Analyzing Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley's rookie seasons and what the future could hold

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Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin high five
Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin high five

During the 2020-21 season, the Knicks were an unexpected success, going 41-31 in the regular season and making the playoffs for the first time in eight years. While competing for a playoff spot, the growth and development of rookie first round picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley were important storylines.

Both newbies were part of the team’s regular rotation. Though both rookies provide intriguing skills that can help the team now and down the road, there are still questions about where they fit in New York’s plans to build a contender.

Obi Toppin

The Knicks hoped Toppin was their future offensive star in the making, but expectations changed dramatically at the start of the season. Expected to be the team’s power forward of the future, Toppin’s role became murky due to the ascension of Julius Randle.

On opening night, Toppin seemed to be a valuable piece of the rotation, playing 23 minutes against the Indiana Pacers. Soon after, Toppin suffered a strained right calf and missed 10 games. The rookie played over 20 minutes only one more time the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Head coach Tom Thibodeau often had a quick hook for Toppin in games, and at times that stunted Toppin’s growth.

In his limited minutes, Toppin showed flashes as an exceptional transition scorer and athletic lob threat but seemed out of sorts for much of the year. Playing a completely different role from his responsibility as leading scorer at Dayton was a huge adjustment, and Toppin’s outside shooting was not particularly adequate (30.6 percent on 78 attempts). He was often relegated to the corner with the Knicks’ bench lineup, and 41.2 percent of his total three-point attempts came from the corner. It felt like an uncomfortable role, as he shot just 28.6 percent on corner threes, per Basketball-Reference.

On defense, Toppin was better than expected, but still below average. By the postseason, Toppin had made some big plays in limited minutes on both ends, but under Thibodeau, it’s hard to envision a transformation in year two.

For Toppin, his future with the Knicks will be forever tethered to Randle. An All-Star and Most Improved Player, Randle’s minutes (37.6) were tops in the association. There aren’t many minutes available to Toppin. Will Thibodeau try to play both power forwards together in smaller lineups? Randle and Toppin played together for just 39 minutes in the regular season, and the duo played together in garbage time of Game 4 against the Atlanta Hawks. The team should’ve attempted to explore the pairing to get Toppin some more minutes.

Since the Knicks play a traditional center nearly all the time, there are limited chances for Toppin to be a rim runner off the pick and roll. If there’s any criticism of Thibodeau, it’s his inability to diversify lineups and try players in different roles during the regular season.

It’s easy to predict that lineups with Toppin as a small ball five would hemorrhage points, but it’s worth investigating so the team can discover where or if Toppin fits at all. At 23, Toppin is NBA-old for a second-year player. New York will have to eventually give the recent lottery pick a much longer look.

May 26, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) dunks for a basket scored against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of game two of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden.
May 26, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) dunks for a basket scored against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half of game two of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden.

Immanuel Quickley

There were questions about what Quickley would look like in the NBA. Was he a point guard? Was he a two guard? New York’s less than stellar collection at point guard to start the season (Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina) gave the 25th pick in the draft an opportunity to crack the team’s rotation. Quickley quickly (see what I did there?) capitalized on the opportunity with deep three-point shooting ability, a unique floater, and a penchant for drawing fouls.

Quickley was one of the top rookies in the NBA, averaging 11.4 points in 64 games. He has solidified a role for next season, likely as a key reserve. Quickley fit well with Derrick Rose, as Rose took some of the ball handling and playmaking responsibilities away from Quickley, allowing him to focus more on scoring and creating his own shot. The Rose and Quickley duo was impressive, out-scoring the opposition by 15 points per 100 possessions in 476 minutes, per NBA Stats.

In the long-term, Quickley could be a fit as a starter if he works off playmakers like Randle as a deep threat. Quickley’s shooting ability was a quality fit with Randle and RJ Barrett. It will be interesting to see if the guard could ever showcase more playmaking skills. Defense was a struggle at times for Quickley, but he was better than expected as a rookie.

There’s still a lot of room for the guard to grow as a passer, but deep shooting is a useful skill, and Quickley will have to find ways to utilize it to his advantage similar to players like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young.