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Obi Toppin and the Alignment of Timing in the NBA

The former lottery pick is out of New York and is now a Pacer. And for the first time in his career, is in the right situation at the right time

In the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Robin Scherbatsky (played by Cobie Smulders) has a line about relationships. She says to Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor):

“If you have chemistry, you only need one other thing…timing. But timing's a bitch.”

The line applies to many things outside of romantic relationships and drives home a key point that nothing great is achieved without a little bit of fortunate timing. This is the case in our personal relationships but also applicable for our favorite players when they get drafted. Where you land matters in the sense of the opportunities that you will be given and the chance you have to show that you are elite at your position.

I thought about this after the New York Knicks traded away former #8 overall pick Obi Toppin to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for two future second round picks. It was a necessary reset button for Toppin, who is closing in on a rookie extension that he simply was not going to get in New York City. It is the latest example of how timing has been an obstacle for the forward, as he looks to jumpstart his career with a new team.

Redshirts and Pandemics

In the current NBA landscape, there is a huge emphasis placed on age and potential ceiling. A player that is worse today but is 19 years old with the chance to be a superstar will be prioritized over a player who is a better player today but is 21 years old. We have seen this sort of calculation cause good players like Draymond Green, Jalen Brunson, and Mikal Bridges slip down draft boards. This system often causes late bloomers to be somewhat expendable in the modern NBA, a world where teams cherish things like measurables and projections over on the court performance.

This is what happened with Obi Toppin. Toppin didn’t play a year of varsity high school basketball until his senior season, and as a result received no scholarship offers. He then attended Mt. Zion Prep School in Baltimore for a postgraduate year to build up his stock and interest in colleges. It worked and Toppin ended up at the University of Dayton. However due to academic eligibility issues, Toppin was forced to redshirt his freshman season. This meant that Toppin was already 20 years old before playing a minute for Dayton.

What followed was a redshirt freshman season where Toppin was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Freshman team and the conference’s rookie of the year after averaging 14 points per game on 66% shooting from the field. The following season, he picked up where he left off averaging 20 points per game and winning the following honors:

  • AP Player of the Year

  • Atlantic 10 Player of the Year

  • Wooden Award winner (most outstanding college basketball player)

  • Naismith Award Winner (basketball player of the year)

  • Consensus All-American

It can be argued that Toppin’s season was one of the most magical that we had seen in some time, and Dayton was highly ranked nationally with the projection of being a number 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The tournament would provide Toppin further opportunity to elevate his draft stock and to show NBA teams that he was worthy of a high pick despite being an older prospect. Sadly, the world and Toppin were denied this opportunity as the tournament that season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Timing had gotten the best of Toppin again and he relied on his merits in his redshift sophomore season to elevate his draft stock. Many had Toppin going with the number 5 pick in the draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

An Unexpected Revival

The draft in 2020 had three players that everyone was certain of going early: Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball. But after that there was some mystery. For Toppin, the pendulum swing was severe as he could have gone to the Bulls at 4 or dropped all the way to the Spurs at 11. While many expected the Cavs to take him, they ended up going the more defensive route and selecting Isaac Okoro from Auburn. Toppin would fall to 8 to the New York Knicks, a team that was intriguing to Toppin as a native New Yorker and one that seemed to be a good fit for him on the surface.

The Knicks entering that draft were looking for a fresh start. They had just drafted RJ Barrett the previous year with the number three overall pick and were coming off of a disappointing 21 win season that led to the firing of their head coach. The previous summer, they had missed out on a big swing in free agency by failing to land Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Knicks instead drafted Barrett and signed power forward Julius Randle from New Orleans who was coming off a very productive season where he averaged 21 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 34% from three point range.

Randle’s first season as a Knick was not as successful. Almost all of his numbers dropped and he was looked at as another swing and miss signing by the Knicks, a team notorious for making bad deals over the last two decades. Many fans going into that season with the knowledge of Randle’s bad season and the drafting of Toppin saw the writing on the wall: Julius Randle was on his way out and Obi Toppin was his replacement. This seemed to be the plan, anyway. Randle would start the year but would likely be traded at the trade deadline so that the Knicks could focus on building around Obi Toppin, RJ Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson. Then a funny thing happened: Julius Randle had the best year of his career.

In that 2020-21 season, Julius Randle led the Knicks to a playoff appearance, was a first-time All-Star, and was named to the All-NBA team. Randle was also just 26 years old, only 4 years older than Toppin, and he had shown the ability to lead a team as a number one scoring option to a playoff appearance. The Knicks simply couldn’t trade him now, the calculus had changed. It was after this season, Toppin’s rookie season, that the writing was on the wall for Toppin as a Knick. Julius Randle signed an extension that off-season and it was clear that the team was building around him and not the slightly younger and yet unproven Toppin.

Increased Opportunity

Over the last two seasons, Toppin hasn’t logged a ton of minutes. Part of this is because he played positionally behind a power forward in Julius Randle. But another part of it is the philosophy that head coach Tom Thibodeau employs for this Knicks team. Many fans wondered why the coach would not have Toppin and Randle on the court together at the same time for extended minutes, which would have given Toppin more of an opportunity. The answer to that is that the coach values rim protection above all else on defense so he always wanted a traditional center on the court for 48 minutes.

What resulted was that Toppin would become a different player in the Knicks system. He was relegated to shooting threes on swing passes as opposed to initiating his own offense or being a lob threat. Last season, Toppin took 419 shots and 245 of those shots (58%) were three point shots. When he was in college, Toppin registered a school record 190 dunks which is good for 5.2 dunks per game. In the NBA as a Knick, he registered 188 dunks which equates to 0.9 dunks per game. Conversely, in the NBA Toppin has averaged 2.5 three-point attempts per game, which is up from 1.6 attempts in college. In short, Toppin went from a high-flying athletic power forward that reminded people of Amar’e Stoudemire to a three-point specialist with the Knicks.

With the addition of Jalen Brunson this past off-season, the Knicks have made it clear that they will be looking to compete in the present. And hoping for Toppin to develop into something more than a rotation reserve was not in the cards. In addition, with extensions looming for both Toppin and point guard Immanuel Quickley, a decision had to be made. That decision was to trade Toppin to Indiana, which was the best possible fit for him.

Toppin is now paired with emerging young point guard Tyrese Haliburton and exciting swingman Bennedict Mathurin. In addition to these young players, Toppin is now paired with center Myles Turner who offers a positive spacing element on offense for Toppin and a defensive anchor to take pressure off of him. This situation will allow Toppin to roam in the lane more freely and perhaps allow the Pacers to hide him a bit on defense, where he has been proven to be a bit of a liability.

The wrinkle in all of this is that the Pacers just drafted a power forward in Jarace Walker, who ironically was also the 8th overall pick. Toppin now has a chance to rewrite his history in a situation similar to the one that he encountered in New York but now the shoe is on the other foot. He is now in a bit of a “prove it” situation as he is set to enter restricted free agency after this upcoming season. The Pacers will then be able to decide if Toppin is their power forward of the future or if they are better served letting him walk and allowing Walker more time to develop.

If you ask a certain contingent of Knicks fans, they will tell you how sad they are that Toppin is gone. He was a fan favorite who excited the Garden with thunderous dunks and timely threes. When Randle missed games late in the season, Toppin performed well averaging over 20 points per game in the 15 games where he logged extended minutes. On the flip side, other fans see Toppin as a bit of a limited player. One that is great on the fast break, but lacks creativity in the half-court and is a defensive liability. With this upcoming year for the Pacers, timing is finally on Toppin’s side. He now has an opportunity to show us whether he is a building block piece or just another role player in the NBA.

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