The Knicks could have college’s top player Obi Toppin fall into their grasp with the eighth pick, but there are valid questions about fit.
In much of the discussion of New York Knicks draft prospects, one name is conspicuously absent. Obi Toppin is coming off an absolutely dominant season, one that saw him named Naismith College Player of the Year, Associated Press College Player of the Year, Karl Malone Award for best power forward, Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year, John R. Wooden award for outstanding player, and First Team All-American, as he led the Dayton Fliers to a 29-2 record.
Toppin is a Brooklyn native whose father was a Brooklyn- and Harlem-based streetball player nicknamed “Dunker’s Delight.” Obi Junior didn’t receive a single Division I offer after high school, despite leading his team to its first conference title in 10 years, so he grinded his way into a consensus top-10 pick, and he’s probably best known for regularly lighting up games with electrifying dunks.
Simply put, his marketability as a potential third member of the Knicks core is through the roof—and it doesn’t hurt that he’s represented by CAA, a.k.a. Knicksville Incorporated.
Obi Toppin doing dunk contest dunks in game pic.twitter.com/qgRpTY1zdE
— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) February 29, 2020
From a statistical standpoint, Toppin was as impressive in his sophomore year as his trophy collection would suggest: his 68.9% effective field goal percentage was the fourth-highest in NCAA history and he recorded the 12th-highest Offensive Box Plus/Minus ever, while averaging 20 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and shooting 39% from three on over two and a half attempts per game.
If that sounds like everything you’d want offensively from a power forward in today’s game, well, you’re not wrong. So why is it that whenever his name comes up it’s met with indifference or opposition?
There’s a simple, two-fold answer: age and defense. He’s a 22-year-old sophomore, which naturally raises questions about how much room to grow he has left. The defensive issues are obvious as soon as you see him play. Watching him move in the pick-and-roll is like watching a two-dimensional cartoon character suddenly attempt to move in 3D. His center of gravity is high, his hips have less flexibility than Mitt Romney trying to salsa dance, and his reaction time and footwork usually leave him eating the dust of the ball handler he’s trying to contain.
Not only that, but his awareness, especially of opponent’s shooters, can be downright atrocious, as his teammates seem to be aware:
These are all very real concerns, seeing as the NBA is a pick-and-roll heavy league filled with some of the fastest human beings on Earth. Truth be told, the likelihood is that Toppin never approaches anything resembling a good defender at the next level.
And yet, that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.
After all, this is a player who will come in on day one as a positive offensive contributor. For a weak draft filled with question marks, Toppin carries with him an amount of certainty of production that could very much appeal to teams. Take, for example, this statistical comparison between Toppin and another athletic freak power forward with above-average ball-skills:
One of these players is considered a question mark for the eighth pick in a weak draft. The other was a consensus number one pick in a draft that featured multiple future MVPs and six future All-Stars.
Of course, stats never tell the whole story. Blake Griffin was both younger and a more fluid athlete, and where Toppin’s weaknesses stem from physiological idiosyncrasies, Griffin’s injury concerns didn’t show up until preseason of his rookie year. Griffin also stands an inch taller, though he has a shorter wingspan, measuring at 6’11” while Toppin’s has been recorded as being between 7’0″-7’2″. Griffin is coming in nearly 30 pounds heavier than Toppin’s recorded 220, though Toppin’s frame should allow for some bulking up once in an NBA weight program.
Still, the framework for a Griffin-esque player is there as a best-case scenario, and is made more interesting by the existence of the Knicks’ big man cornerstone in Mitchell Robinson. It’s hard not to look at a Toppin-Robinson front court and see shades of the Clippers’ “Lob City” days. Robinson and Toppin would immediately be one of the two or three best-finishing tandems in the league. Toppin’s outside shooting from the four spot would give Robinson more room to operate inside, which would in turn give Obi more room to attack the basket. Not a rim would be safe with the two high-fliers in attack mode. I mean, check out the sheer ballsiness of this dunk attempt:
I'm just now getting to Dayton-Saint Mary's from over the weekend, and I'm so happy I did. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you Obi Toppin and the most audacious dunk attempt anyone will try all season. pic.twitter.com/LvxiSaARgk
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) December 11, 2019
But Toppin, like Griffin before him, is much more than just a finisher. He’s entering the league with a more advanced outside shot than his Oklahoman counterpart did, and as an equally, if not more more impressive, passer.
