Early impressions of Knicks’ Obi Toppin through his first NBA preseason action

Obi Toppin high-fiving Knicks teammates in blue jerseys

Without the Las Vegas Summer League and extended preseason we’re used to, Knicks fans only get a few glimpses at Obi Toppin, New York’s eighth overall selection in this year’s draft, before he takes the court for his first official NBA contest.

Even under normal circumstances, information gleaned thus far would be sketchy at best, and with only three preseason games down and one to go, what we’re seeing out of the sky-scraping rookie may look very different in a short amount of time.

Still, here’s what little we’ve learned about Toppin thus far, with plenty to like and some things to keep watch over…

He’s a quick learner

During his first preseason game, Toppin bit on a Blake Griffin pump fake, giving up a drive and easy bucket plus the harm. During the following timeout, the Knicks veterans warned Toppin about Griffin’s slow fake as a go-to weapon of his game. The lesson clearly stuck with Toppin, as he didn’t jump on any of the same fakes in game two.

Though he has yet to find his stroke from deep, Toppin made an adjustment between games two and three. In the former, he was attempting a number of his threes from a good step or two behind the arc. He corrected this against the Cavaliers, spotting up tighter to the arc for an easier shot.

His defense isn’t as bad as advertised

The biggest question mark surrounding Toppin entering the season was his defense, a stain on an otherwise wholly impressive college resume. In three preseason games he hasn’t been great on that end, but it’s not the trainwreck advertised by many. Toppin played the entire fourth quarter in New York’s comeback win Wednesday, with few blatant miscues to note.

He’s got an active stance and hands, resulting in two steals and a block in his short time on the court. The effort is there, like when Toppin gallops back to play transition defense — and for many players that’s half the battle. For the most part he’s aware of where to rotate in a defensive guru’s scheme he’s trying to pick up on the fly.

Story continues

Mechanics and physicality will be his biggest obstacles. Toppin looks outmatched by bigger frontcourt players, gets scored on when he shouldn’t, and can get tossed around especially on the boards. He picked up six fouls in 43 minutes in games one and two, but avoided any whistles in game three. In all, it’s a lot smaller a concern than it was a couple weeks ago.

His dunks are cool, his passing even cooler

Maybe the most impressive part of Toppin’s game early on is his passing. He’s got a solid eye for the weak side shooter as a rookie and can distribute from anywhere on the court, from any position. Against Cleveland, he hit RJ Barrett underneath the rim from above the break with ease, and later dished out to a shooter from the elbow on a mismatch.

Toppin’s offensive IQ isn’t limited to his passing ability. After a dish, he’ll keep moving to re-position where his team needs him most. He’ll fly out of bounds and sneakily scurry back into the dunkers’ spot in the short corner for an easy flush — something we’ve seen a lot of this preseason. When there’s no play available once he gets the ball, he immediately turns it into a screened hand-off for the next guy on the perimeter. Even if the shots don’t fall for Toppin, he makes up for it with his offensive IQ.

There’s plenty of room to grow

Toppin has displayed many positives but he’s had his early speed bumps as well. 

The shooting needs to improve, and it’s clear that Toppin will need to have things created for him early on. He was shut down on two separate drives by Cleveland’s Dean Wade, and doesn’t appear to have confidence in his handle at this level quite yet. The Knicks should try and get him more post-up opportunities.

His defense and rebounding also need work, but this will all come in time. He’s only three preseason games into his NBA career and the rotation keeps changing around him. For now, there are some good signs Knicks fans can point to for optimism.

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