Obi Toppin projects to be a difficult fit due to some glaring weaknesses, but there are ways for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to maximize the rookie forward.
Obi Toppin wasn’t the first choice of many New York Knicks fans, but coming out of college, it was easy to see why he would appeal to the team’s top decision-makers. Toppin was considered maybe the most ready-made offensive talent in the lottery, and the Knicks needed players who could come in and contribute on offense immediately. Too many years of project picks and mediocre drafting in the latter half of the top 10 had left the team mostly bereft of offensive talent, especially among the young players who were allegedly to make up the core of the team moving forward (let’s ignore the CAA of it all for now). Toppin, with his solid three-point percentage, albeit on low volume, passing skills, and general age-22 dominance, seemed like a good bet to be an immediate impact player and eventually replace Julius Randle while providing a cleaner fit with cornerstones R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson.
While Toppin’s been hurt the last six games with a calf injury, we’ve seen five games from him—four in the preseason, and his regular-season debut—that should help tell us how Tom Thibodeau sees the rookie fitting in with the current team.
After a sparkling start to the preseason, Toppin’s scoring output cooled off considerably, but even when the buckets weren’t falling it was clear where his talents are. His best skill right now is his passing. Whether in transition or the halfcourt, the rookie showed an impressive combination of willingness and creativity in his playmaking.
One of his favorite things to do is enter the post and send cross-court passes to shooters on the perimeter. In the preseason, this often resulted in turnovers, but even the turnovers were generally encouraging in how they showcased his vision.
But what really sets Toppin apart from other passing big men is his vision on the move. His handle is pretty shaky at times, but his ability to pass off the dribble is already special for a rookie. He has skip passes, one-handed whip passes, and transition hit-aheads all in his arsenal already. That, coupled with his ability to attack off the dribble, makes him dangerous both in the halfcourt and in transition. The aforementioned dribbling issues will have to be tightened up considerably for him to truly unlock the playmaking to its highest potential.
In the second preseason game, Thibodeau seemed to realize this was Toppin’s easiest and most valuable path to contributing in the halfcourt (especially when the shot wasn’t falling) and started running some sets for him to operate out of the high post. Though they moved away from it as the game progressed, this is one of the main areas I want to see Toppin utilized throughout the season; it maximizes his combination of shooting, attacking, and passing, and plays to his strengths much more than having him float as a spacer on the perimeter.
Placing him at the high post is important because it limits one of his biggest issues right now, which is his overlap with Mitchell Robinson. Toppin desperately wants to be a roller in the pick-and-roll, since that allows him to use his vertical athleticism to get easy looks. The problem is, doing so detracts from Robinson’s greatest strength. More often than not, it puts Toppin and Robinson in overlapping positions on the court, making life much easier for the defense. Toppin is still learning where his spots are, but too many times in the preseason, he would mistime rolls or cuts in such a way that he either got in the way of drivers or ended up rolling at the same time as someone else.
It’s pretty obvious why this kept coming up during the preseason: he had no confidence in his shot. At times, it was downright painful to watch Toppin pass up shot after shot just to pump fake, drive into defenders, and throw the ball away. Compounding that issue was the fact that even when he did space the floor successfully, the Knicks guards did a poor job finding him when he was open.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see him shoot with confidence, some might even say reckless abandon, in his first regular-season game.
For Toppin to reach his potential with the Knicks, he has to become a higher volume shooter than he showed in college, which will naturally come with a lot of misses, especially early on. So even ignoring the three makes, it was great to see him shoot seven triples in 24 minutes.
Now for the defensive side of things.
No one expected Toppin to be a good, or even average, or even below-average defender coming out of college. It’s not like it was a surprise to see him struggle defensively in his first NBA minutes. Frankly, it would have been shocking if he didn’t. There were some encouraging moments in how Toppin defended larger fours like Saddiq Bey and Jerami Grant during the preseason, but his performance also made painfully clear how difficult Thibs’ task will be in creating a defense that can insulate Toppin’s particular mix of lateral cement-footedness and utter lack of rim protection. For example, against the Pistons, Thibs opted to put Robinson on Blake Griffin, as he was the biggest threat in the frontcourt. Unfortunately, that put Toppin on Jahlil Okafor, who, for all his faults, is an absolute tank in the post. Poor little Toppin got pushed around and bullied for two straight games, laying clear his lack of, well, basically anything on the defensive end.
It’s somewhat remarkable to see a player with as much vertical explosion and as long a wingspan as Toppin be such an ineffective rim protector, but between poor timing, lack of quickness to recover, and inability to jump when back-peddling, there’s just nothing he can really do against wings when he meets them at the rim. You don’t want Toppin guarding out on the perimeter either, but at least there, he showed a little more resistance than he did at the rim.
A lot of Toppin’s struggles and concerns are typical of rookies, but a lot of them were also very apparent in the pre-draft process and will take time and schematic creativity to address. If Toppin can become a consistent threat from beyond the perimeter, it mitigates a lot of the offensive concerns, but he is also going to have to adjust his mindset and habits if he wants to succeed at this level. The post possessions he loves so much can get good looks for the team as he improves at making reads, but without the necessary floor spacers to maximize his post passing, it’s a low-yield play that requires him to force shots or passes more often than not.
Similarly, if he wants to share the floor with Robinson, he needs to accept that while he’s a pretty good roll man, he’s playing alongside an elite one. Toppin has the explosion, but he has nowhere near the catch radius, or the elite hands and touch around the rim that makes Robinson so effective. Considering these were two of Toppin’s top avenues for contribution as a collegiate player, it might take some time for him to adjust to the new reality.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable contributor. As mentioned before, he’s already very good as a transition passer and loves to push the ball off the break, not unlike Randle. The Knicks should be a high-pace team anyway, given their lack of shooters and multitude of good transition players (Barrett, Kevin Knox, Robinson, Randle, and Immanuel Quickley), and if the team can get Toppin reps both as a play finisher and break starter, he should be able to punish teams in a variety of ways.
Having Toppin continue to grow as a high post playmaker will also be key. While the rookie shows some good relocation instincts as an off-ball floor spacer, running him off screens will never be the best use of his talents. Thibs needs to put the ball in his hands as a fulcrum of the second unit and let him learn to read the floor in tight spaces.
Luckily, one of the best features of Thibodeau as an offensive coach is how he uses his big men as playmakers. Joakim Noah, Karl-Anthony Towns, and even this season’s Julius Randle have all shown an incredible amount of improvement in how they read the floor and used their very different skillsets to enhance their passing abilities, and there’s no reason things should be any different for Toppin.
I never thought I’d say this, but if Toppin can study diligently under Thibodeau and, yes, Julius Randle, then once Randle is gone and it’s time for him to take control of the power forward spot, Toppin should be in a position to not only make the game easier for himself, but for Barrett, Robinson, and the rest of this young Knicks team.