New York Giants: Daniel Jones at Thursday practice, but does not participate

New York Giants, Austin Mack

The New York Giants still aren’t sure whether Daniel Jones will be ready to play against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. He went down in the third quarter of their win against the Cincinnati Bengals last week, and while his hamstring is expected to recover quickly, it may not be quickly enough for Jones to take the field in a very important game. This game, of course, could decide the first place team in the NFC East as a win would allow the Giants to hold onto the spot.

Jones didn’t participate in practice on Wednesday and that trend continued on Thursday. However, there’s some reason to be optimistic as despite being listed as not participating, Jones was indeed present on the practice field on Thursday and worked with trainers.

The forecast isn’t looking great for getting Jones back in time for the Seahawks game. We’re already getting further into the week and even if Jones is almost fully recovered by Sunday, it’s starting to look like there will be limited days for him to actually get practice time in.

With just Friday and Saturday left for Jones to possibly practice, and with him likely being limited for one or both of those days, it looks like Colt McCoy is the most likely starter for the Giants. And that puts them in a precarious position going into a game with the 8-3 Seahawks, who are coming off a win against fellow NFC East contender Philadelphia.

But with the injury situation with Jones, the Giants may not have another option but to put their faith in McCoy – even if he didn’t look the sharpest coming into the game against the Bengals last Sunday.

New York Liberty legend Vickie Johnson to take Dallas HC job (Report)

An original star of the New York Liberty is set to take her second head coaching job after spending the past 15 years with the Aces franchise.

Per Chantel Jennings of The Athletic, New York Liberty legend Vickie Johnson is set to become the new head coach of the Dallas Wings. Johnson, 48, would be the 11th head coach of a franchise that began life as the Detroit Shock in 1998.

The Coushatta, Louisiana native has spent the past 15 years in some capacity with the Las Vegas Aces franchise, which was previously known as the San Antonio Silver Stars (later simply known as the Stars). She spent the final four seasons (2006-09) of her WNBA career with the team before serving as an assistant coach under Sandy Brondello (2010) and Dan Hughes (2011-16). Johnson would later oversee the final season in San Antonio (2017), going 8-28 before the team moved to Las Vegas. She was retained over the last three seasons on Bill Laimbeer’s staff, working alongside another Liberty alumna, Tanisha Wright, in the last.

Johnson began her WNBA career as an original member of the Liberty, drafted by the team in the “elite” portion (reserved for players who had previously played internationally) of the inaugural draft in 1997. Working with fellow former Louisiana Tech Lady Techster Teresa Weatherspoon and several others, Johnson helped the Liberty reach four of the first six WNBA Finals (1997, 1999, 2000, 2002). The team earned a franchise-best 21 wins in 2001, a record that stood until 2015. Johnson reached two All-Star Games as a member of the Liberty (1999, 2001). Upon her departure in 2005, she was the Liberty’s all-time leading scorer with 3,246 points, which was broken by Tina Charles in 2019. Johnson remains the Liberty’s all-time leader in games played (282) and is one of five players in the team’s Ring of Honor (joining teammates Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, Kym Hampton, Rebecca Lobo, and Sue Wicks).

In joining Dallas, Johnson inherits the only team in the WNBA that’s younger than the Liberty in terms of age. No one on the team has more than four years’ experience in the WNBA, the roster headlined by 2020 first-rounders Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie, and Tyasha Harris. Sabally was the second overall pick in last April’s draft, chosen immediately after the Liberty took her Oregon teammate Sabrina Ionescu at No. 1. Also present is Arike Ogunbowale, the 2019 Rookie of the Year. Johnson takes over for Brian Agler, who went 18-38 in two seasons at the helm. Johnson will also be the first Black female to service in a head coaching capacity since Pokey Chatman in Indiana (2016-19).

The Liberty and Wings will each partake in the 2020 WNBA Draft Lottery on Friday night, set to be held during halftime of the college basketball game between Louisville and DePaul (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). New York will own the best odds in the lottery with a 44.2 percent chance of gaining the top overall pick. General manager Jonathan Kolb is expected to represent the team.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills LB A.J. Klein named AFC Defensive Player of the Week

The linebacker becomes the third member of the Buffalo Bills to earn a Player of the Week Award this season.

Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Klein had to hold out for a little bit, but a special honor awaited him at the end of Week 12’s NFL action.

The defender earned the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Bills’ 27-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Klein led all defenders with 14 tackles (3 for a loss), 1.5 sacks, and a pass breakup. His most notable contribution of the afternoon came in the early stages of the fourth quarter, when he forced Chargers running back Joshua Kelly into a three-yard loss on a crucial third-and-one in the Buffalo red zone. The takedown forced Los Angeles into a field goal that kept the lead at a manageable 24-17 margin.

Klein, 29, is in his first year with the Bills, having signed a three-year deal with the team over the offseason after seven years with Carolina and New Orleans. He struggled in the early portions of the season, but has since come up huge with Matt Milano sidelined due to injuries. Klein previously came up big in Buffalo’s statement win over Seattle, when he earned five tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble.

“I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff. I go out and do what I need to do and try to perform to the best of my ability,” Klein said of outside criticism after the Seattle win, per Mike Sherry of The Post Crescent. “It’s a good feeling when you go out and perform like this. Big plays cover probably some mistakes from earlier in the first half, but I know I can play football.”

“I have all the confidence in myself and I really don’t pay attention to any outward or outside noise. That’s one thing in this league you can’t do. You just have to focus on yourself, focus on the process and get the job done on Sundays.”

In a report from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier praised the improvement that Klein has shown in subbing for Milano.

“We didn’t know if A.J. could do some of the things that we ask Matt to do. But as we’ve gotten more comfortable with him and he’s gotten more comfortable in our system, we’ve seen him play some much improved football,” Frazier said. “That’s a credit to A.J. just sticking with it and making himself available and then when his number is called, making those plays that are there for him to make.”

Klein becomes the third Buffalo representative to take home a Player of the Week award, joining QB Josh Allen (Weeks 2, 9) and fellow defender Jerry Hughes (Week 7). Receiver Tyreek Hill of Kansas City took home the week’s offensive honor, while New England kicker Nick Folk earned the top mark for specialists.

The Bills return to action on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale Arizona (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants defense has tall task of covering DK Metcalf on Sunday

The New York Giants will face off with one of the best teams in the NFL on Sunday. New York is traveling to Seattle to play the 8-3 Seahawks, led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson. The Giants’ defense has been stellar in 2020, but this will be their toughest task yet. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense has been phenomenal this season.

The Seahawks are used to getting elite quarterback play from Russell Wilson. Year in and year out, Wilson is one of the best signal-callers in the NFL. But this year, the Seahawks have benefited from the emergence of superstar wide receiver DK Metcalf. In his second professional season, Metcalf has had a breakout year, establishing himself as a true superstar in the NFL. Metcalf has dominated cornerbacks this season, giving the Giants the tall task of covering him while also accounting for the likes of Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson on Sunday.

DK Metcalf Stats and Highlights

If the Giants want to contain DK Metcalf, they better double cover him. Metcalf has dominated single coverage this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Metcalf leads the NFL in total receiving yards against single coverage with 768 yards. The second-highest total is 568 yards by Davante Adams, a full 200 yards less than DK. Metcalf has also totaled 8 touchdowns versus single coverage this season.

Russell Wilson is one of the best, most accurate deep ball throwers in the NFL. He has taken complete advantage of DK Metcalf’s speed and deep receiving abilities this season. Metcalf has 12 catches 20+ yards downfield this season, tied for the most in the NFL. He also leads the NFL in 30+ yard receptions with 12. The next closest is a tie between Justin Jefferson and DJ Moore with only eight 30+ yard receptions.

Metcalf is the most improved player in the NFL this season. While he was electric as a rookie, Metcalf has hit another level this season. Last year, DK recorded 58 receptions for 900 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns on 100 targets. He has already recorded the same or higher totals in every category this season. Metcalf has 58 receptions for 1,039 yards and 9 touchdowns on 90 targets this season.

