Toppin wants to put Knicks ‘back on the map’

Dayton forward joins team that has suffered seven straight losing seasons

The New York City tabloids wasted no time making Star Wars references in Thursday’s newspapers after the New York Knicks drafted former Dayton Flyers forward Obi Toppin with the No. 8 pick.

The New York Daily News chose: “A New Hope: Obi’s No. 1 for Knicks in pleasant draft-night surprise.”

While the Daily News gave the main headline to New York Mets second baseman Robinson Cano’s year-long suspension, Toppin was the centerpiece in the New York Post, which picked this headline: “Obi One: New hope for Knicks as they grab Dayton skywalker with first pick.”

Toppin joins a franchise that was last relevant a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — the Knicks have suffered seven straight losing seasons and finished above .500 only three times in this century — but he gets to play in his hometown. Also, he goes from playing at UD Arena, one of college basketball’s most famous venues, to Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of basketball.

Toppin and his family posed for a photo outside Madison Square Garden after the draft on Thursday under a Toppin photo that was displayed on a big screen above the entrance.

“Welcome to New York, Obi Toppin,” the sign read.

Toppin became the highest-drafted Dayton player since Jim Paxson Sr. went to the Minneapolis Lakers with the No. 3 pick in 1956. He joined Marcus Camby (No. 2 in 1996) and Lamar Odom (No. 4 in 1999) as the only Atlantic 10 Conference players drafted in the top 10.

The draft opened with a tense 50 minutes for Toppin and the thousands of Dayton fans watching on TV. There were draft experts who predicted the Chicago Bulls would pick him at No. 4. Many experts thought the Cleveland Cavaliers would take him at No. 5. He kept slipping, making the Knicks a likely landing spot.

“As one of the highest-ranked players on our draft board, Obi was someone we really coveted,” Knicks President Leon Rose said in a statement. “He’s an explosive athlete and one of the most dynamic players in college basketball, which earned him the Naismith Player of the Year honors. Just as importantly, he’s also a high-character individual with a tremendous work ethic. We look forward to a bright future with him and are excited to bring a native New Yorker home to The Garden.”

Toppin was born in Brooklyn and went to high school in Ossining, N.Y, north of New York City. That made it an even more emotional moment when he heard his name called. He was sitting on a couch with his mom Roni to his right and his dad Obadiah to his left. Toppin held an iPad on his lap, and his brother Jacob, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, observed the scene while on Facetime.

Somewhere nearby were three members of the Dayton coaching staff who traveled with Crutcher to New York for the draft-night party: head coach Anthony Grant; assistant coach Ricardo Greer; and director of player development Brett Comer.

Toppin breathed a big sigh of relief when Adam Silver, who first made the mistake of referring to UD as “Dayton University,” announced his name. Then Toppin fought back tears as his mom put a Knicks hat on his head, and his dad hugged him. For a brief moment, the camera caught Jalen Crutcher, Toppin’s former teammate and best friend, celebrating on the end of the couch.

Toppin was still crying when his interview with ESPN began. He still managed to put his feelings into words.

“I want to thank God,” Toppin said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here. Without my team, I wouldn’t be here. Without my teammate to the left, I wouldn’t be here. I appreciate you, bro. Shoutout to Jalen Crutcher. I wouldn’t be here without him. Coach Grant, Coach Greer, I wouldn’t be here without them. I’m very grateful. It’s a blessing to be in this position.”

Later in the night, Toppin spoke to a large group of reporters on Zoom. He covered a number of topics:

On playing in his hometown: “Being able to play in front of all the family and fans out here and in front of my friends, it’s a blessing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m glad I landed where I landed.”

On what he wants to achieve with the Knicks: “I want to have a brotherhood. I want to build a relationship with everybody on the team — and not only the team, the organization — and have a lot of W’s. New York has been down a couple years, and I feel like with the guys they have now, and myself added to that, we’re going to win a lot of games, and we’re going to put New York back on the map, for sure.”

On what he thinks of Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks roster: “I learned a lot about coach through this pandemic. Basically, I understand he’s a defensive coach, and that’s one of my biggest things I need to work on. Having him as my head coach, he’s going to make sure that I lock in and make sure that I become great one day. If I get that defensive scheme down, I’m going to be a really good player one day — a really great player one day. I feel like everybody in this organization is going to push to help me be great, and I’m glad I’m here.”

On how he will fit on the roster with guard R.J. Barrett, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2019: “I feel like me and RJ are going to be a great duo. It’s going to be like me and Jalen all over again.”

On how his life experiences prepare him for the NBA: “I feel like nothing has came easy for me. I went through a lot of things growing up, and through those struggles and through those bad times, it’s made me the person and player that I am today. I learned from those experiences on the court and off the court. Going through those experiences helped me become who I am today, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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