New York Knicks Obi Toppin
(Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Few prospects made the strides that Obi Toppin did during the 2019-2020 season. But how will the national player of year fare in the pros?

Geoffrey Campbell

The New York Knicks need talent. Obi Toppin will make Sportcenter’s Top 10 plays during his rookie year in the NBA, that’s a fact. He pulled off a between-the-legs dunk during a game at Dayton. And while it’s a little more difficult to forecast those plays contributing to wins, given some time, they just might.

Toppin’s redshirt sophomore campaign ended with many accolades. A consensus All-American, winner of both the Naismith and Wooden Awards as well as the Associated Press’ Player of the Year, Toppin shined in the spread pick-and-roll system at Dayton.

Playing a lot of minutes as a small-ball five, Toppin averaged just over 20 points per game while shooting over 60% from the field and just under 40% from the three-point line.

Toppin’s game and body-type have already been compared to Amar’e Stoudemire. Their movements on the court do bare a resemblance. However, as a 22-year old, Toppin’s high-shoulders and skinny legs have caused some scouts to question his ceiling and whether he will put on the necessary weight and muscle needed to bang with the forwards and centers at the professional level.

Furthermore, despite elite athleticism, and a reliable outside shot, Toppin’s struggles on the defensive end have also caused scouts to sour on his potential as it relates to winning basketball. Anytime you hear the words “empty stats” associated with a player, it has to give you pause.

Nevertheless, Toppin’s highlight-reel dunks, passing, and stroke from three-point range, at his size, make him an exciting prospect. Let’s review his strengths, weaknesses, and fit with the Knicks.

Strengths

Obi Toppin’s offensive production was impressive. Even if you want to dismiss or qualify his production within the context of tailor-made offense for his skill set, it’s still impressive. Toppin finished top 10 in the country in field goals made, field goal percentage, player efficiency rating, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, win-shares, and box-plus-minus.

Per Synergy, Toppin ranks within the 99th percentile in points per possession in overall offense, and within the 95th percentile in transition and 98th percentile in the half-court offense. Toppin shot 39% from three on just under three attempts per game. An early-season matchup with Kansas highlighted the forward’s versatile offensive arsenal, including this step-back three.

Putting aside his natural and potent scoring ability, Toppin has a good awareness for passing out of the double-team. The All-American forward did not register an assist during the Kansas game, but shows an awareness for finding his teammates when the defense closes in. This past season, Toppin only averaged just over two assists per game, yet with increased spacing at the professional level, he’s bound to have more ‘hockey assists’ featured below.

Toppin also showcases an ability to move without the ball. In the spread pick and roll offense, the New York/Florida native is a regular at passing the ball from the top of the key and moving towards the ball handler, in order to set a screen. Now, he might slip that screen early, without making contact with the defender, but he understands the scheme. Toppin also cuts well without the ball, showing that he’s not just an isolation scorer.

On defense, there aren’t many strengths. As scouts have pointed out, Toppin can get bullied in the post. He is often too slow with defensive rotations and fouls way too easily. However, as far as functional athleticism is concerned, Toppin is more than capable of highlight blocks where he sends a ball or two into the stands. Here are two of Toppin’s three blocks versus Kansas.

Weaknesses

In an appearance on the Raising Fame podcast, Toppin’s parents made it clear that they would like the Golden State Warriors to select their son in the lottery. Toppin’s father, Obadiah, did not mince words when asked about the fit.

“I got my few point guards that I always dreamed of playing for, just because they were the truest point guards — like Steph Curry,” Obadiah said. “I think Obi would be great playing with Steph Curry.”

At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. Toppin’s parents know their son’s strengths, but their preference for the Warriors makes me think they’re also very aware of his weaknesses as well.

Slotting in Toppin’s offensive prowess in a spread pick-and-roll system with players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, who can adequately cover for his defensive shortcomings, might spell doomsday for the rest of the NBA.

In the video below, Toppin’s poor defensive positioning allows for an easy over-the-top entry pass and lay-in for Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike.

The Stepien’s Spencer Pearlman put together a video featuring some downright dreadful defense from Toppin. The lack of effort plays will kill you, particularly the matador defense versus Duquense will certainly make you question his commitment. This video also features a concerning amount of staring at the ball, especially after a shot goes up for a rebound.

Toppin also finished the 2019-20 season with 63 turnovers to just 61 assists. Furthermore, of the positional “bigs” that are likely to be drafted in the first round, Toppin’s total rebounding numbers rank behind players like Onyeka Okongwu, Precious Achiuwa, Jalen Smith, Isaiah Stewart, and Vernon Carey Jr.

Additionally, if you want to harp on his age, history is on your side. Of the 25 players listed in HoopsHype’s top 25 players under 25, only one player was drafted over the age of 21, Miami Heat guard, Kendrick Nunn.

However, for all of the nay-sayers, Toppin’s defensive shortcomings do come with some valid caveats.

Toppin played the majority of his minutes as a small-ball five, which meant he routinely was matched up against centers that had the advantage in size. Furthermore, Dayton’s limited depth at the forward position meant that Toppin could absolutely not foul out of games. This does not excuse his lack of defense but it does provide some context for growth.

Fit with the Knicks

The New York Knicks, according to Tankathon, have just over a 37% chance at a top-four pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and over a 50% chance at sliding back to the seventh or eighth spot. If Toppin is available, the Knicks need to do some serious soul-searching. Toppin’s talent and skill-level are undeniable, but questions have been asked about his defense, upside given his age, and lack of lower-body strength holding him back at the next level.

Another valid question is whether Toppin can play with a traditional big on the court, à la Mitchell Robinson. Toppin can operate from the perimeter, but both players will need possessions as the roll man in the pick-and-roll. Toppin’s decreased usage in the pick-and-roll may limit his offensive output, therefore only further exposing his poor defense.

In end, I would draft Toppin and take a chance on his talent, but only if players like LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton, Onyeka Okongwu, and Kilian Hayes are off the board. Toppin is not a seamless fit with the Knicks, but he’s talented enough, that adding him to a young core that includes RJ Barrett, and Robinson would set the orange and blue up with one of the more intriguing and promising young cores in the league.

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