Former Dayton star playing small role for best Knicks team in years
Dayton basketball superfan Justin Hinders has typed two words over and over again on Twitter this year: “Free Obi.”
That’s a reference to the scant playing time former Dayton Flyers star Obi Toppin has received during his rookie season in the NBA. Toppin averaged 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11 minutes per game for the New York Knicks in 62 regular-season games, topping 20 minutes only twice. Of the 30 players drafted in the first round in November, only three are averaging fewer minutes than Toppin.
That doesn’t mean Toppin’s rookie season has been a failure. According to Knicks experts who have watched him all season, he got off to a slow start because of an injury and has shown improvement this spring, making the the most of his limited minutes.
Also, after playing for one of the best Dayton teams ever in the 2019-20 season, Toppin is now playing for the best Knicks team in years. The Knicks finished 41-31, ending a streak of seven straight losing seasons and earning the right to host the opening games of a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. Game 1 starts at 7 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
One person who has watched Toppin closely is his former coach Anthony Grant, who traveled to New York City last weekend with assistant coach Ricardo Greer to see Toppin play in person in the NBA for the first time. Grant and Greer, who both brought their sons, watched back-to-back games at Madison Square Garden against the Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics on Saturday and Sunday.
Toppin played just over 17 minutes combined in the two games and scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting as the Knicks won two close games to close the regular season.
Grant and Greer also got to talk to Toppin in person while they were there.
“I think Obi’s in a really good place,” Greer said. “He’s really happy for the team. I think Obi understands he’s playing behind an All-NBA-caliber performer in Julius Randle (24.1 points per game) and that coach Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) and the front office and the coaching staff have put the Knicks in the position where they secured the four seed and head to the playoffs as the No. 1 defensive team in the league. They’re playing well together. Obi’s in a familiar situation in terms of having a group of guys that are all pulling in the same direction like his experience last year here and what we were able to accomplish. I think he’s done a tremendous job of taking advantage of those opportunities and understanding what his role on that team is and trying to be great at what his role is.”
While Toppin hasn’t played a typical role for a top-10 pick, this has been no ordinary season. The pandemic delayed the draft by five months last season, costing Topping a chance to play in the NBA’s summer leagues and robbing him of a full period of preseason practice.
Other factors have limited his minutes. Two Knicks experts who followed the Toppin story all season — Jonathan Macri, of the Knicks Film School podcast, and Damon Durbin, a 2008 UD graduate who keeps track of all former Flyers throughout pro basketball on his Professionally LOWD account — broke down the Toppin situation in interviews with the Dayton Daily News.
Q: Why isn’t Toppin playing more?
Macri: Any conversation about why Obi isn’t play inevitably has to come back to Julius Randle.
Durbin: The Knicks were not supposed to be good, and I think the idea of drafting him was that they were going to trade Julius Randle (a seven-year veteran in his second season in New York) at the first available opportunity, but the team and Randle have been so much better than they expected.
Macri: The consensus among people following the team was that maybe (Randle) wouldn’t get traded before the season but that his time with the Knicks was short lived — whether it was going to be a trade in the beginning of the year or maybe it would wait until the deadline. The longest anybody figured he would be here would be up until this offseason because he only had a small guarantee on his contract for next year.
Q: How big of a setback was Toppin’s calf injury, which he suffered in the season opener and caused him to miss the next 10 games?
Macri: Thibodeau likes to say, ‘The magic is in the work,’ which is to say it’s all about practice. He values practice as much as any coach and talks constantly about building habits over the course of a year. Then you throw in the fact that they had no real training camp and really no preseason to speak of. There were four games, but it was not much. All of this conspired to put (Toppin) in a situation where the absolute worst way that his NBA career could have gotten gotten off, at least in terms of him getting on the court and being able to show what he can do, happened.
Durbin: By the time he got back, his role was was definitely in question, and he struggled a little bit coming back. His minutes started out decent when he came back and then went way down. That’s what happens with rookies sometimes. They start to get jerked around. There would be nights when he played 15 minutes. There would be nights when he played two minutes. I think that hurt his confidence a little bit because he started to play poorly there for a while. Right around the all-star break, he had a really bad stretch.
Macri: He went through a period — I would say maybe close to a month — where he, frankly, didn’t look like he belonged on an NBA court. He was a little uncertain. He was actually more uncertain on offense. On defense, he has made slow and steady progress. On offense, he didn’t seem to know where he was supposed to be or what he wanted to do.
Q: Did the Knicks’ success take any pressure off Toppin?
Durbin: One of the things I’ve actually enjoyed about watching the Knicks this year is they have been a really cohesive team. The guys seem to like each other. Winning obviously helps, but they all seem to get along really well. I think that helped Obi to kind of pull out of the funk because the last probably four or five weeks of the season, there’s been noticeable improvement. He’s played a lot better. His 3-point shot has been probably the most noticeable thing that’s gotten better as the season went on. He was shooting under 20 percent at one point. He’s gonna finish around 30.
Macri: You can tell he has a much better grasp on the game and what he’s supposed to be doing. He is playing with a lot more confidence. He hit 8 of his final 18 from 3, which is really nice. (Earlier in the season), he was taking these corner 3s, which is supposedly the easiest shot in basketball, and everybody would take their life in their hands with these shots. But then he just started firing away with confidence toward the end of the year.
Durbin: It’s something that he’d never done before, but that’s been his role with the Knicks. He’s been a stretch four, so they put him in that corner, and it took him a while to get adjusted to it but he is starting to knock that shot down.
Q: How has Toppin handled the up-and-down season?
Durbin: He’s the same Obi that you saw at Dayton. He’s excited for everyone all the time. He’s in on all the celebrations. He’s developed a couple of really cool relationships. One of the things that made a big difference for Obi coming in was once Derrick Rose got on the team, it felt like he looked for (Toppin) more on the court. And then Obi has talked a number of times about how helpful Rose has been to him off the court, talking to him about being a professional, talking to him about what he needs to be doing on the floor.
Q: What is Toppin’s future with the Knicks?
Macri: From what little I know, no players are tradable, but they’re not looking to move him. There are certainly questions about the long-term distribution of assets. If you’re going to lock up Randle long term on a big deal, does it make sense to have Obi? Or do you flip him in a trade? I think they want to keep him. I think they love the kid. I think they love his attitude. I think they absolutely love his work ethic.
This is a great team culture in terms of guys pulling for each other, supporting each other. I don’t think any player on this team gets as much excitement generated from the bench when they do something good as Obi Toppin. It’s noticeable, and it’s not just a rookie thing because I cannot say the same thing of Immanuel Quickley. I pay very close attention to this stuff. When Obi does something good, the bench absolutely explodes — and not just highlight dunks.
I factor all that stuff in. Then, leaning on what Thibodeau has already said when he talked before the year about how how it takes a whole cycle — that second training camp and that second preseason — for rookies to get it, personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year we’re seeing a guy who’s playing closer to 20 minutes a game.