Obi Toppin: The Matrix Reloaded

If Obi Toppin had been nineteen rather than twenty-two at the time of the 2020 Draft, where would he have been selected? I think we can all agree he’d have gone well within the top five, and I’d personally venture to say likely number one. He was, after all, coming off an all-time great college season at Dayton — one which brought him National Player of the Year Honors on the strength of 20.0 points per game for a 29-2 Flyers team which finished the 2019-20 season ranked third in the nation.

Standing six-foot-nine with a seven-two wingspan and possessing a solid three-point shot and awe-inspiring ability as a leaper, there was a lot to like about Obi Toppin as an NBA prospect. But there was also a lot working against him. The age, of course — then 106 days shy of his 23rd birthday thanks to a prep season and a redshirt year at Dayton. And also the high waist, the tight hips, the suboptimal posture, the awkward footwork, and the rigid and vertical defensive stance. 

He was chosen eighth overall by the Knicks and the pick was largely well-regarded. He was a big name and an exciting player who was seen by many as among the most NBA-ready incoming rookies. In the league’s annual preseason GM survey, Obi — short for Obadiah, a name passed down (along with his hops) from his NYC streetball-legend father — finished third in the polling for Rookie of the Year. But in the first game of the regular season, he went down with a calf strain. He missed the next three weeks.

In 62 games as a rookie, he averaged 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.0 minutes per game. It was a far cry from Rookie of the Year, but Obi showed some promise. He produced solidly on a per-minute basis, shot above league average in terms of true shooting, and offered plenty of flashes as a threat both vertically and out of pick-and-pops. But he was playing behind Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel, and Taj Gibson — and for Tom Thibodeau — so there simply weren’t many minutes available.

This past August, I was in attendance when Obi dropped 31 on the Pistons at the Vegas Summer League. He was utterly dominant — scoring from everywhere and putting on a dunk show, including a two-footed two-hander from a step inside the free-throw line. Yes, it was Summer League, but he looked like a much improved player, and indeed he was, because that improvement has carried over to his second second. 

He’s up to 8.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game (19.2 and 8.5 per 36). His 59.3% true shooting ranks in the league’s 75th percentile, with the driving force behind that percentage being his at-rim shooting efficiency — 73%, 90th percentile. Also, his at-rim attempts are way up — from 5.5/75 (71st percentile) to 9.5/75 (98th percentile) — and he ranks 19th in the NBA in dunks with 28, despite being just 232nd in total minutes played.

Obi’s 15.6 net rating is the third highest in the entire NBA, trailing only Steph Curry (20.8) and Otto Porter Jr. (15.9), and it speaks to the success of New York’s second unit. With his exceptional length and quick, explosive leaping, he has substantial natural ability as a shot-blocker, and his 4.9% block rate (93rd percentile) reflects that. This is where he currently offers the most value defensively.

He still struggles at times moving laterally, but there’s no doubt he addressed that deficiency in his offseason training. He’s making an effort to defend down in a stance rather than employing the narrow, stiff, upright defensive posture he displayed with maddening consistency in college and as a rookie. His overall movement is notably more fluid, and if anything he might be even bouncier now. His biomechanical improvement has resulted in the elimination of much of the awkwardness which plagued his profile as a prospect.

Offensively, Obi shines in transition. He’s extremely fast running end-to-end, and he has a good sense of floor balance and spacing, always seems to know when to run to the rim and when to veer off to the perimeter. He has a knack for getting behind the defense, and he loves to sprint off a miss. He either gets a wide-open dunk or he seals his man, catches a high pass with ease, and finishes. Using his speed, his instincts, and his insane catch radius, he operates a lot like Anthony Davis in transition.

In the half-court he’s a pick-and-pop four who can roll, cut, and space vertically. And while his three-point shooting percentage (18.2%) this season has been abysmal, it’s based on a small sample size (just 33 attempts), and I feel confident in saying he’s a much better outside shooter than his current percentage would indicate. His shot is smooth, balanced, and mechanically sound, and he shot 42% from three over his two seasons at Dayton, and then a shade over 30% as a rookie.

Obi’s sense of spacing/balance also shows up in the half-court. He paces himself nicely and positions himself to take advantage of gaps in the defense. His cuts and rolls are well-timed, and he’s among the best in the league at calling for the ball. It’s an underrated skill, and he does it energetically, demonstratively, sometimes frantically, and probably better than anyone. His teammates rarely miss him when he’s open.

Energy is the essence when it comes to Obi Toppin, and that which he brings to the game is palpable from the moment he checks in. His motor is among the league’s highest revving — he’s in the 81st percentile in terms of offensive rebound rate because of it — and he energizes both his teammates and the crowd with his unrelenting enthusiasm and high-flying dunks.

As an above-the-rim finisher, Obi is on par with some of the most legendary gravity-defiers the game has known. He’s extremely quick getting off the ground, and there’s virtually nothing he can’t reach. He’s a dunking machine, and he unfailingly adds grace and flair to his throw-downs. But he can also finish with touch, as he’s shown an ability to adjust mid-air, maintain composure, and softly bank or drop it in. These finishes are perhaps where his hangtime is most jaw-dropping.

The standard comp for Obi heading into the draft was Amare’ Stoudemire, and there are indeed some strong similarities — the frame, the posture, the movement, the dunks. But the comp which I prefer is STAT’s longtime frontcourt running mate, the Matrix, Shawn Marion. And perhaps at this point it’s more a blueprint than a comp, but I can see it in the energetic style of play, the shot-blocking, the running and cutting, in flashes in the rebounding, and in the ability to step out and shoot it from distance.

Obi is part of the Knicks’ two best regularly used lineups (20+ mins total), and his 19.9 PER is the second highest of any 2020 rookie, just a shade below LaMelo Ball (20.6). It’s becoming clear that he deserves more than his current 15.3 minutes per game, and it’s not as if there isn’t a pathway there. The small-ball lineup pairing of Toppin and Julius Randle has shown immense promise, and based on both the eye test and the numbers it would seem to be something well worth further exploring. In 49 minutes this season, that duo has registered a +18.2 net rating.

As much as his age worked against him as a prospect — as much as it was seen as a negative — he’s still only 23 years old. His upside is sizable, and he has the time, capacity, and work ethic to fulfill it. He should be considered an important part of this team’s future as an ultra high-energy, freakishly athletic floor-spacing four — something along the lines of Shawn Marion. 

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the more pessimistic of Obi’s pre-draft and rookie-season evaluations. He was seen by many as severely limited by a lack of flexibility, and hindered by poor biomechanics; but now he’s moving fluidly, getting down in a stance, and changing directions more quickly. He was seen by many as an old prospect who was close to a finished product, but now he seems every bit an exciting young player with a whole bunch of potential and room for growth.

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About Brett Usher: Co-founder of the Overstated NBA Show Podcast. You can follow Brett on twitter at @UsherNBA!