October 5, 2022

Obi Toppin has the answer to his improvement: More playing time

Obi Toppin has taken advantage of increased playing time with Julius Randle missing time with quad injury. (Rusty Jones/AP)

Obi Toppin believes the key to his development is opportunity. And up until recently — when he flashed greater potential as a multi-dimensional threat — the playing time was minimal.

“It’s just reps. I feel like I can do a thousand things outside of the games, in practice and stuff, but it’s nothing like being in the game,” Toppin said Tuesday. “When you’re in the game and you have the opportunity to get the reps in and mess up, and learn from those mess ups, that helps a lot. And these last couple games I’m starting to learn. I’m getting a lot more minutes and I’m starting to see little mistakes I’m doing, and I can easily fix those by learning. I wouldn’t know what to fix if I wasn’t put in those positions. So I feel like me having that opportunity is helping me a lot.”

For the fans, Toppin’s situation is uniquely exciting and frustrating. He was drafted eighth overall in 2020 by a Knicks squad that was projected as rebuilding, theoretically providing Toppin plenty of opportunities as Julius Randle’s eventual replacement.

Instead, Randle surged to an All-NBA selection last season and inked a longterm extension. It left Toppin with a minimal role again in his sophomore campaign, even as Randle failed utterly to duplicate his pandemic season success.

Along the way, the fanbase soured on Randle and grew more enamored with Toppin, a soaring highlight machine and the NBA’s Slam Dunk champion.

Toppin’s recent production, occurring while Randle rests his sore quad, has only amplified the sentiment that Tom Thibodeau was holding back his exciting 24-year-old power forward.

Toppin scored matched his career-high 20 points in the last two games, including Sunday’s blowout victory over the Magic. He’s averaging 16.6 points with 7.6 boards while shooting 61% over his five starts since March 22. Even Toppin’s erratic jump shot has been falling with more consistency (converted 12 of his last 31 3-point attempts), providing a tantalizing view of the possibilities.

“I hold myself to a very high standard. And I feel like I can improve a lot more in a lot of different areas of my game,” Toppin said. “Defensively, shooting, passing. Being able to drive and find the open guy in the opposite corner and stuff like that. I feel like there’s a lot more improvement. I’m nowhere near the top of my game so I’m going to keep working to get to that point.”

Thibodeau disagreed with Toppin’s premise about only improving with game action Tuesday while calling it a “misnomer” and highlighting practice reps as the first step. It was a contradiction to Thibodeau’s well-worn phrase “there’s nothing you can do in practice that can replicate the intensity of a game,” but it’s worth noting the context — the coach is fully aware of the Toppin vs. Randle narrative. It has been omnipresent at the Garden, where fans have chanted for Toppin when Randle struggles.

“It starts with reps in practice. Once you do it well there, then you do it in a game,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the next step. There’s different levels.”

Randle adamantly denied reports he desires a relocation from the Knicks, but his future is inevitably tied to Toppin. The two are incompatible on the court, leaving a one-or-the-other scenario. If the Knicks determine Toppin should get more playing time, it provides another impetus to a Randle trade.

It should be noted, despite Thibodeau’s reputation for relying on veterans, the coach has never previously held back a young player who amounted to worthwhile success in the NBA.

Not once in a decade as a head coach.

With the Bulls, Thibodeau guided the youngest MVP in league history, Derrick Rose, and turned another Chicago draft pick, Jimmy Butler, into an All-Star. He was criticized for not providing enough opportunities to Tony Snell and Marquise Teague. With the benefit of time, we can safely conclude both players stink.

Same in Minnesota. Thibodeau gave heavy minutes to youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine, while marginal NBA players Tyus Jones and Kris Dunn were appropriately benched.[More Knicks] The Knicks are fired up for revenge against the Nets »

In New York, Thibodeau handed the keys to RJ Barrett but kept Toppin on a short leash until Randle was out.

Whether Toppin is worthy of more is an important question for the Knicks to ponder this summer. The player certainly believes the answer is yes.

“I definitely feel like I can do more, but like I said, it comes with time,” Toppin said. “This is only my second year. I’m still testing the waters. Every chance I get out there, I’m trying. I’m doing what I regularly do, but there are times when I’ll try something new. The drive I had against Orlando, the mid-range pull-up, that’s me trying something new and seeing how it feels. But I’ve worked on all of that in practice and when I’m out there on the court, when I get into a game, I know, ‘OK, this is my spot, if I get to this spot I’ve always worked on this shot.’ So I’m going to practice it right now in the game. Over time little things are going to start to show.”