The longest offseason in Knicks’ history reaches its merciful conclusion Friday, when the ‘bockers meet the Detroit Pistons in their preseason opener. Not only does that mean there’s actual basketball to focus on, but it’s also an opportunity for everyone — fans; stans; media; haters — to shed some of the ickier storylines that have hung around the Knicks like flies on poop. Don’t like that image? You’re not supposed to. This piece is about gross stuff I don’t wanna see anymore. Starting with all the crap around Obi Toppin.
Month after month of mock drafts had the Dayton flier rating higher than all but three or four prospects before he fell to New York at #8. Another projected top-5er, Deni Avdija, went to the Wizards at #9. That was labeled “the steal of the draft.” But Toppin drops to the Knicks and with all the mourning you’d think we’re sitting Shiva: he can’t defend; he can’t play the point; he can’t reconfigure his hips; he’s not Devin Vassell or Tyrse Haliburton or Kira Lewis Jr., three players so clearly bound for the Hall of Fame 10-12 teams passed on them.
Instead, Toppin, the college player of the year and the franchise’s most accomplished draft pick since Patrick Ewing, is for many a disappointment before he takes a single dribble. Sure, he can score on a team that struggles to, and he’s a plus-athlete on a team that has (checks notes) one, and playing for the Knicks seems to mean something to the Brooklyn-born Toppin at a time when free agents couldn’t seem to care less about “the Mecca.” Whatever Toppin accomplishes, some have already written him off. It’s like criticizing Peter Parker after he saved Mary Jane’s lunch because the apple didn’t land perfectly centered.
Then there’s 22. Not as in jersey numbers; after Herb Scherer, Bevo Nordman and Jim Barnes, Dave DeBusschere put the doble dos to rest. I mean “22” as in every clever wag obliged to point out that Toppin is 22, not 18 or 19 or a zygote with a sneaker deal. As if the great ones all arrive by 22, or peak by then. Know how many MVPs were ever 22 or younger? Two: Derrick Rose and Wes Unseld. Expand that to the ABA and the only others are Artis Gilmore and Spencer Haywood. So what? We gonna pull a Larry Burns? At 22 is Obi not done yet?
You may have heard some variation of the joke going around the docks. How Toppin is older than RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. It’s a real hoot, see, ‘cuz they came into the league before him, so you’d expect him to be younger. The punchline is he’s not. It’s comedy 101: premise, twist, resolution.
Ntilikina entered the league at 19. So did Knox. Same with Barrett. Know how many All-Rookie votes Visage de Bébé got? One. Knox received the 12th-most votes in 2019; Barrett came in 11th a year later. Old Man Mitchell Robinson made the 2019 All-Rookie Second Team at an ancient 20.
Yet despite age being nothing but a number and Vegas giving Toppin the fourth-best odds to win Rookie of the Year — better odds than most of the players taken ahead of him — people see his age and act like he just sat up out of a coffin. Patrick Ewing reached his first conference finals in his eighth season. You know how old Toppin will be if he does the same? 30. No Knicks fan is gonna be pregaming for the 2028 ECF going, “I know I should be happy, but I can’t shake feeling sad about how old Obi was when they drafted him.”
Then there’s the cataclysm of kvetch regarding Toppin’s defense, specifically his projected lack of goodness at it. Makes sense, I guess, given how many of the players taken ahead of him are projected to be two-way stars.
There’s LaMelo Ball, nearly indistinguishable from Scottie Pippen. James Wiseman is Hakeem Olajuwon 2.0. Anthony Edwards is so similar on that end of the floor to Dwyane Wade he’s got Gabrielle Union doing double-takes. Patrick Williams is obviously Kawhi Leonard. Before playing a single minute, Onyeka Okongwu has Bill Russell re-evaluating his legacy. Alvin Robertson has reincarnated as Killian Hayes despite not being dead (Robertson was the type who’s tough enough to reincarnate without even dying). And the Defensive Player of the Year award has already been renamed the Isaac Okoro Award. Too bad the Knicks missed out on all the good stuff. They oughta remember: good college defenders inevitably become good NBA defenders. That’s why Toney Douglas was such a hit here.
It’s especially short-sighed of New York to have taken Toppin given how many All-NBA players are demons on both ends of the floor. Has it really only been a couple of months since we witnessed James Harden and Luka Dončić locking fools up in the Orlando bubble? Where would Denver be the past few seasons without the elite rim protection of Nikola Jokić? Damian Lillard is positively famous for blowing up perimeter offenses. And would the Nets have the third-best odds of winning it all this year if their defense wasn’t spearheaded by the modern-day Gary Payton known as Kyrie Irving, who can only hope to become the stopper Steph Curry was in Golden State, the salient feature of the Warriors’ dynasty?
Nobody knows anything, least of all what 22-year-olds will grow into. Obi Toppin is young, athletic and maybe fun to watch play ball. He’s yet to play a single minute in the NBA. Nobody knows what he’ll be. So kick back. Relax. Enjoy the show.