Obi Toppin has been a victim of Tom Thibodeau’s veteran bias this season, yet there are ways for the sophomore to see more court time as the season winds to a close.
Since being selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Obi Toppin has had an extremely short leash, unfairly some may argue, with his veteran coach. Despite being one of the more impactful players on the roster, the 23-year-old is currently 12th on the team in minutes at 15.0 per game. Now, out until who knows when with a hamstring strain, Toppin sits out and continues to miss his opportunity.
Toppin’s positive impact on the New York Knicks can be seen in his Net Rating, which sits at 6.3 when on the court, which is by far and away the best of all current New York rotational players with fellow sophomore Immanuel Quickley being the next best at 5.2. When the energetic big man sits, the Knicks NetRtg is -5.8, totaling a swing of 12.1.
Aside from the metrics, Toppin has shown growth from his rookie to second season. Offensively, he is finishing at a higher rate around the basket and the in-between area, per Basketball-Reference, and is contributing in a meaningful way despite his long-range shooting struggles.
Most notably though is the pace with which he plays. Toppin is an energizer bunny and can seemingly run the court with abandon for days on end. The Knicks play at a pace of 97.8 possessions per game in contrast to 97.1 possessions per game when Toppin is on the bench.
On the defensive end, it is night and day, Toppin is lost and out of position on a far less frequent basis, and as shown by the Defensive Rating on 102.9 when he is on the court, it demonstrates his better understanding and awareness in being able to play team defense.
The most direct route to Toppin getting more minutes is a better distribution between him and his starting counterpart Julius Randle. After leading the Association in minutes last season, Randle is 17th this year at what is still a large amount being 35.4 minutes per game.
The reigning Most Improved Player has, despite signs of life lately, fallen off a cliff in terms of production, efficiency, and effort which has been well documented. Randle isn’t alone in looking completely gassed at times and as perhaps a consequence of having carried such a load for 14 months, the energy that has been seen the past four games has come and gone throughout the season.
A reduction in Randle’s minutes could mean he is able to play more energetically and effectively in shorter bursts, especially toward the end of games, compared to playing long stretches and having the effort wax and wane through the course of a game.
If we are being honest, Thibodeau reducing Randle’s workload is farfetched. He’s fresh off running RJ Barrett into the ground pre–All-Star break and if anything. Another way to find Toppin more run without impacting Randle would simply be to play the two together.
The first argument against dispelling here is Toppin’s size. He stands at 6’9″, which could be considered small for a center; however, 36-year-old Taj Gibson, Thibodeau’s fallback for any and every scenario, is also 6’9″.
The second argument is the high-flying sophomore is a total liability on defense. It was the case in his rookie season, and despite there still being some flaws, he has made significant improvement on this end.
Toppin ranks in the 92nd percentile when it comes to opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim which is a terrific number. Much like Mitchell Robinson has done this season, you don’t send to reject every shot, you can stay straight, stay vertical and contest shots, forcing misses, which is evidently what Toppin has accomplished.
OBI WITH THE FINESSE FINISH pic.twitter.com/Yf3UEVu8Nl
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 17, 2022
Per 36 minutes, Toppin commits 3.2 personal fouls, which is around the same number as Karl-Anthony Towns and Pascal Siakiam—this isn’t to compare players, rather a reference point for bigs in the vicinity of 36 minutes per game—so it is not as if in theory with a bigger role Toppin would be prone to foul woes.
The Knicks have rarely gone small this season, but the defense hasn’t suffered when they have. Randle and Toppin have shared the floor for 100 minutes this season and, in that time, New York has a DefRtg of 104.1, which is a rather good number (Boston leads the league in DefRtg at 105.6).
With the two together, New York may be giving up some size, but Randle and Toppin as the 4 and 5 would give New York more variety of what they can do. Toppin and Randle together would mean greater protection on the perimeter and would not involve one of them paint-sitting like other Knick big men while also having a better ability to contain and stifle guards in the pick-and-roll.
Rebounding is another non-issue as New York has a near identical defensive rebounding percentage with Randle and Toppin together compared to overall—71.7% versus 73.4%.
Speaking of defensive rebounding, and tying back to pace and Julius Randle, both players love to run off opponents’ misses. Randle has had the Knicks playing more up-tempo lately but when he is with Toppin, the pace is frenetic. In the 100 minutes they’ve shared together, New York has run, run, and run some more, setting a pace of 103.9.
It also has its benefits in terms of halfcourt offense. It would allow Toppin to be more of a screen-setter and roll man, which he is highly proficient at, rather than being nailed to the corner like he usually is, while also utilizing his cutting skills. Randle has attracted doubles all season and will continue to do so and one thing the Knicks currently aren’t very good at, but Toppin is, is cutting.
It doesn’t mean Toppin will be catching countless lobs or throwing down ridiculous amounts of dunks, but he is the one Knicks who would have gravity when cutting. Teams simply can’t ignore Toppin and let him catch the ball in the lane or around the free-throw line, he has shown enough to demand attention in this area. As a result of the gravity, he would help shrink the defense and draw them inward, allowing New York’s shooters to gravitate to the open areas for uncontested threes.
i think Obi is ready for the dunk contest 👀 pic.twitter.com/hhoiqZ3XOy
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 15, 2022
One development we have seen from the second-year man, especially lately, is the ability to put the ball on the deck and to create for himself. Toppin has had numerous buckets where he has driven off the catch to finish at the rim, catching the defense by surprise. Outside of Randle, no other Knick big can do this—heck even Derrick Rose and Barrett are the only ones who can do it with any reliability.
All of this is to say, it would open the game up for Toppin’s teammates. RJ Barrett, post-break, has seen more time on-ball and to great success. Pairing Barrett with a more dynamic offensive player such as Toppin would only increase his room to operate, while we know with Randle the pair love to run and gun, something New York has found success with.
The final point to be made is simply to take into consideration how poor the team has been. Thibodeau has led his team to a 10-19 record, the eighth-worst since the turn of the calendar. The Knicks are 4.5 games out of the 10th (play-in) seed and with a daunting schedule ahead, it will only get worse from here.
From a victory standpoint, the season is lost. Experimenting and throwing together different combinations is harmless. Glaringly so when it pertains to someone you drafted eighth overall.
There are many reasons why Obi Toppin was a lottery pick. It is time he was given the chance to show why.