Finding playing time for Knicks fan favorite Obi Toppin will again be a challenge – The Denver Post


For the fans, the appeal of Obi Toppin is understandable.

He’s the homegrown draft pick from New York City who grew up a Knicks fan, who lights up the Garden with his under-the-legs dunks and positive energy.

Toppin’s play last season suggested vast improvement and plus impact, while the player eating up minutes above him in the rotation — Julius Randle — was frustrated and sulking.

Still, there’s no assurance Toppin’s playing time will increase dramatically in this upcoming third year. The issue is multi-layered and probably starts with defense.

When a reporter Wednesday pointed out that Toppin’s speed and athleticism doesn’t translate equally to both sides of the ball, Thibodeau smiled and provided context.

“Innately, he’s much more comfortable playing offense. Because that’s what his strength is,” Thibodeau said. “I think defensively, I think he can get there. The NBA game is a lot different than the college game. So you’ve got to not only learn how the game’s different, you’ve got to learn the personnel, you’ve got to learn the schemes so that it becomes instinctive to you. But I see where you’re going with that, and it’s something he should strive for. I think he’s gotten better and he’s still not where he probably should be, or could be.”

Toppin, the eighth overall pick in 2020, was a disappointing rookie. His understanding of the defense was scattered. His shot was way off. It was more discouraging considering Toppin was an older draft pick and supposedly NBA-ready after winning College Player of the Year.

But Toppin came back last season with an improved corner 3-pointer and fastbreak efficiency impossible to keep on the bench. When Randle was injured or resting at the end of last season, Toppin averaged 20 points in the final 10 games while the Knicks went 7-3.

The breakout suggested a shakeup in the summer to either get Toppin more minutes or send him elsewhere, but the frontcourt rotation remained largely the same after the Knicks failed to acquire Donovan Mitchell.

It’s unreasonable to think the Knicks will bench Randle, who is only a year removed from being an All-NBA selection, just as his $106 million extension kicks in.

One option would be to go small with a Randle-Toppin frontcourt, but Thibodeau has resisted such a configuration. He said they’ve looked at it in practice and will experiment in preseason, but wasn’t encouraged by the results last season.

“The numbers will tell you it wasn’t very effective,” said Thibodeau, adding that it was a small sample size.

Toppin and Randle only played 209 possessions together last season and they were strong offensively (112.9 points per 100 possessions) but poor defensively (112.5 points allowed per 100 possessions), according to Cleaning the Glass.

“We don’t have to just see it in a game. We can see it in practice as well,” Thibodeau said. “So sometimes, I think people say, ‘Well, this works. Why wouldn’t you do that?’ Well, maybe we’ve looked at it. We’ve studied the numbers. We’ve watched it in practice and how does it impact the group? You have to ask those questions. But you always want to get a look at things, particularly in the preseason, so we’ll take a look at there.”

Thibodeau prefers the rim protection from a natural center and the front office gave him three this summer for a combined $82 million (Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims). Toppin’s opportunities have been unpredictable but he never complained.

“Not a lot of people in this position, so that’s all we can do is have fun,” Toppin said Wednesday. “Coach controls all that, and we’re here. I’m ready whenever my name is called, just like every other player. So, whenever my name is called, I’m gonna try to give it 110 every day.”



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