Photo from The San Francisco Chronicle; Steve Reed

The backup QB ain’t half bad, huh?

You might recall that remark Tom Thibodeau made earlier in the season after Obi Toppin made his first career start against the Toronto Raptors in place of Julius Randle (COVID-19).

Toppin had his flaws, and still does, but those comments felt harsh at the time, and they look pretty dumb from Thibodeau now.

Since Randle was effectively shut down for the season, and the Knicks were ultimately eliminated from postseason contention, we’ve gotten a taste of what Toppin is really made of. He’s even looked like his Summer League self of late, where he is utterly taking over offensive possessions while knowing when to defer to others.

His efficiency from deep has been exceptional to say the least, and he looks all around more fluid within this team’s… scheme? Perhaps Toppin is the scheme itself, because he certainly looks a bit more involved aside from being parked in a corner all game.

He’s come a long way

Last year, I wrote about the steps the Knicks needed to take to groom Toppin to be more comfortable on the court.

I didn’t discuss anything that wasn’t already considered, but looking back at that post, it’s interesting to see just how much almost all the boxes were checked.

Toppin’s coming out party has been a treat. Photo Credit: John Raoux/AP

Toppin’s eFG% has gone up this year, though his percentages across the board are a little wonky compared to his rookie season; he’s shooting 16% worse from 4-14 feet away from the basket this year, and he’s shooting 3% worse from 3PT — all stats per Cleaning the Glass. Nevertheless, he has made a stride with his jump shot, and I saw an interesting tweet about that earlier today:

His mechanics have changed, and seemingly for the better. If he has to take baby steps to develop his jumper, then so be it. Knicks fans can live with a little inefficiency from deep since that was never his strong suit.

Which brings me to his actual strength: attacking the basket. Toppin’s rim % has gone up by four percent, and if you’ve watched the games, you know this comes from more than just dunks. He’s actually adapted to finishing layups, both open and through traffic, using his hang time to his advantage.

He’s even become somewhat of a playmaker with his 10.4% assist rate, good for 65th percentile at his position (up 4 points from last season). We’ve seen this in a lot of ways, and this particular play from the game against Cleveland caught my eye the other day:

Toppin’s awareness, albeit in a low-pressure situation, is promising. The very fact he made the extra pass, let alone immediately, is enough to warrant praise, and that’s what we’ve so eager to watch all year.

Aside from simply passing, though, is Toppin’s ability to create space and slashing lanes for those around him with his agility and athleticism. This will only prove to be beneficial as his time with the team continues.

Development is real

What’s crazy to me is Thibodeau didn’t trust Toppin sooner. Knicks fans have been calling for Toppin to take the floor more all season because he brings a fluidity and space to the rotation that opens up so many opportunities, myself included.

Why it took until the last seven games to get a true glimpse into Toppin’s evolution is beyond me. Thibodeau looks incompetent for keeping such an impressive prospect locked in a 14 minutes per game cage when he could have been running the floor and increasing the pace for the Knicks all this time.

In fact, the Knicks rank 28th in pace in the league this season per Basketball Reference, after ranking 30th last season.

Thibodeau did right by this team last year. He won a Coach of the Year for turning their woes around. But that so swiftly countered its value. They got bounced in the first round with ease and followed that up with an entire season of stagnancy and repetition of the same old schemes from last year.

Variety is everything, and development is a real tool to implement that variety.

Closing statement

This year was not okay. There are changes that need to be made; whether that involves shaking up the roster or coaching staff is beyond my pay grade.

I can understand keeping things how they are to promote stability and continuity for what feels like the first time in the millennium, but Thibodeau and Randle have to be on the hot seat. They are two of the catalysts to this team’s success, and when they are both underperforming, the rest of the squad pays for it.

No more. Let Toppin get more involved and utilize his skill set in a healthy allotment of minutes.

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