How Obi Toppin has emerged as key player for Knicks in second season

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  • New York Knicks
    New York Knicks
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  • Obi Toppin
    Obi Toppin
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Obi Toppin dunk facing camera tight shot white jersey no opponent
Obi Toppin dunk facing camera tight shot white jersey no opponent

Obi Toppin spent most of his rookie campaign looking lost and ineffective, a supposed NBA-ready prospect falling behind in a pandemic-affected season.

Then came the NBA Playoffs, and with his most reliable teammates struggling, Toppin emerged as an impact player against the Atlanta Hawks.

His jaw-dropping athleticism was utilized functionally, warming him into a vertical threat who could space the floor and scramble defensively. Following an All-Summer League First Team appearance in Las Vegas, he entered Year Two with some expectations.

Thus far, he’s lived up to them.

Where Toppin’s minutes used to be comedic relief, now they’re basketball relief. The offense loosens and gains pace, while the defense stands resolute. How did he become the draft pick the New York Knicks hoped for so quickly?

It’s his basketball IQ. From the jump, Toppin exhibited a sound understanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a prospect. And even when he struggled during his rookie year, he showed a baseline defensive understanding and a keen sense of moving the ball.

That year of miscues and poor play was really spent learning, and Toppin carried those lessons through the postseason into the offseason. We’re seeing that education come into play now, as Toppin (and his coaching staff) begin to understand how to best utilize his skill set.

His combination of size and speed makes him a ridiculous transition player, constantly beating backpedaling defenders downcourt for a slam. He pushes on makes and misses, and teammates are far more likely to seek him out compared to last year. This is partly thanks to his increased appetite and aggressiveness for these looks, also because of his improved finishing and confidence.

Toppin is in the 92nd percentile in transition scoring per NBA.com/stat’s play type data, putting up 1.46 points per play. This opens up the game for a team that can get too bogged down in half court Julius Randle isolations.

Nov 15, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) reacts after a dunk against the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Madison Square Garden.
Nov 15, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) reacts after a dunk against the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Madison Square Garden.

In the half court, Toppin is setting better screens and pursuing the roll more, leading to some strong finishes. He’s a menace in lob situations and is showing off a nice touch on layups as well. Tom Thibodeau is even running more sets for Toppin oops.

When the offense dies, Toppin is the quickest to screen or dribble into a handoff, sparking something. His nose for being in the right spot for a cut or dunker’s spot lob turns into so many easy scores for the Knicks, and he’s still punished for not having an elite passer seeking him out. Yet he’s in the 87th percentile in scoring off cuts.

Toppin is now shooting 67.4 percent from two-point range this season, up from 62.9 percent last year. His at-rim finishing jumped from 69.6 percent as a rookie to 74.3 percent this season, near the upper echelon of the league.

The one downside has been his jumper. After a shaky though ultimately encouraging 30.6 percent clip from three last year, Toppin’s fallen off a cliff shooting the basketball as a sophomore.

Still, he’s been a hugely net positive player for the Knicks despite this. Should he turn it around, he might start looking extra scary offensively.

Oct 20, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) dunks over Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard (11) and guard Dennis Schroder (71) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.
Oct 20, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) dunks over Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard (11) and guard Dennis Schroder (71) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.

Despite the rap on Toppin as a poor defensive prospect, he showed an ability to pick up on NBA defensive fundamentals last season, even if he wasn’t comfortable physically keeping up. He looks perfectly up to speed now, impressing on the rare switch and making way more plays.

For instance, despite playing only half the total minutes and a third of the games he did last year, Toppin’s 15 blocks this season ties his rookie total. Some of these have been pretty darn impressive, leaping out on three-point shooters with good space, or swatting James Harden.

He may not yet be ready to protect the rim at the five spot, but he covers ground like a maniac and can bother guys with his insane verticality. The head-scratching mistakes from rookie Obi are much rarer. It shouldn’t be out of line to think Toppin will be a plus defensive player in his career.

Not much about this Knicks team has exceeded expectations, but Toppin is making that eighth overall selection look more brilliant by the passing game. He’s seen his minutes per game rise to 15, but the way he’s playing, he deserves much more. The Randle-Toppin duo is outscoring teams by 16.3 points per 100 possessions in 53 minutes -- perhaps that’s a look New York should try more.

However much Toppin can play, he’s making a big winning impact on those minutes in combination with Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, and the rest of the bench unit. That his development is chugging along so well is an invaluable boon to this season and the future of the Knicks.