Tyler Marko and Knicks Wall resident sports scientist Ray Brenkert break down Obi Toppin’s recent injury, the recovery cycle, and what it means for his season.
During the second quarter of the Knicks’ December 7th match-up at Madison Square Garden against the Hawks, Obi Toppin bumped into Atlanta’s Aaron Holiday before jostling for a rebound with Bogdon Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, and his own teammate Isaiah Hartenstein. Just before helping Hart up, Toppin hopped, clearly trying to avoid putting any weight on his right leg. While he’d remain in the game for several more minutes, he wouldn’t return after rejoining the bench.
A day later Toppin was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his right fibula head. Simply put, the top portion of the bone on the outside of his lower right leg cracked. Non-displaced means that Toppin wouldn’t need surgery to reset the bone, and following the diagnosis, the Knicks announced that they would reevaluate the injury after two to three weeks. However, bones take time to heal, so the best news for Toppin would be returning in another month, possibly a month and a half. Any sooner and he runs the risk of either reinjuring his fibula or injuring something else – because as we all know, the leg bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone is connected to the foot bone, and so on…
As long as they allow this bone to fully heal, Toppin shouldn’t see any lingering issues going forward, but can we say the same for the Knicks as a whole? In the 25 games he’s played this season, the most obvious place of improvement has been his three-point shot. He’s raised both his number of attempts – 3.9 per game, up from 2.3 last year – and his percentage, from 30.8% up to 35.1%. Additionally, per Cleaning the Glass, each made three last year was assisted, and while that’s only dropped slightly to 94% this season, any increase in off-the-dribble threes is a huge development for Toppin.
This has seemingly come at a bit of a cost. His shooting percentage from inside the arc has dipped down to 51.4% from 65.5% last year, but the bigger concern may be in how the rest of the team has performed without him since the injury. The Knicks went 12-13 in the 25 games that Toppin played this year (including the Dec. 7th win which he missed more than half of), but since then New York has won five straight. The Sacramento Kings were the only team over .500, but the Knicks beat them by 13. They did their job, beating the tanking Charlotte Hornets by 19 and followed up an eight-point overtime win in Chicago by drumming the Bulls by 23 two nights later, and finally, eked out a close win against the hithert0-.500 Indiana Pacers. Before their Christmas matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Knicks will get a Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors team and a struggling Toronto Raptors squad before hosting the Bulls once again.
This winning stretch could be written off due to luck in scheduling, though Julius Randle’s play may lend some credence to a reverse Ewing-theory situation. Without looking over his shoulder and seeing Obi right behind him, Julius is playing his best ball since his All-NBA, Most Improved campaign two years ago. He’s averaging 28.1 points per game since Toppin went down and doing so while shooting 44.75% from the field and 35.7% from deep. It’s hard to say that the quality of opponent has had no effect here, but when Toppin does return it’ll be interesting to see if Randle’s game regresses or if the two can gel in small-ball lineups.
As previously covered in the first iteration of The Knicks Wall’s Science Lab, Toppin has made massive improvements to his biomechanics and his landings since being drafted. He’s been able to make these good habits second nature and it has improved his game and his overall injury outlook. Unfortunately, things happen on a professional basketball court, and even the best mechanics can’t totally protect you from bad luck. However, once he heals up his habits will help shield him from the worst allowing him to find his place in the Knicks rotation and hopefully contribute to more winning basketball as the team looks to keep themselves above the play-in tournament.