A year and a half ago, John Calipari predicted Leon Rose would turn the Knicks around but said “it may take a year or two.”
The Knicks, of course, went on to make the playoffs in 2021 for the first time in eight years and are projecting to make the playoffs for a second straight season. They are currently the 7 seed in the East at 6-4 after starting the year red-hot at 5-1.
Calipari and his Kentucky team were at Madison Square Garden Sunday night for the team’s game with the Cleveland Cavaliers and, despite the loss, he felt the energy coursing through the building.
“You walk in the arena and Madison Square Garden is like the old days, people going nuts,” Calipari said Monday on a Zoom call.
Calipari and his Kentucky team are in New York for Tuesday night’s Champions Classic featuring No. 3 Kansas taking on Michigan State and No. 9 Duke facing No. 10 Kentucky in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game coaching at Madison Square Garden.
“Every NBA team is good so if you’re not ready to go or you have a bad shooting night, you will lose,” he said of the Knicks’ loss to Cleveland. “But they beat [defending NBA champion] Milwaukee, you think about that.”
Calipari has five former players on the CAA-infused Knicks in Derrick Rose, whom he coached at Memphis, and Kentucky products Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox.
While Randle is the Knicks’ star and averaging 21.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists, the Kentucky coach is especially impressed with Rose, who is averaging 13.1 points, 3.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds and started against Cleveland after Kemba Walker had started the previous games.
“For Derrick Rose at his age to be doing what he’s doing, I mean he’s bouncy, looks young, best floater in the NBA, shot a bunch of them last night,” Calipari said.
Calipari said Knicks big man Nerlens Noel is also working his way back after missing the first six games with knee soreness. He’s also questionable for Monday’s game with the Sixers (lower back soreness). He’s averaging 4.3 points and 8.3 boards.
“Nerlens is going to be fine, I think he’s beat up a little bit,” Calipari said.
As for second-year guard Quickley, the Kentucky coach says he will have to adjust to playing fewer minutes with the addition of Walker. He’s averaging 6.3 points in 15.1 minutes this season compared with 10.7 points in 18.8 minutes a year ago.
“Immanuel, he’s gotta be the next man up now and it’s harder because you’re getting a little less minutes than you did a year ago,” Calipari said. “But it’s next man up. You gotta take those minutes that you get and prove I need more…I love his spirit on the court.”
Knox is not in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, but Calipari wants the No. 9 overall pick in 2018 to keep working hard.
“They’re telling me Kevin ‘s getting better, now he’s gotta get on the court and do it when he’s on the court,” Calipari said.
Calipari also had high praise for junior forward Jacob Toppin, the younger brother of Knicks second-year forward Obi Toppin.
“We need five dogs that play like him,” Calipari said of the younger Toppin. “…He’s making us different.”
Calipari said Quickley and Rose are expected at the Champions Classic Tuesday, as is Knicks super-fan Spike Lee.
“I hit Spike Lee [Sunday] night and I said, ‘Where are you? I’m sitting right here, where are you,” he said. “He hit me this morning.”