. Projecting what he can do against some of the better forwards in the game is difficult, especially because he has rarely played over Randle the past two seasons.
In the eight games since Randle first left the lineup March 22, Toppin has posted numbers worthy of a starter: 14.3 points on 58.1 percent shooting with 5.3 rebounds in 25.7 minutes per game. He never has been a threat from outside the paint, but he has begun to show off a better jumper and sunk 4 of 10 from beyond the arc on Sunday.
“I’ve liked the way Obi’s played the last two months,” Thibodeau said of the 24-year-old, who will get three more games, beginning Wednesday at the Garden against the Nets, to make a statement with Randle likely done for the season. “So just continue to do the same things, bring energy. It’s more about how the team functions when he’s on the floor. I think he brings great energy to the group, gets the ball moving, runs the floor, gets us some easy baskets.”
The energy has never been in question. But is this level of play from Toppin sustainable?
Before rebuilding the team, the Knicks’ front office needs to decide whether it needs a new reserve point guard or starting forward.