Obi Toppin opened the 2021-22 season with two impressive performances.
The sophomore forward scored 27 points combined over the first two games while shooting over 64 percent from the field. He sprinted out in transition every chance he got, creating easy points for the Knicks and highlight-reel plays that energized the Garden faithful.
Earning 28 minutes in the double-OT thriller against Boston and another 23 in the blowout win in Orlando, it looked like Toppin had established himself as a rotation regular, one who would certainly play a significant role as part of a loaded bench unit for a competitive Knicks squad.
Unfortunately, that perception hasn’t turned into a reality. Toppin hasn’t seen more than 13 minutes over New York’s last six outings, and it’s hard to figure out why.
It’s not an issue of statistical output because Obi’s productivity has never been completely tied to the boxscore. He’s out there to run the floor, dive to the rim, and defend hard. He couldn’t possibly have been that bad when it came time to bring those qualities to the court. Not when he’s been a plus-8 over the last six games, the fourth-best mark on the team during that stretch.
You’d also think that with Nerlens Noel only just making his season debut against Indiana that Toppin would’ve scooped up some additional frontcourt minutes. And yet the only player to have received fewer minutes than Toppin over these last six games has been Noel, Jericho Sims, and Miles McBride.
This feels like a repeat of the problem the Knicks have had with many of their recent lottery picks. These young guys are expected to earn their minutes when the best way for them to improve is to ensure that those minutes remain consistent through the good times and bad.
Of course, providing that playing time is a bit more difficult on a team prioritizing winning over player development. They can’t just throw a young guy out there and let him put up numbers. But Toppin knows where he fits into this loaded team and has played his role quite well through the start of this season.
“Whether I’m on the court with Jules (Randle) or on the court with Taj or Mitch. I know I’m out there bringing energy out on the court, running the floor, doing little things that will help the team win,” Obi said.
Toppin brings something nobody else on the Knicks can, a blend of size, speed, and athleticism that make him an incredible threat in transition, which he tries to use after every defensive rebound. You’d think that would make him a more valuable commodity in the eyes of Tom Thibodeau, bringing a skill-set unique to the team that could ease the burden placed on the halfcourt offense. Evidently, that’s not the case.
Maybe we were fooling ourselves with those early-season minutes. After all, the absence of both Noel and Gibson left Thibs with no choice but to turn to Obi as the go-to big off the bench in the season opener. And nearly half of Toppin’s minutes against the Magic came in the fourth quarter with a victory already in hand—in other words, it was garbage time.
Whatever the reason for Toppin’s reduced role, Thibs would be wise to revisit the decision. We’re talking about a 23-year-old who seems to be ready for additional responsibilities.
We don’t know what that future would look like, but there’s only one legitimate way to find out.