After his career game in Toronto, New York Knicks‘ second-year forward Obi Toppin returned home and was quickly greeted with bad news.
The team announced Saturday afternoon that Toppin had entered the health and safety protocols. The dynamic reserve forward became the first Knicks casualty of the still ongoing pandemic this season.
Based on the league-mandated health and safety protocols, Toppin will miss 10 days unless he could yield at least two negative PCR test results from samples collected at least 24 hours apart.
Toppin will miss the Knicks Sunday matinee game against the rejuvenated defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s a dampener as Toppin has started to carve an integral role with the second unit that crescendoed Friday night in Toronto. He played like the lottery pick he was projected to become in the Knicks’ 90-87 loss to the Raptors. Toppin scattered 19 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes, all career-highs, as he energized the Knicks, who almost completed a comeback win from a 20-point deficit.
Toppin played longer than usual as the Knicks centers Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson only combined for 35 minutes, leaving 13 minutes for a small-ball lineup.
New York coach Tom Thibodeau was effusive in praising Toppin’s performance, but he made it clear that he’s not ready yet to give him an expanded role.
“He’s worked hard. He’s always been a confident guy,” Thibodeau said of Toppin. “There’s still a long way to go. But his progress has been steady. Overall, I’m very pleased with him.”
Toppin is primarily serving as Julius Randle’s backup. Randle is averaging 35.3 minutes. But Toppin’s infectious energy off the bench and confident play has earned him spot minutes next to Randle in small-ball lineups.
“[Obi’s] got to work at being an all-around player. And I see that work every day. I see how he approaches it. He’s a great worker, a great kid. So I’m not surprised that he’s improving. If he plays well, he plays more. It’s that simple. You have to earn what you get,” Thibodeau said.
Against the Raptors, Toppin dropped eight points in the second quarter, where the Knicks quickly wiped out Toronto’s 20-point lead. In the second half, he played from the final 2:12 of the third quarter up to the 3:40 mark of the fourth quarter. He scored nine and grabbed five rebounds during that stretch.
Asked about his decision to pull out Toppin and play with only Randle as the big man down the stretch, Thibodeau said it was a tactical adjustment.
“It was basically [because] they were playing zone [defense] and so we thought we got behind a little. We wanted to add more shooting onto the floor. But overall, I thought [Obi] did a lot of great things. That’s how we got going — running the floor, hustling, his all-around play. I thought he really did a good job for us.”
Toppin doesn’t have any issue at all with the short leash. His mindset, he said, is to give 110 percent every time he steps on the court and inject passion and energy into the team.
“Whatever happens with minutes, with playing time like I said coach Thibs is a great coach. He’s been doing this for a very long time,” Toppin said.[Thibodeau] knows what he’s doing. He knows who got to be in the game at what time. He has a different feel for the game than we do so because he’s a lot more experienced.”
After the team’s light practice on Saturday and before the bad news broke out, Thibodeau expounded on Toppin’s playing time situation despite the online clamor from the fanbase to give him more minutes. Toppin’s play with the second unit has been one of the few silver linings amid the team’s recent struggles.
“[It’s] very good offensively. Defensively, we lose the rim protection and rebounding. So you’re sacrificing that part of the game which is critical but I like the speed and the way they’re playing. I thought that group really played well together. Our bench came in and gave us a big lift,” Thibodeau said.
While he’s not ready yet to give Toppin an expanded role, Thibodeau reiterated how he values the 2020 eighth overall pick.
“He’s young and he’ll continue to get better. So there are still things he needs to improve upon but he’s made great strides. I’m very pleased with him. He adds a lot to the team. He’s a very important part of the team. I expect him to continue to improve,” he added.
Last season, Toppin played well in significant minutes during the start of the preseason until a calf injury caused him to miss six games. His confidence dipped, and he looked lost when he returned. It took him until the second half of the season to find his footing, and he has never looked back since last year’s All-Star break.
If Toppin misses an extended period, Taj Gibson is expected to step into his role with the second unit. It remains to be seen how this setback will affect Toppin’s situation when he returns.
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