Obi Toppin attacks the closeout and delivers a heck of a skip pass to the wing for an open 3 pic.twitter.com/GYzfdkzyWC
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 15, 2020
While Toppin’s passing mostly came in the form of skip passes and kick-outs to shooters, he showed the ability to work a two-man game inside, and he’s capable of making high-level reads off a standstill, out of traps, and off the dribble. There’s little doubt he and Robinson could form a potent high-low partnership, with Topping making reads and finding Mitch for dump-offs and alley-oops.
Really like Obi Toppin's passing. He's a good passer on the short roll, can pass off a handle, flashes some nice one-handed passes, and makes quick / flash-decisions. pic.twitter.com/8aR4m1vH0R
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) February 17, 2020
While Knicks fans reading this might see an offensive player with bad defense and a reputation for passing and get the Julius Randle hot-sweats, it’s important to note that Toppin is in an entirely different realm as a passer. Not only are the reads he makes on a much higher level than the Knicks’ incumbent power forward, but more importantly, he’s an incredibly willing distributor. He makes quick reads, which should be a huge point of emphasis for the Knicks this offseason, and is happy to give up the ball if he doesn’t have a play, knowing it’ll open up the floor for his teammates.
He also shows his impressive vision in the open floor, where he uses the combination of his passing and his equally impressive touch around the rim to toy with defenders and find open looks for himself or others.
Very impressive find and left handed pass from Obi Toppin pic.twitter.com/mjkeO8YG4O
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) December 27, 2019
And while the defensive end is still a major concern, Robinson seems like just about the best possible insurance policy against Toppin’s deficiencies. Robinson is quick enough to guard on the perimeter, which could allow Toppin to play to his athleticism and timing as a help-side rim protector. He’s shown the ability to make plays pretty regularly, and is an elite help defender, which should make up for Toppin’s tendency to get blown by. If R.J. Barrett can continue his development as a defender and the Knicks can keep stocking the rotation with defensive-minded guards (Frank Ntilikina, if he’s still around by then, and Fred VanVleet, for example, would be an absolutely lock-down backcourt), Toppin should find himself well-insulated on that end.
Toppin should also be able to play stretches as a small-ball five once he puts on weight. He won’t ever be a full-time center, but especially against bench units, he could shift down for a couple minutes at a time, allowing the team to try to play four or five-out—which would be hugely beneficial to guys like Barrett and Ntilikina. What he lacks in standing reach (due to his 6’9″ size and not really having a neck) and quickness, he at least attempts to make up for with effort, as was on display in his game against Kansas, where he battled against behemoth Udoka Azubuike for much of the night. While Azubuike, who at seven feet with a 7’7″ wingspan is roughly the same size as Joel Embiid, eventually overwhelmed Toppin en route to his best offensive game of the season (29 points on 12-of-15 shooting), Obi showed a lot of fight, which is what you want to see from a guy giving up three inches and 55 pounds.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Lob City couldn’t become Lob City until a certain point god was added to the mix—in fact, the moniker “Lob City” only came about due to Griffin’s reaction upon hearing the news that the team had traded for Chris Paul.
Why does that matter? Among the most lingering issues the Knicks have had over the last decade or so has been the lack of an elite point guard. Player after player has been cycled in, from Stephon Marbury (by far the best Knicks point guard of the 21st century), to Steve Francis, to Raymond Felton, to 40-year-old Jason Kidd, and more recently, Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Elfrid Payton.
But in a way, that’s putting the cart before the horse. After all, the Chris Paul trade didn’t happen until the start of the third year after Blake Griffin was drafted (and four years after DeAndre Jordan). While Leon Rose, and especially Scott Perry, may want to see the team starting to get competitive this year, they also seem to be realistic and keeping an eye on the future. Most notably, the offseason following the 2020–21 season, which is thought to have both one of the best drafts in years (including several mouth-watering point guard prospects such as Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs, who this writer is extremely bullish on, and Jaden Springer) and a star-studded free agency class.
So while fans might want to find the youngest, most potential-dripping point guard prospect possible with the eighth pick this year (looking at you, Killian Hayes and Kira Lewis!), the front office may well see the merit in getting some more ready-made guys who can come in and contribute right away—especially given the team’s recent history of drafting young, raw prospects in need of years of development and patience.
There’s also the question of whether someone of Toppin’s limited defensive capabilities can have a positive impact in the postseason. There aren’t many offense-only power forwards currently competing on playoff teams. The Sixers were swept in embarrassing fashion, thanks in some part to Tobias Harris’ absolute stinker of a series. Michael Porter Jr. has become more and more unplayable as the series with the Jazz has continued. Danilo Gallinari is probably the worst defensive four left in the playoffs, and he has spent his whole career using his high feel for the game to turn himself into a solid, if physically limited, team defender.
Once again, this is a valid concern. If Toppin stays as a low-volume three-point shooter and is unable to fix his posture, footwork, and general defensive awareness, there’s a chance he tops out as a Dario Saric–type player, who always seems like he should be better and more effective than he ends up being. The focuses for whatever team takes Obi will have to center around turning him into a high-volume shooter and sending him to a P3-type sports science program every offseason with the hope of correcting as much of his movement issues as possible.
There’s a chance readers are rolling their eyes at the Blake Griffin comparison, to which I would say: “fair enough.” A less injury-prone Griffin is the most optimistic, highest-end possible outcome for Toppin, and even that feels generous, considering Toppin is likely only about 85-90% of the athlete that Griffin was at his peak. So let’s go with a comparison that is more commonly thrown around for the former (fittingly) Flier: John Collins. Collins, having just finished his third season as a pro, is only six months older than Toppin and, like Griffin, has always been a better rebounder than Obi, who recorded an anemic 14.5% rebounding rate this season compared to Collins (21.1%), and Griffin (24%) in their sophomore years (via Sports-Reference).
But Collins in year three is a pretty good blueprint for Toppin. After attempting only 0.6 threes per game as a rookie and hitting at a 34% clip, Collins has raised his attempts and percentage each year, culminating with this year, where he put up 3.6 threes a night and hit on 40% of them. Three and a half threes a night should be no problem for Toppin if he’s getting the minutes and the green light from his coach (would he get either under Thibs? Very unclear!). Meanwhile, Collins has continued to excel as a play finisher while struggling as a defender. Obi will come into the league a significantly better ball-handler and passer than Collins, which should make up much of the difference between Collins’ bad defense and Toppin’s projected very bad defense.
But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make with the Collins comparison. The point is: if you can get someone along the lines of John Collins with the eighth pick in a weak draft, doesn’t that seem like a win?
It’s clear that Toppin is by no means a perfect prospect. His flaws could eventually hurt the team that drafts him, should he be rendered unplayable in the playoffs, à la another former Knick (for the record, I think his diverse offensive skill sets mitigate that risk somewhat). But while he might not be my best case outcome as the eighth pick in the draft—that would be Killian Hayes—it seems the discourse around Toppin tends to ignore the many valuable things he excels at to focus exclusively on where he comes up short. Picking apart prospects is a necessary part of the evaluation process, but sometimes it can also obscure just how solid a prospect is.
Toppin could be an appealing way for Leon Rose and the Knicks to walk the middle ground of continuing to build through the draft while adding talent that can help out on the floor right away. And if they’re able to add a high-level point guard in the next year or two to come, the Knicks could finally see a rebuilt team with genuine playoff ambitions come to fruition.
Lob City 2.0 combined with the electricity of the Garden crowds seems like a match made in heaven. Now let’s see if Leon Rose agrees.