Last season, DK Metcalf had two games in which he recorded 90 or more receiving yards. This season, Metcalf already has eight games with 90 or more receiving yards (PFF). And, as dominant as Metcalf is going deep, he is also a true threat with the ball in his hands. Metcalf has forced 15 receiving missed tackles this season, tied with Cooper Kupp for the highest total in the NFL this season amongst wide receivers.

DK Metcalf is also coming off of his best game as a pro. In Seattle’s Week 12 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, DK Metcalf dominated Darius Slay and the Eagles’ secondary. Metcalf totaled 10 receptions on 13 targets for 177 receiving yards. He could not be contained and set Seattle’s offense up in scoring position numerous times.

Thankfully for the New York Giants, they have one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in James Bradberry. Bradberry has been phenomenal this season, locking down nearly every wide receiver he has faced off against. But this will be his toughest task yet, lining up against the 6-4, 229-pound animal that leads the NFL in receiving, DK Metcalf.

Yankees Rumors: If DJ LeMahieu departs, Bombers could go after four-time All-Star Michael Brantley

New York Yankees, Michael Brantley

The New York Yankees have prioritized retaining second baseman DJ LeMahieu, but there is a slight chance he is stolen away by another club.

Reports have indicated that LeMahieu is looking for a five-year deal, but the Yankees simply won’t budge and want to sign him on a shorter-term contract. Considering LeMahieu will be 37 years old when the five-year deal would expire, his value might not even closely resemble the price tag he is asking for.

Nonetheless, DJ has been nothing but stellar for the Yankees since signing in 2019. During his first year in pinstripes, LeMahieu enjoyed 655 plate appearances, earning a .327 batting average was 26 homers and 102 RBIs. In other words, he was simply phenomenal, striking out just 13.7% of the time. He earned a career-high 5.4 WAR and backed up his impressive performance with another gem in 2020. He posted a .364 average with 10 homers and 27 RBIs over just 216 plate appearances. He had a career-low 9.7% strikeout rate.

However, his defense took a slight dip in efficiency, but overall he is still a phenomenal player at every corner. If the Yankees lose him, it will be difficult to replace his production, but one report suggests that four-time All-Star Michael Brantley could serve as a supplement, just in case.

Buster Olney of ESPN suggests that Brantley, who is a left-handed hitter, could fit the bill nicely with the Bombers.

Brantley has been stellar for quite some time and enjoyed another successful season with the Houston Astros in 2020. He earned a .300 average with five homers and 22 RBIs. Defensively, he logged a perfect fielding percentage over 19 games. The move for Michael with essentially be to supplement the loss of LeMahieu’s offensive production.

Defensively, Brantley plays an entirely different position, and one the Yankees are quite strong at. He can hit home runs and get on base consistently and strike out at a low rate. When considering this alternative, it even further proves that letting LeMahieu walk would be a significant loss.

Quinnen Williams: The New York Jets’ brightest silver lining

Quinnen Williams, New York Jets

It hasn’t taken long for Quinnen Williams to rewrite the narrative of his NFL career, as the former No. 3 pick has taken huge strides.

Enough has been written about the brutality that is the 2020 New York Jets, but there are still five weeks to go in this harrowing journey, and sites and newspapers need content. If the Jets (0-11) reach the Holy Grail of imperfection, sipping Zima in perpetuity with the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns, the retrospectives will likely never end for football masochists.

Relief can be derived through looking on the bright side in any aspect of like. Those with time to root for the Jets likely have their health, and if the team’s imperfect destiny is the biggest problem in their lives, they probably don’t have many problems at all. But even trying to find silver linings in this mess appears to be futile, as the presumed incoming purge of both the roster and coaching staff looms, who knows who make their way onto the 2021 roster.

Then again, Quinnen Williams has spent this dreary season defying expectations. Why stop now?

