Analyzing Obi Toppin’s early-season struggles, how Knicks can better utilize him



Obi Toppin in black uniform tight shot

The sudden emergence of first-round pick Immanuel Quickley has been a revelation this season for the Knicks. Quickley’s rise has blanketed the slow start to the season by lottery pick Obi Toppin.

In his rookie season, Toppin has so far experienced many more lows than highs. After playing in the season opener against the Indiana Pacers, he missed 10 games due to a right calf strain. Since returning, Toppin has averaged 4.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.7 assists in 12 games.

The calf injury has shifted Toppin’s role in the Knicks’ pecking order. He averaged 25.2 minutes in four preseason games and saw 24 minutes of action in the regular season opener. Toppin took 12 shots in that game. He has yet to reach that number of shot attempts or 20 minutes of playing time in any game since.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has given Toppin the quick hook on several occasions, opting to go back to starter Julius Randle at any point that Toppin strings together multiple mistakes. In Monday night’s loss to the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau took Toppin out in the second half after the rookie picked up two quick fouls in the fourth quarter.

On the court, two factors have limited Toppin’s minutes. The emergence of Randle (36.6 minutes per game) as the team’s offensive hub has been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. Also, Thibodeau has prioritized having a true center on the floor at all times. Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel have sopped up all the minutes at center.

Even in Noel’s absence against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, Thibodeau opted to use third center Taj Gibson as Robinson’s backup. Another underlying factor involved in this is how Robinson has controlled his penchant for fouls, limiting any potential extra minutes available.

Randle and Toppin have played just 11 minutes together this season, per the NBA Stats page. It’s not a shocker considering how much the Knicks lose in terms of rim-protection and interior rebounding on the defensive end.

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Entering the draft, it was known that Toppin was further along on the offensive side of the ball and that defense was always going to be an issue. Toppin has been a victim of circumstance, as New York brought in a coach who has generally prioritized wins now instead of playing for the future.

While it always sounds good to tank and wait for a future draft pick or star to save the franchise, the Knicks’ play this season has been encouraging. Even with a 9-13 record, the team has reenergized the fan base by not being a train wreck. The possibility of a play-in game at the end of the season seems like an attainable goal.

And Toppin is not some underdeveloped prospect with a long pathway towards contributing. Nearly a month away from his 23rd birthday, the reigning National College Player of the Year is older than four-year vet Frank Ntilikina.

For Toppin and the Knicks, the delicate balance of finding meaningful playing time while trying to win is a tightrope both parties are walking. In the minutes Toppin has been on the court, he has not played particularly well. His penchant for attempting to make passes or plays on the baseline has led to some gaffes.

Toppin hasn’t made enough plays off the dribble or in the post to justify the learning curve issues he’s experiencing on defense. Though there was hope that he would be a stretch four, the stretch part of his game has failed to take off as he’s shooting just 26.1 percent from three on 23 attempts.

The Knicks should look at allowing Toppin more pick-and-roll opportunities. The Dayton product is scoring 1.18 points per possession as the roll man. His world class athleticism is stunning, and the Knicks should do a better job of leveraging that so Toppin can attack by running to the rim.

In the grand scheme of things, Toppin’s struggles are another possible alarm to New York’s inability to draft well in the lottery. Lottery picks Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox are currently out of the rotation. 2019 pick RJ Barrett is starting and Toppin has gotten off to a rough start.

Two of their three best prospects at the moment are Robinson and Quickley. Robinson was taken early in the second round of the draft, and Quickley was selected 25th in the first round after being projected as a mid-to late-second round selection.

It’s one thing to miss on one or two lottery picks, but New York has strung together a collection of disappointing lottery picks.

It’s still too soon to fully judge Toppin’s situation, but the early returns are a concern. At this point, though, a pattern has developed for the Knicks who need to learn how to walk while chewing gum.

Originally published February 3, 2021, 2:00 PM



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