On the surface, some may look at what Obi Toppin did in his first season with the New York Knicks and see it as a disappointment. When looking deeper, this is not at all the case. As the season rolled on, Toppin continually improved his skills and evolved his game. He worked extremely hard on his weaknesses and he was not the same player at the end of the season as he was at the beginning.
Evolving His Game
In his incredible final season at Dayton, Toppin won the Naismith Award for the top college player in the country. He did most of his damage in the low post but because of his size, he would have to expand his range to find success in the NBA game. He worked endlessly in the practice gym to improve his jump shot, especially from three-point range, and did a good job of making strides. Similarly, his defensive skills have steadily improved as well. That goes a long way with a coach like Tom Thibodeau who puts an extremely high value on defense.
Toppin did not receive a ton of minutes this season, averaging only 11 per game. This is mainly because he was really only in the game for the rare times when Julius Randle was on the bench, who was the minutes’ leader in the entire NBA, averaging nearly 38 per game.
Thibodeau felt that having both of them on the court at the same time would present too much of a stylistic issue because of the way each of them plays the game. Also, because the Knicks were battling for a playoff spot all year, there wasn’t really much time to experiment. If they were not in the playoff race, this is likely something they would have tried later in the season more to see how it looked.
Developing chemistry and on-court co-existence between Randle and Toppin is definitely something that should be a focus this offseason. The fact that Toppin has improved on some of the concerning factors helps his case greatly for more playing time. He was selected very high in the draft, so the plan is to utilize him much more in the future. He was selected to be a big part of the team and it’s realistic to believe that his role will expand exponentially next season.
Since he was a child, the dream of Toppin was not only to play in the NBA but for the Knicks. He has New York roots and is now exactly where he’s always wanted to be. This can add another level of motivation to someone who has never been a stranger to hard work anyway.
The coaching style of Thibodeau can be described as very demanding, especially on rookies, and all reports say that Toppin has embraced that. He keeps an optimistic and motivated attitude despite not getting the minutes that maybe he was hoping for. He has a great work ethic and a willingness to learn, which goes a very long way in the eyes of Thibodeau.
Though it was a relatively quiet season for Toppin statistically, averaging just 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds per game in the regular season, he showed many reasons to be optimistic about his future as a player for the Knicks. His utilization actually increased in the playoffs, averaging 6.4 points and 2.6 rebounds across 13 minutes per game.
It’s a small step forward but an excellent indicator that things are trending upwards for Toppin. After a full offseason of coaching and development, it will be exciting to see the player he grows into. He was drafted to be a difference-maker, and just because it did not happen in year one does not at all mean it isn’t coming soon.