JT Toppin, UNM's outstanding freshman, enters transfer portal

Apr. 30—One of the best freshman seasons in New Mexico or Mountain West Conference hoops history will not be getting a sequel.

JT Toppin, the 6-foot-8 Lobo forward who was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year and was a finalist for national freshman of the year for the 2023-24 season on Tuesday morning entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal. Toppin's entry came one day before the NCAA's deadline to do so, signifying his intention to leave the program and play elsewhere.

"I would like to start off by saying how incredibly grateful I am for every moment spent at the University of New Mexico," Toppin posted in an prepared statement on his Instagram account that thanked coaches, teammates and fans for the past season.

"... This past season has been truly transformative, filled with many great lessons. However, at this time, I have decided to also enter the transfer portal as I move forward with the next steps in my career."

The deadline for players to enter the NCAA transfer portal is 11:59 p.m. (local time for each school) on Wednesday. Recruiting of those players can happen until the start of the fall semester, but teams at least know who they are losing via transfer by that time. Players wishing to transfer after that deadline must sit out a season or have to qualify as a graduate transfer to be immediately eligible for next season.

Toppin tied a league record with nine Freshman of the Week awards, averaged 12.4 points per game and a conference-best 9.1 rebounds per game. He also led the Mountain West in field goal percentage (.623), blocks (68) and offensive rebounds per game (3.67). His .623 field goal percentage is one of the top 20 highest percentages by a freshman in NCAA history, while he also led all freshmen nationally with 12 double-doubles.

The Lobos were confident after talking with Toppin and his family shortly after the season ended that he would return, but his agent, Ramon Sessions with the On Time Agency, ultimately convinced the Texas native that it would be in his best interest to explore playing elsewhere. Sessions, who had an 11-year NBA career after playing at Nevada, suggested Toppin's best chance at becoming an NBA player is to play in a larger conference.

Players are allowed to have agents in the new world of player compensation being allowed through use of their name, image and likeness. Toppin did not have an agent when he came out of high school in the Dallas area, a four-star recruit that somehow went under recruited in Big 12 country. The Lobos showed great interested in Toppin not only until he signed with UNM, but head coach Richard Pitino last summer told the Journal he believed Toppin would be the Mountain West Freshman of the Year. That came true in March by voting of both the media and coaches (he was co-FOY in the coaches' voting).

Toppin's NIL deal with UNM this past season did not include money that would give a percentage to an agent. His next NIL deal, which the Journal is confident in reporting is expected to be at or above $500,000, will have a percentage going to Sessions.

Messages from the Journal, both last week and on Tuesday, left for Sessions at his agency have not been returned.

Toppin was also on Tuesday among the players declaring as "early entry candidates" into this year's NBA Draft, though players who wish to return to college and be eligible for the coming season have until May 29 to withdraw from that list. Toppin announced he was doing that last week, though gave no indication then to UNM that if he returns to college, it wouldn't be as a Lobo.

Toppin's decision is clearly a blow to the Lobos, who were considered by most media to be frontrunners for a Mountain West Conference championship next season, though such offseason lists are futile until rosters begin to settle after Wednesday's portal deadline.

And while the news wasn't in any way easier to take as it came to the staff's attention apparently in the past few days — even before it was made public on Tuesday — it wasn't entirely a surprise.

In the moments after the team's loss to Clemson in the NCAA Tournament in Memphis, Pitino was asked about the future of his Lobos program. UNM had just ended a decade-long NCAA Tournament drought, but also was facing losing seniors Jaelen House, Jemarl Baker Jr. and Isaac Mushila. Pitino addressed whether he expected to lose some of the players who had eligibility remaining.

"How could you not? They're all free agents," Pitino said on March 22. "We'll have conversations with them next week. I'm sure people are reaching out to them. They're people. They've got all the freedom in the world right now. And if we do lose somebody, the beauty of it is you can go get somebody.

"And it's just part of the ever-changing landscape. I don't think anyone likes it. But it is what it is. We'll go home tonight, visit with some guys throughout the week next week and give a little time off, get back to work. But if somebody leaves, it's not going to be an indication of what's wrong with them. It's happening everywhere. We had an amazing year, and they've got the choice to go look elsewhere. Fine, we'll support them, and we'll go find a way to replace them."

Between Toppin's departure and the news Sunday that wing transfer John Tonje recanted on his commitment to UNM and is expected to go play for Wisconsin, the UNM collective funding player NIL payments, the 505 Sports Venture Foundation, did free up a significant amount of money to pay an incoming player or two (or three as the Lobos now have three available scholarships).

Though NIL funding is not public, the Journal has confirmed the men's basketball program will have in excess of $1.5 million to pay players in the 2024-25 season. That is believed to be the highest or among the highest for a second-consecutive year in the Mountain West conference.

Players can choose to make NIL payments public, though no Lobos have done so.

The Lobos have 10 players committed to next year's team — six returning players, two incoming freshmen and two incoming transfers — and three open scholarships.