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Kentucky coach John Calipari has 31 of his guys in the NBA, but the tale of Immanuel Quickley is one he’s already telling to recruits and his struggling team.
The rookie point guard has been an electric force for the Knicks and now serves as Calipari’s favorite anecdote for those hit by adversity amid the Kentucky cauldron.
Quickley suffered an uneven freshman year in Lexington. He didn’t start early in his sophomore campaign before emerging to win SEC Player of the Year honors, becoming a late first-round pick and currently the steal of the draft.
“His story will be told by our staff till we’re done coaching,’’ Calipari told The Post in a phone interview Tuesday. “He used this culture and used this environment and self-evaluated honestly. He never was given anything. He had to work to even start.
“Then he had to trust the staff. At the end of his second year, he had the ultimate green light. He could shoot whenever he wanted. That wasn’t the case early on. He earned it. He trusted us to help find his game. It’s not what we did for him. It’s what he did for himself.’’
The powerhouse Wildcats are amid an unsightly season (5-10), so the most joy Calipari gets nowadays is arriving to work, perusing the spreadsheet his staff provides. It maps the numbers his Kentucky NBA alumni put up the previous night — and whether their teams won.
The Knicks have four Kentucky players — and his former assistant Kenny Payne — leading to the nickname “The Orange and Bluegrass.’’ Calipari, who said he has watched a handful of games, is proudest of Julius Randle’s career year at age 26 and Quickley’s quantum leap into a Knicks fan’s favorite player.
“I see an All-Star,’’ Calipari said of Randle. “The Knicks, we got to win enough games so he can get in the All-Star Game. When you see a guy who played for you seven years ago and he has a son, is married and hasn’t changed how he is, you just smile. He just got more confident in who he is and comfortable in his skin.’’
Calipari sensed Randle carried the burden of becoming a superstar.
“He’s playing confident and comfortable with who he is as a player,’’ Calipari said. “He’s not LeBron James. But he doesn’t need to be. He’s Julius Randle, and how many of those are in the league? A handful. I watch it and I’m proud.”
Quickley’s journey is as surprising considering the 6-foot-3 combo guard was projected as a mid second-rounder. He’s been rocking from the 3-point line (35.8 percent), dazzled with a trademark floater, has an uncanny ability to draw fouls and runs the offense with a theatrical flair.
Quickley is averaging 23 points per 36 minutes and making 94.2 percent of his free throws.
“The one thing we demand these guys have is that floater,’’ Calipari said. “You have to have that floater, that runner. It was hard for him but he mastered it. Was he a consistent shooter here? No, absolutely not, especially freshman year. But he worked. It was hard.
“I tell the kids all the time: If you want to build your own self-confidence, what is the hardest thing to do?. Whatever that is, do it over and over. Don’t do what’s easy for you.‘’
The Kentucky coach said Quickley was a decent free-throw shooter as a freshman but nothing special. By his sophomore year, Quickley shot 92.3 percent.
“Now he drives to get fouled,’’ Calipari said.
“What he did here is he bet on himself. After his freshman year, why didn’t he transfer? He didn’t play that much. Especially at the end of the year, he was playing 10 minutes a game. He bet on himself and this culture, and it didn’t scare him.”
That he was viewed as a second-rounder still mystifies Calipari. Scouts regarded Quickley’s surge in the middle of his sophomore season as a fluke, Calipari said.
“With Immanuel [they were like]: Why was he so different at the end of the year from the beginning of the year?,” Calipari said. “[I’m like]: Are you crazy? It’s where he’s going. That’s his path.’’
Entering the draft, Kentucky combo guard Tyrese Maxey was hyped as a lottery pick. Maxey fell to 21 to the 76ers and is surging.
Asked whom he thought was the better prospect, Calipari said, “They both were drafted later than I thought. I thought they’d both go in the teens but they dropped. But I didn’t think [Quickley] would get by New York. Of all the first-round picks, who are the two surprises? Those two.
“The thing the Knicks liked about him more than anything else, the thing that sold them? The interview. They said he’s one of the greatest kids of all time. They never had an interview like this.
“Like Immanuel, is he starting or coming off the bench? Is he making a big deal about it? He should be starting but they don’t do that. They learn to share at Kentucky and be great teammates.’’
Former Kentucky center, Nerlens Noel has been solid off the Knicks bench. The only downer is Kevin Knox’s murky situation. The 2018 lottery has not played in either of the last two games and is out of the rotation.
“I texted him and said, ‘Look, you’re still really young, I believe in you and you got to keep believing in yourself,’ ’’ Calipari said. “ ‘So when you get an opportunity, you’re ready for it.’ He’s still young.’’
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