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Obi Toppin isn’t a bust just yet; he’s a rookie playing behind an All-Star

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Have some patience with the neophyte.

2021 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk Contest
Obi Toppin can fly. But can he be a solid rotation piece?
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Four months into his rookie season, Obi Toppin hasn’t exactly looked like the NBA-ready offensive juggernaut we were promised on draft night, but it’s far too early to declare the uber-athletic big man a bust.

It’s understandable why some people are already ansty about Toppin’s selection as the eighth overall pick. For starters, the Knicks could have had Tyrese Haliburton, who instead went to Sacramento, where he’s looked quite good putting up 13 points and 5 assists on 48/43/83 shooting splits. Then there’s the fact that Toppin is already 23-years-old, meaning he’s actually older than all of the following Knicks: RJ Barrett (20), Kevin Knox and Immanuel Quickley (both 21), Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson (both 22).

Thus, it was expected that he’d be a little more prepared to play in the NBA, but he’s often looked a step slow and has yet to have even one signature performance. Rather, he has piled up enough gross games — including three minutes of ugly basketball in last night’s heartbreaking loss to the Brooklyn Nets — that we’re often left wondering why Toppin seemed to be so hailed coming out of college.

Look, facts are facts, and the fact is that Toppin hasn’t been terrific this year. But at times he also hasn’t been completely terrible. He’s looked a lot like a rookie who didn’t have a real training camp or summer league and is playing meager minutes behind an All-Star.

To date, Toppin has averaged 4.7 points and 2.5 rebounds on 50/30/73 shooting splits in 12.5 minutes per night across 30 games. Don’t be a surface dweller, though. Let’s dig into the neophyte’s numbers in order to see where Toppin is really at.

Toppin Started Slow, Randle Didn’t.

In his inaugural NBA performance on Dec. 23, Obi played 23 minutes and put up 9 points on 3-12 shooting (3-7 from deep), plus 3 boards, 1 assist and 2 blocks. The shooting numbers weren’t great, but Toppin’s tantalizing potential was still on display. Pay particular attention to the fast break pass he threads through two Indiana defenders to Barrett, which takes place 16 seconds into the following clip:

Then, however, Toppin missed 10 consecutive games with a strained calf. During those 10 games, Randle was a revelation. In just over 37 minutes per contest in Toppin’s absence, Randle posted roughly 23 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists on 50/37/78 shooting splits.

Randle has continued to astound. In fact, he’s been so great that he’ll warrant All-NBA consideration at the end of the season. He’s been so good that Tom Thibodeau has come to rely on him for huge minutes, because the Knicks are at their most competitive when Randle is on the floor. Randle is first in minutes played (1,467 or 67 more total minutes than the guy in second place, Nikola Jokic) and tied for second in minutes per game (36.7).

Toppin’s time on the court has suffered as a result. Thibs has him on a short leash; Toppin has received less than 15 minutes in 22 of the 30 games he’s played in, and in 11 of his appearances he’s been on the court for less than 10 minutes.

Despite His Lack Of Minutes, Toppin May Be Improving.

Since the start of February, Toppin is shooting 56% from the field and 35% from three (as a reminder, for the season he’s at 50% from the field and 31% from deep). After chucking up seven threes in the first game of the season, Toppin has tapered back his tendency to launch shots from behind the arc. Four is the most threes he’s taken in a single night since that first game.

In recent weeks, he’s had a handful of above average games, including an 11-point, 3-rebound effort in 15 minutes during a victory over Houston and a 7-point, 2-board, 1-steal and 1-block night in 13 minutes during a loss to Golden State.

If you extrapolate Toppin’s numbers to see what he would theoretically provide in 36 minutes per night, you get the following stat line: 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1 block. Per 36 isn’t the best way to determine whether someone is good or not, but those numbers ain’t necessarily bust-worthy.

Toppin is still in the process of figuring out which of his skills translate versus what he needs to be working on. His lateral quickness could be upped; he dominated defenders in college, but in the NBA has struggled to create any separation when trying to make a move on offense. Again, he’s only played 30 games.

He Was Impressive In The Dunk Contest

This year’s dunk contest was pretty brutal, but not because of Toppin, who performed pretty admirably and may have been robbed of the victory, depending who you ask.

The contest took place during halftime of the All-Star game, and the format was weird. The announcers were also weird, with Kenny Smith strangely saying that one of Toppin’s dunks would have been a 10 if Zach LaVine “didn’t do it last week in the layup line.” Sorry, Kenny, that one of the best dunkers in NBA history recently did a similar looking dunk during pregame layup lines, when there is no pressure.

Anyhow, here are a couple of Toppin’s dunks from the contest. All of his dunks were great, and he was way more accurate than the most recent Knicks to compete in the contest, Dennis Smith Jr. and James White. Most human beings could never come close to even imagining that they might be able to pull off even one of Toppin’s dunks, ever.

Conclusion

Toppin is clearly very talented, but his development has been stunted, in part because the Knicks are much better than anyone expected. He hasn’t looked like the potential Randle replacement that some thought he was when the Knicks drafted him. But he’s also a 23-year-old rookie receiving inconsistent minutes on a team that’s overachieving. Not to mention, he’s been overshadowed by Immanuel Quickley, a guy who rarely looks like a rookie despite being drafted almost 20 picks later than Toppin.

The tools appear to be there for Obi, he just needs to earn more minutes by playing well when given the opportunity. That’ll boost his confidence. Can Toppin harness his abilities and become an impact player in the NBA? There’s no guarantee he’ll ever be a significant part of New York’s rotation, but it’s definitely way too early to call him a bust.