Usually by this point in the season, fans and teams have seen enough tape to know what to expect from their lottery pick. They may not show it on a day-to-day basis, but most of the players taken in the first 14 picks have put on some display of their talents and skills. For Obi Toppin, this is not fully true; it’s also not necessarily his fault. Toppin came into the league as a freak athlete heralded as the next Amar’e Stoudemire for his quick-leaping and explosiveness around the rim. But outside of a few plays every few games, Toppin has not been able to showcase all of his potential and strengths. A lot of that is due to how he is being used.
For much of the season, Toppin has been relegated to being a spot-up shooter. While he has shown the ability to make three pointers at times, he is only shooting 28.1% from outside. This is troubling because he is only averaging 3.6 shots a game to begin with while over a third of those come from beyond the 3-point line. We have seen him start to cut off of his teammates’ drives even when he starts out on the perimeter, but it can be hard for someone whose game revolves around attacking the rim to be constantly pushed out further and further.
The thing that has many Knicks fans frustrated is the fact that he is only used as the roll man in pick-and-rolls on 9.9% of plays that he is on the floor, a number far lower than the 29% and 25.6% that Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel get. This makes even less sense when taking into account the fact that Toppin’s points per possession as the roll man is 1.11, higher than both Gibson (1.08) and Noel (1.05). Gibson (10.5%) and Noel (12.1%) also have higher turnover rates as the roll man compared to Toppin (5.3%). Is Toppin an elite roll man? Far from it.
He still ranks just 99th in points per possession in these plays, but the combination of stats makes him — outside of Mitchell Robinson — one of if not the best rim-rolling player the Knicks have. Giving Toppin more pick-and-roll plays would allow him to do what he is best at and surely lead to him getting better at these plays as he sees different defensive looks. Already a decently skilled player for his size, Toppin could develop into a player who could shoot midrange shots after rolling, or find open players like RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley in the corners.
We’ve already seen plays like the one above, where he is able to use his great hands to catch passes on the run and finish as the roll man. Another thing that could help with both his improvement and his stats is additional playing time with Derrick Rose. Rose, by far, gets the most out of the young rookie. When looking at different 2-man combination on the Knicks that include Toppin, the Rose-Toppin combo is first in +/- per 100 posessions and FG% differential and it’s shown in their play as well.
Rose made it clear that he wants to push the pace when he was in the game and that is exactly the kind of style that suits Toppin. When asked about it, Toppin himself said, “The pace that Derrick plays at, I love that pace,” If the Knicks can find more minutes for these two to play together, it could lead to an accelerated growth for Toppin’s skills and confidence on the floor. Toppin and Rose have the fifth-highest minutes out of the top 2-man combinations (partly because Rose joined the Knicks midseason) but it is still at just 172 minutes, a fraction of how many he’s played with Quickley (441), with whom he has shared the most minutes with.
As of late, we have seen Toppin looking more confident and he has been able to contribute to the Knicks’ surprising season is multiple ways. Whether it’s a big putback dunk to turn the momentum of the game, or a huge block, or just doing the small things Tom Thibodeau asks of him, there is no denying that Toppin is starting to do the right things on the court. It doesn’t always show up on the stats, but he often finds himself in the right place and he is growing by the day. On top of that, he has been very unselfish and supportive of the team. Rookies can sometimes come into the league with an ego, but Toppin has yet to complain about his playing time or lack of shots and he continues to be a team -irst guy.
The unfortunate thing is Thibodeau, who to his credit has done an amazing job with the Knicks this year, is a defensive-minded coach and has never been fond of playing rookies big minutes to begin with. Those are two things that Toppin has going against him. Toppin is actually second on the team (among players who’ve played significant minutes) in FG% difference on defense, so there is potential on that end as well. That being said, he still has a lot of room to grow there, and until he does his minutes and role most likely will stay the same as the season progresses. But fans around the league shouldn’t be too quick to judge Toppin on numbers alone. If he can be put in the right scenarios and continue to develop the other parts of his game, there’s still hope for the lottery pick to live up to his hype and potential.