As a team, the Jets had relatively little to lose entering the 2020 campaign. Even if the Jets had managed to conjure up a few wins by this point, the playoffs would still likely be buried by established contenders. We’re already in a situation where two 2019 division champions, including the top seed, might miss out on the postseason. Perhaps no one could forsee the true, winless carnage that laid ahead for the Jets, but making the playoffs was always going to be a shock. It allowed them to play with a sense of reckless abandon, though they’ve rarely taken advantage of that.

But individual cases on the roster, however, were full of potential make-or-break cases right from the get-go. General manager Joe Douglas bestowed plenty of one-year deals in his first full offseason at the helm, helping create a list of 31 players up for free agency at the end of the year. That doesn’t even count the players whose contracts have 2021 outs. These cases perhaps only serve to completely dispel the notion of tanking, but that’s a conversation for another day.

New York Jets, Quinnen Williams
 Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Williams’ contract situation wasn’t exactly dire. The Jets would be in for even more dead money if they tried to move him, the only potential form of cap relief coming through just over $2 million in savings if they trade him after June 1 next year (and even then, it leads to over $5 million on their dead money ledger). But the interior defensive lineman still had to prove himself during his sophomore season.

One could perhaps create a team of gridiron all-stars of the players the Jets have passed on the draft in the new century alone. With Williams going third overall out of Alabama, the Jets passed on several names packed with potential, including linebacker Josh Allen, who went to the Jacksonville Jaguars at the seventh. While Allen enjoyed a Pro Bowl campaign, Williams struggled to the tune of 28 tackles (four for a loss), 2.5 sacks, and a single pass defense over 13 games, losing parts of the season to a high ankle injury. It didn’t help that the only two men chosen in from of Williams were a new franchise quarterback (Kyler Murray) and a future Rookie of the Year who helped fuel a Super Bowl run (Nick Bosa), nor did Williams’ arrest on a gun charge at LaGuardia Airport in March (though charges were later dropped).

It was fair and perfectly natural for Williams to be worried. After all, the networks that broadcast the draft have turned roasting the Jets’ prior picks into more of a draft tradition than big boards and Mr. Irrelevant combined. Additionally, the already-quick trigger-fingers of NFL general managers have become even more aggressive. But of all the skills Williams learned in the football Valhalla of Tuscaloosa, the means of fighting through adversity might’ve been the lesson that he’ll remember most from his time with the Crimson Tide.

“I played for Alabama, a lot of people hate Alabama,” Williams said toward the end of last season, per Andy Vazquez of NorthJersey.com. “A lot of people criticize Alabama. I lost to Auburn, lost in the National Championship. So you get criticism all the time, man. But you’ve got to know who you are. You’ve got to know that the person who criticizes you don’t know Xs and Os the way you know Xs and Os.”

This offseason was a game-changer for Williams, setting the stage for his breakout campaign. Denied an opportunity to train at game speed with the preseason wiped out, he instead made an effort to improve in areas away from the field: the practice facility, the weight room, and the community.

Williams underwent an intensive body transformation during the offseason, seeking to eliminate body fat. He returned to Florham Park nearly ten pounds lighter when training camp commenced. In the meantime, he found a way to take care of a different brand of metropolitan defender: first responders battling the ongoing health crisis. Williams donated over $25,000 worth of meals to different hospitals to New Jersey healthcare workers. 

“I transformed my whole body,” Williams said in training camp video released by the team. “I got a whole new diet. I done opened my mind to a whole new ball game of food that I never thought I would, like all types of seafood, different types of fishes and different types of protein, stuff like that, and good fats and bad fats, things like that, so I really can’t pinpoint anything, but I definitely got a whole new mindset on food and a whole new mindset on nutrition.”

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was convinced that his protege was ready to take the next step in his professional football.

“People are going to see a big jump in his production and in his play,” coach Williams told SNY in June. “He’s had a very good offseason in how he’s trained and what he’s done to get better.”

Williams’ offseason progress has impossible to miss on game day. He has already set new career-highs in nearly every traditional defensive stat, earning 41 tackles and five sacks. Next Gen Stats noted that, during the Jets’ most recent defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Williams earned single-game bests for quarterback pressures with six (his third game of having at least five this season) and a pressure rate of 18.8 percent. The offense was unable to capitalize, but Williams also forced a fumble recovered in Miami territory in the 20-3 defeat.

So much uncertainty surrounds the Jets in the near future, as this woebegone campaign has completely diluted one of the more legitimately hopeful periods in this perpetual rebuild. Things aren’t going to magically improve with the inevitable top overall pick. Looking for positives may seem like a futile cause, but they could provide building blocks for the eventual foundation that will one day hopefully lift the Jets out of this rut.

A win may not appear on the left side of the Jets’ standings column this season…but Williams is providing one in the proverbial sense, the video archive department of the networks that broadcast the draft be damned.

Williams and the Jets return to action on Sunday afternoon, taking on the Las Vegas Raiders (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

UFC: Manel Kape – Alexandre Pantoja is off

Next weekend’s UFC Vegas 17 card is one of the more stacked fight night cards in recent memory. However, the card has taken some hits. Earlier this week, a positive COVID test from Leon Edwards scratched the main event against Khamzat Chimaev.

That fight is looking like it will be rebooked in January or February. Now, today we found out that UFC Vegas 17 is losing another fight. MMA Fighting was first to report that the flyweight contest between Manel Kape (15-4) and Alexandre Pantoja (22-5) has been called off.

Pantoja reportedly had to pull out of the fight for undisclosed reasons. While this wasn’t the biggest fight on the card, this was a fight that die-hard MMA fans were really looking forward to.

Manel Kape is one of the best flyweights in the world. This fight was going to be his UFC debut and he was getting a very exciting opponent in Alexandre Pantoja. The perfect introduction for Kape into the UFC.

Whenever Kape does make his UFC debut, he will do it on the heels of three consecutive knockout finishes. Those finishes led him to being crowned champion over in Rizin. Kape is expected to be an immediate title contender at 125 pounds.

What’s the UFC’s plan?

Again, at this time there is no reason as to why Pantoja had to pull out of UFC Vegas 17. That being said, the promotion is tossing around dates in February for the fight to be rebooked per MMA Fighting.

When these two do meet in the octagon, Pantoja will be looking to bounce back after a loss to Askar Askarov that came back in July. Since May of 2018, Askarov and current UFC flyweight champion, Deiveson Figueiredo, are the only two to beat Pantoja.

Pantoja even has a win over current number one contender, Brandon Moreno. I’m really happy to hear that the promotion is sticking with this fight instead of moving to something else. This should be a fantastic matchup whenever it does get finalized.

UFC: Yair Rodriguez suspended by USADA

Yair Rodriguez

The world is going to have to wait a little longer for Yair Rodriguez‘s UFC return. Earlier this afternoon, ESPN reported that the top five featherweight has been suspended for six months by USADA and will not be eligible to compete until March.

However, the suspension is an interesting one. Rodriguez was not suspended for failing a drug test. Instead, the top UFC featherweight was suspended for not updating his location inside the USADA tracker for random testing.

Rodriguez did this three times in the span of 12 months which triggered the suspension. Over the weekend, Dana White gave some interesting answers regarding Yair Rodriguez. He stated in the post-fight press conference that Rodriguez wouldn’t be fighting anytime soon.

However, he didn’t announce why Rodriguez wouldn’t be fighting. A few days later and we have our answer. This is truly a headscratcher and in my opinion a very stupid reason to be suspended. However, it’s on Rodriguez for not following simple instructions.

UFC Return

It’ll be interesting to see what the promotion does with Rodriguez once he returns in March. Rodriguez was originally supposed to take on Zabit Magomedsharipov back in August in a UFC title eliminator.

Whoever won that fight was going to be in prime position to take on Alexander Volkanovski. Of course, Rodriguez went on to break his ankle and the fight was cancelled. The UFC has tried several times to make that fight, but it’s fallen through each time.

Since then, things have been extremely quiet on the Yair Rodriguez front. Considering the suspension dates back to September, we now know why things have been so quiet between the UFC and Yair Rodriguez.

If the promotion still hasn’t found Zabit a fight by the time March rolls around, the UFC should still try to book that matchup. However, if Zabit has been booked, another fight for Rodriguez could be the loser of Max Holloway/Calvin Kattar or a rematch with Chan Sung Jung.

Could Eddie Rosario fit with the New York Yankees?

New York Yankees

Wednesday’s 8pm MLB non-tender deadline has passed, and there were a few surprises on the list of players outrighted to free agency. One of the bigger surprises was Eddie Rosario, former Minnesota Twins outfielder. Could Rosario potentially be an outfield target for the New York Yankees?

Rosario can do a little bit of everything

An advantage of signing Rosario would be that he provides a little bit of everything. Rosario is a slightly above average hitter, batting .257 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs in 2020. His OPS was just shy of .800 while his OPS+ was at 115.

Defensively, Rosario is solid when he’s at his primary position, left-field. He has a career 9 DRS in left, while his DRs in both right and center are negative. His career dWAR is at -1.5, anchored by poor defensive showings in 2017 and 2019.

Additionally, Rosario has a little bit of speed, totaling three stolen bases in 2020 and 39 on his career. His 2020 WAR was just shy of 1.0 while his career WAR sits just below 12.0.

The aging Brett Gardner

Yankees veteran left-fielder Brett Gardner is a free agent this off-season, and there’s a serious possibility that he won’t be back in pinstripes in 2021.

Gardner, 37, saw 2020 be the worst performing season of his career. He bat just .223 with a .747 OPS and a 108 OPS+. Gardner still provides defensive value, but his offense could be enough to turn the Yankees away.

That being said, Rosario could be a solid option to replace Gardner in left. That’s if the Yankees don’t have faith in Clint Frazier.

Frazier had a breakout 2020 season, batting .267 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs. His OPS was over .900 while his OPS+ was nearly 150. Frazier’s defense saw improvements, even being nominated as a Gold Glove award finalist.

Signing Eddie Rosario could help bolster the Yankees outfield. But first, the team needs to decide whether they are ready to give up on Gardner and Frazier.

New York Knicks: Obi Toppin enrolls at ‘House of Payne’

Much has been said about the lore of the big man’s whisperer Kenny Payne out of Kentucky.

Payne, who has helped produce some of today’s finest big men in the NBA, from Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns to Bam Adebayo, has taken New York Knicks‘ rookie Obi Toppin as his next most important project.

Uncle Kenny

Toppin has been in the “House of Payne” every day as he prepares for his much-awaited NBA debut.

“I feel like the moment I stepped on this facility, Kenny Payne has been preparing me,” Toppin said on his zoom call with reporters on Thursday.

Toppin has been impressive in the training camp so far. He confirmed the earlier report of Ian Begley of SNY that he’s delivered franchise-level records in the agility and conditioning drills and measurements.

“I always put in the work. I’m automatically ready for it. I always asked what’s the highest score so I could beat it,” said Toppin showing this early his competitive spirit.

Payne is a drillmaster on the court but has been described as an “uncle figure” off it. He can become stone-hearted during training, but he’s a light-hearted guy who hangs out with you after all, is said and done.

“Me working out with Kenny Payne, he’s been teaching me a lot on and off the court. He tells me to stay the course, be who I am because he knows I love to grind, and he knows I love to work. He pushes me every single day to get better and to be great. And I appreciate that,” Toppin said.

‘I’m home’

Toppin has become the talk of the town ever since he fell on the Knicks’ lap at No. 8 in the draft. The hometown kid has been dreaming of this since he was young, tagging along with his father Obadiah (popularly known as Dunker’s Delight) in the parks around New York.

“During the Draft Night, I knew there was a chance that I might get picked up by anybody. Like me getting picked by New York is a blessing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love where I am right now. I’m home. I’m with a good group of guys, a good group of teammates. Everybody who’s in the office, everybody here is amazing. I’m glad where I am at,” Toppin said.

His early indoctrination to New York basketball, he said, has prepared him for the big moments where heavy pressure can weigh down a player of less caliber.

