The New York Knicks have their eyes on Brooklyn’s high-flyer Obi Toppin.
A year ago, Obi Toppin couldn’t even get an invite to the Draft Combine. Now, he’s one of the potential high lottery picks.
Toppin has been living in anonymity all his life until he defied gravity.
Despite averaging 20 points in his senior year as a 6-foot-5 guard in Ossining High School, Toppin couldn’t secure a college scholarship from big programs. His mother, Roni, tried her best to spread her son’s Rucker Park highlights on social media to no avail. When he was about to commit to Monroe junior college in New Rochelle, that’s when his godfather and mentor Victor Monaros saved him from obscurity.
Monaros, an assistant coach at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, used his connections to find a better basketball program for his godson.
“My brother was a good friend with Obiâ€™s godfather and trainer (Monaros), and he knew we have a prep program here in Maryland,” Mt. Zion Prep head coach Rodrick Harrison told Empire Sports Media over the phone.
Harrison personally went to New York to see Toppin play. He liked what he saw. He went back to Baltimore with his new prized recruit.
“He was good. He was undersized at that time, but he can move, he can run, heâ€™s athletic, he can shoot the ball, he checks all the boxes. The only thing was he was only 180 to 185 lbs. He looked different,” Harrison said.
At Mt. Zion Prep, Toppin was introduced to a more advanced and structured basketball.
“He learned to understand how to play at a high level against the nationally-ranked programs. Itâ€™s not like going to a typical high school. For him coming in just to get the chance to play against the best kids, compete against the best talents all over the country. That was one of the biggest adjustments for him —understanding the pace of the game at a high level. Once he embraced that, we started to see him getting unleashed and make that great strides,” Harrison added.
It was a stark contrast where Obi and his younger brother Jacob grew up.
Obi and Jacob’s father, Obadiah, was a streetball legend in Brooklyn who earned the nickname “Dunker’s Delight” for his high-flying acrobatic dunks.
“Me and my brother (Obi) used to go watch him play all the time. He used to play in all the city tournaments. He played with the (now-defunct) Court kings with AND1 star Hot Sauce. He played overseas, and he was like us, as a player,” Jacob Toppin told Empire Sports Media.
“He was very athletic, and I remember one time when I was at prep school, he came and visited me. And he was like, ‘let’s have a dunk contest.’ And he did a couple of tricks that I couldn’t do it. That’s cool. It sounds like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy!'” Jacob added.
With athletic genes flowing in his veins and a game made in New York playgrounds, all Toppin needed was a little polishing.
And he got that and more at Mt. Zion.
While preparing for his college jump, he had another growth spurt. He sprouted into a 6-foot-8 high-flying big man and soon attracted Division I schools.
“We knew that he had the potential to be a great player because he put on 20-lb muscle with us. We saw the change in his game. We saw that he was getting better. He was getting more confident once he starts looking like a man. And even when he went to Dayton, he continued to work in the same process,” Harrison said.
Toppin and the Dayton Flyers were a match made in heaven.
His gravity-defying acts became his ticket out from obscurity.
He would become the face of the Flyers basketball program carrying the team on his wings. He averaged 20 points on 63 percent shooting and 39 percent from the three-point region, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on his way to becoming the consensus best college talent, winning all the best player of the year awards last season. He will be remembered for his signature monster slam after leaving the program with a school record of 190 dunks.
Toppin told ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz that he wants to dunk the ball every time once he learned to do it.
Thereâ€™s no doubt he’s got his father’s flair and showmanship.
His stint at Mt. Zion gave him confidence that empowered him to flourish in Dayton’s pace and space system. At Dayton, Toppin further advanced his development, receiving high-level coaching from Anthony Grant, a former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant in the NBA.
He tested the waters in last year’s NBA Draft. He entered his name but withdrew after not earning a Draft Combine invite. But going through the process was like Mt. Zion all over again.
It was an eye-opening experience for him, getting sound feedback from the few teams who worked him out.
With a chip on his shoulder, he returned to Dayton with a different fire under his belly.
Toppin morphed into a monster as a small-ball center. He led Dayton to greater heights, and they were poised to enter the NCAA tournament as a top seed before the shutdown.
Despite being a 22-year old prospect, his age doesn’t seem to bother executives around the league.
His offense fits the modern NBA, but his defense raises some questions.
Harrison is not buying those sentiments, claiming his former player could thrive at the next level.
“I think heâ€™ll be fine. NBA is a bunch of spacing. Itâ€™s not like heâ€™s one of those guys who donâ€™t want to get better. He wants to get better. So once he got to that system and pushed him to understand and play the type of defense they play, heâ€™ll be fine,” Harrison said.
Even NBA and NCAA personal trainer David Zenon, who played against Toppin in pickup games around New York before he blew up in Dayton, thinks that those kinks can be ironed out.
“I havenâ€™t seen enough to say that this is an issue, but the little bit that Iâ€™ve seen, I would say that are things that he could do moving laterally at the help side, but those are fixable things,” Zenon told Empire Sports Media.
“Itâ€™s not like he loses his man. Itâ€™s not like heâ€™s not gonna show up and play defense. And also, youâ€™re talking about the college game; there will always be defensive schemes. In the NBA, thereâ€™s no zone. Him playing straight man to man, I think heâ€™s gonna be able to defend in the NBA, and Iâ€™m not worried about him on that side of the ball,” he added.
On the other hand, Schmitz believes Toppin can develop into a passable defender in the pros because he got NBA-type of coaching in college.
“The defense, I think it’s gonna be a challenge. The fours are now wings. So for him chasing those guys will gonna be a challenge. But this kid has been coached. Anthony Grant is an NBA-level coach,” Schmitz said in Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post Podcast.
“He sees the game at a really, really high level. I think thatâ€™s gonna help at least to become passable. He understands those things.”
Toppinâ€™s offensive gifts are what make him an intriguing lottery pick.
“Heâ€™s worked on his jump shot tremendously. His footwork is great. Heâ€™s able to run the floor, and heâ€™s a great passer off double teams, so thatâ€™s gonna translate well in the NBA. And Iâ€™m excited for him. And heâ€™s a good kid, a really good kid,” Zenon said.
Toppin has heard those ramblings about his defense or lack thereof. But he is confident that he’s done enough during his preparation to address the issue.
He’s been hitting the weight room thrice a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) and playing against NBA players Jalen Brunson, Kevin Knox, former NBA player Terrence Jones and other draftees like Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, and his brother Jacob since Aril.
â€œHaving those different styles of play, playing against those guys have been helping me a lot, especially on defense. Guarding the guards helped me because of how fast they are, how shifty they are. And I have to keep up; otherwise, Iâ€™ll be exposed,â€ Toppin said on zoom call. â€œIâ€™m improving a lot, and people who think I canâ€™t play defense, Iâ€™m going to prove people wrong.â€
Toppin has been compared a lot to Amar’e Stoudemire, but Schmitz sees a different trajectory.
“This kid is a much better passer, and I think thatâ€™s where his game will continue to grow. The question is drafting a 22-year old in the top 10, and if youâ€™re looking at the last ten years, the list is not great. But heâ€™s on a completely different trajectory. I do think thereâ€™s still an untapped potential there,” Schmitz said.
Toppin is a projected high lottery pick. He has met with the top three teams in the lottery — Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, and Charlotte Hornets — but he has never heard from the Warriors after what he felt was an impressive interview.
Save for the Warriors; he did in-person workouts with the rest of the top five teams — Timberwolves, Hornets, and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The New York Knicks used one of their ten workouts on Toppin, sparking speculation that he might be a trade-up candidate.
The Knicks have been constantly linked to Toppin, not only because he’s from Brooklyn.
ESPN’s draft expected Jonathan Givony tried to connect the dots in The Lowe Post Podcast.
â€œI think eight is definitely the lowest he goes,â€ Givony said. â€œThe guy who recruited him all year who signed him, you know, is running the team that has the number eight pick. I think from all understanding, and heâ€™s dying to get Obi Toppin. Thereâ€™s nobody that he trusts more in this draft. Weâ€™re talking about Leon Rose and the Knicks.â€
Toppin, though emphatically denied this during his NBA Draft Combine media availability.
Obi Toppin says heâ€™s not met Leon Rose yet, even at CAA. pic.twitter.com/4CBbZ50gMG
â€” alder almo (@alderalmo) November 11, 2020
“No, I didn’t get to meet Leon (Rose) before CAA because I believed I was introduced to Austin Brown, who is my head CAA agent. And everyone on my team of agents — Mitch (Bukhar), Kristina (Kozica), and Sam (Rose), those guys right there I’m on the phone with those guys every single day. I believe I’ve never had a zoom call or talked to him before other than the zoom call with the Knicks,” Toppin said.
But while it’s true that Toppin hasn’t met Rose before the Knicks zoom call, Rose’s imprint is all over Toppin’s draft preparations.
Sam Rose is the son of Leon. Curiously, Toppin opted to station his training camp in Cherry Hills, South Jersey, Leon’s bailiwick.
Toppin has been training under Rick Brunson, Leon’s first NBA client. And he’s been hitting the Peak Skills gym and lifting weights in Adrenaline Sports Performance, which is co-owned by another former Leonâ€™s client, Dajuan Wagner. Leon is a family friend of the Wagners even before he became the head of CAA basketball. Leon used to play against Dajuan’s father, Milt, in Camden. Rose’s senior advisor William Wesley, Milt’s best friend, is Dajuan’s godfather.
When Toppin signed with CAA, his brother Jacob transferred to Kentucky from Rhode Island to play under John Calipari, a CAA client and a known close ally of Rose and Wesley.
Those intertwined connections make Toppin a real possibility for the Knicks, whether at No. 8 or via Draft Day trade.
The Knicks are looking for a lead guard. But they also need an upgrade in almost all positions, including the power forward slot which Julius Randle, whose name has always been floated around in trade rumors, currently holds.
Toppin may not be the type of a Tom Thibodeau player, but his charisma and his exciting above-the-rim play will bring excitement to The Garden and sell tickets and jerseys when the pandemic is over.
“I spoke with the Knicks. I had an interview with them, and it went very well. They have a great organization. It will be great to go home, but there’s a lot of other teams that are in front of them that are great too. I spoke to a couple of teams, and we’re just waiting for the day to come for me to get drafted,” Toppin said.
If Toppin falls to No. 8, which is remotely possible, itâ€™s hard to imagine Rose and the Knicks would pass up on him.
Toppin is one of the four players with New York roots in the draft, but he is expected to be the first New Yorker to be called on Wednesday night.
â€œUs having that name behind us, especially New York being a basketball city, we have a lot to live up. So weâ€™re going to make sure we do so when we get to that next level,â€ Toppin said. â€œWeâ€™re going to have to stand out and be a name for New York. Weâ€™re going to have to do what we have to do to make sure people know where weâ€™re from.â€
Toppin always talks about living out his father’s dream, creating a legacy for his family.
“Seeing the smiles on mom and my dad’s face makes me work even harder every single day, Toppin said.
While the global pandemic prevented him from leaving a legacy behind in Dayton, he is determined to complete the unfinished business at the next level, whether in New York or elsewhere.
All he wants is a place like Mt. Zion and Dayton, where he is desired.
â€œGoing to a place where people are going to want to help me develop and get better and make sure Iâ€™m going to be great one day, be a Hall of Famer, be Player of the Year, MVP. All these things,â€ he said. â€œI feel like going to a team thatâ€™s going to work on me and develop me to be a great player is where I want to go —whether thatâ€™s No. 1 or the bottom of the draft. I feel like where I want to go a team thatâ€™s going to prepare me to be great.â€
Four years ago, Toppin looked like an afterthought. Now, heâ€™s one of the most sought-after prospects.
And it all started in Mt. Zion, which gave him his shot to reach the summit of basketball.
Harrison’s reflection tells a lot about how far Toppin has come since discovering him in one of New York’s playgrounds.
“We always knew he would become a pro, but to predict him to be a lottery pick, no, we didnâ€™t see it coming,” Harrison said.
Toppinâ€™s remarkable rise is the stuff of legend.
Once he started to defy the weight of insecurity that came with obscurity, there’s no stoppin’ Toppin.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo