It has been a long wait for Obi Toppin.
The New York Knicks’ eighth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft is starting to live up to his pre-draft hype, albeit almost two seasons too late.
Toppin has recorded back-to-back 20-point games, his NBA career-high. Over seven games as a starter, Toppin averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while shooting 55.7 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from the three-point territory, a swing skill once he develops a solid outside shot. The Knicks have been outscoring their opponents by 4.4 during Toppin’s minutes as the starter.
“I feel like I’ve improved on a lot of things, but I hold myself to a very high standard,” Toppin told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “I could definitely improve a lot more in a lot of areas of my game — defensively, shooting, passing, being able to drive and find the guy on the opposite corner, or something like that. There’s a lot more room for improvement with me.”
Toppin is just starting to scratch his potential that made the Knicks fall in love with him that they even tried to move up in the draft, fearing he would be gone by the time they pick at eighth.
He came into the NBA with a lot of hype after slam dunking his way to become the College Player of the Year. He was one of the favorites to win the Rookie of the Year award until Randle played out of his mind and led the Knicks to their first playoff berth in eight years last season.
Toppin was reduced to an occasional slam-dunking highlight reel while watching his draft classmates, picked after him, surge ahead in the NBA learning curve.
Tyrese Haliburton, the 12th overall pick, is turning out to be a special player. Tyrese Maxey, the 21st overall pick, is growing into a solid third piece in a championship contender. Saddiq Bey, the 19th overall pick, is making Jerami Grant expandable in Detroit. Cole Anthony, the 15th overall pick, is having a breakout season. The last pick of the first round, Desmond Bane, is contending for the Most Improved Player award.
Finally, Toppin is getting the experience he desperately needed to catch up with his peers in the NBA learning curve and, more importantly, to show the Knicks brass that he’s not just the future but the present.
“It’s just reps,” Toppin said. “I feel like I can do a thousand things off the court, in practices and stuff, but there’s nothing like it being in the game.”
“When you’re in the game, and you have the opportunity to get the reps in, to mess up a couple of times and learn from those mess-ups, I feel like that helps a lot.”
Repetition breeds rhythm and confidence.
The usual burst of energy and hops are still there. But there’s more Toppin has to offer. Against the Magic, he shot 4 of 10 from deep. As his minutes rose to starter level, so was his level of play. It was also an opportunity to show some new tricks he’s been practicing, like the hesitation pull-up jumper off the dribble he did against the Magic.
“These past couple of games, I’m starting to learn like I’m getting more minutes, and I’m starting to see little mistakes that I’m doing,” Toppin said. “I can easily fix those by learning them. I wouldn’t know what to fix if I wasn’t put into those positions. Me having that opportunity is helping me a lot.”
Unlike his lower draft classmates, who were given longer leashes to learn and grow through their mistakes, Toppin has to earn his stripes in practice. So, Toppin is relishing this opportunity that may never come again next season as long as Randle remains with the team. While the fans blame New York coach Tom Thibodeau for holding Toppin back, his hands are tied because it’s illogical to start Toppin ahead of the player who is set to become the highest-paid on the roster.
Toppin’s future will always be tied with Randle.
So Toppin isn’t leaving it to chance. Even if Randle remains with the Knicks, Toppin knows how he could carve a bigger role, just like what rookie Quentin Grimes did.
“Being able to guard one through five — I think that’s the biggest thing [I have to develop],” Toppin said. “Being able to switch onto Kyrie (Irving) or (Stephen) Curry, being able to guard these athletes, and being able to switch onto Kevin Durant. I want to be a really good defender because that will take my game to another level.”
Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets will be a good test.
Toppin has vertical and athletic gifts. It’s just about putting it together. Despite contradicting Toppin’s notion that all he needs is game reps dismissing it as a ‘misnomer,’ Thibodeau credited his sophomore forward for adhering to his coaching principles.
“It starts with reps in practice. Once you do it well there, then you do it in a game; that’s the next step. And then there are different levels, so you always want to keep adding,” Thibodeau said.
“I love the way he’s worked. He’s a terrific worker. He’ll be in right away as soon as the season ends, he’ll take a couple of weeks, and then most of our guys will be here for the summer. So that’s a very important part of the development and of going through the season and understanding the thing that you could do better and add to your game and grow. I think his experience has helped him. He’s got two years under his belt and seen different things.”
His transition from a 15-minute-a-night burst of energy to a 30-plus minute starter in these Knicks’ final games has revved up Toppin’s confidence. But Thibodeau dropped a hint that Toppin may be ready for something bigger next season.
“He’s gotten stronger. That’s a big plus,” Thibodeau said.
Does that mean he’ll see minutes with Randle more? That remains to be seen.
So these remaining Knicks games, however meaningless they are (in the standings), hold more significant value to Toppin and the Knicks front office than in the win column.
Toppin was never the standout prospect that jumped out from day one. Throughout his journey to the NBA, he was often overlooked and took time to hit his strides. He had to go to a prep school before earning a Division I scholarship. He redshirted before becoming the College Player of the Year.
So, when Toppin said: “I’m nowhere near the top of my game, and I’m going to keep working on getting there.”
You have to believe him. Because it’s looking like history is repeating itself.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo