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Obi Toppin uses his greatest strength to shine in sophomore debut

Always a superb athlete, Obi Toppin is finally putting it to the use that makes the most sense

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Obi Toppin’s rookie season was hardly a success.

The eighth overall pick entered his first pro run with some ideas of functioning as an offensive focal point. After all, he was the National Player of the Year in his final year at Dayton. He was older and therefore more seasoned than his rookie classmates, making him more prepared to immediately produce at the next level.

He might not have started, but there was a vision of Toppin filling up the scoring column as one of the leaders of New York’s second unit.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, Toppin wasn’t as ready as many had expected. And with Julius Randle’s emergence powering an unexpectedly competitive Knicks team, Tom Thibodeau couldn’t afford much trail and error to let one of his rookies find his place through substantial playing time. The task fell on Obi to figure out where he fit on this team regardless.

We saw a bit of what that could look like in last year’s playoffs. It was on full display in the opening game of Toppin’s sophomore season, where he outran and outjumped the Boston Celtics en route to a career-high 14 points in New York’s thrilling double-OT win.

“It was Obi I think who changed the pace of the game,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “He’s a special talent. He can really run. He can get out in the open floor.”

Few men Toppin’s height (6’9”) and weight (220 pounds) can move as he does, and he’s finally understanding that edge he holds and using it to his advantage, sprinting ahead of Boston’s defense several times to create easy baskets.

Toppin begins New York’s offensive possession above surrounded by four Celtics yet ends up at the other end with only Payton Pritchard between him and the rim. Beating most of the defense down the floor is a great way of generating easy points. Especially when the only man back barely cracks six feet.

“If we get a rebound, I’m taking off,” Toppin said.

Obi’s athleticism also adds a level of vertical spacing rolling to the rim, but the Knicks hardly utilized it last year, running their rookie through just 22 total pick and rolls. Comparatively, Toppin launched 85 triples last season and shot 30.6 percent on them.

Give the man a clear lane to the hoop and it won’t be hard to find him for the lob. It doesn’t even matter if the defense rotates over. Obi can climb the ladder.

Of the six field goals Obi made in 28 minutes of action, four came in transition, one came off a pick-and-roll, and another came off a cut during an out-of-bounds play.

“He’s confident,” Randle said of his teammate. “He’s just playing to his strengths. All of that is from repetition and work. I’ve seen him work every day. He works extremely hard.”

Toppin had a polished offensive repertoire in college. There may come a time when he rounds out that toolbox in the NBA. But his best abilities remain tied to his athleticism, and that’s all the Knicks need from him right now.

He seems to have realized that. With “Obi” chants raining down from all angles of the Garden and the Knicks emerging with an opening-night win, Toppin’s second season is off to an encouraging start because of it.