“I feel like I don’t have to be worried at all. All that outside stuff that’s gonna happen. I feel like me having grown up in New York, me having the opportunity to play in the Rucker Park, Dyckman, West 4th (street), and all those amazing parks in the city I feel like, they were crazy fans out there if you can play in there, you can play anywhere,” Toppin said.

Change the culture

Toppin’s singular focus is not the Rookie of the Year or any individual award. He knows that will come if the Knicks play meaningful games in June and July.

“I’m a big team-guy. I’m never gonna say my expectations only for myself. Me, coming into a new brotherhood, new family, I feel like I wanna change the culture, I wanna win a lot of games. I wanna get to the playoffs,” Toppin said.

Toppin has done that in Dayton, helping the Flyers finish third in the A-10 conference after a 14-17 record during his redshirt year. Last season, Toppin led the Flyers to greater heights finishing with a 29-2 record, 18-0 in Atlantic conference play, and a no. 3 ranking in the nation before the global pandemic shut down the college season.

Toppin dreams the same for his home team, who hasn’t been to the playoffs in the last seven years. He knows there’s pressure to deliver, but he’s also been prepared by the New York playgrounds to block off the noise.

“I feel like we have a great fan base, but at the end of the day, they’re not in between those lines like we are. We have teammates who work and grind every day and coaching staff, pushing us every day to be great. At the end of the day, we just gotta worry ourselves and worry about our team and do everything we can to help the team win,” Toppin said.

Defensive mindset

Toppin has heard all the criticisms about his defense or lack thereof. But he has so much faith in his work ethic and coach Tom Thibodeau that he doesn’t worry about that part.

“He’s known for being a defensive coach. And I feel like, what everyone is saying like I have to work on defense, he’s gonna make sure that I’m good at defense. He’s gonna make sure that I’m doing what I have to do to help the team win and if that’s me being better at defense, he’s gonna make sure I’d do that,” Toppin said.

Thibodeau is excited to have Toppin. And this early, he’s been thinking of schemes to not expose Toppin into situations where the opposing teams can exploit his weaknesses.

“We’re really excited about him. He got in immediately. We sort of followed him in his draft preparation,” Thibodeau said.

A big asset in today’s NBA

Toppin, along with undrafted Knicks rookie Myles Powell and third-year wingman Kevin Knox, has worked under Thibodeau’s former assistant coach in Minnesota, Rick Brunson, in South Jersey ahead of the draft. The Knicks have the intel on him all this time.

“His energy, skillset, his ability to shoot, I think offensively he’s about as ready as a young guy can be coming into the league. Defensively, he’s gotta learn, he’s gotta grow as most young guys do. But we think he’s a great fit for what we’re looking to do,” Thibodeau said.

“We liked his overall talent. We liked the fact that we felt he’d be ready to play right away. I think the big thing with him is his shooting ability. The way he can stretch the floor, that will be a big plus for us. Of course, the defensive part is something we have to work on and we have to do that as a team. But I think his ability to play multiple positions, his ability to put the ball on the floor, make plays. That’s a big asset in today’s NBA,” he added.

Locked in to be great

Most scouts believe that if Toppin can develop into an average defender in the NBA, he’ll have a solid career. But Toppin isn’t contented with just having a solid career. He wants to be great, a Hall-of-Famer, to leave a legacy behind.

“With my athletic ability, my speed, the way I move. I understand my body, and I understand what I need to do to get better and take my game to another level. I’m locked in. I’m at another level. I’m not in college anymore. I’m locked into what I have to do to be great,” Toppin said.

“With the coaching staff and the players that we have, they’re gonna push me as well as I am going to push them to do everything we can to be successful.”

Punishing himself in the “House of Payne” every day is the start of his journey to his goal. Payne has a magical touch. Toppin has the work ethic to match it.

“Me, doing the conditioning test like I’m ready because he’s been preparing me. And I felt like when the games come, everything he’s been teaching me like I’m going to be ready to use those tools on the court,” Toppin said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo