Obi Toppin, Knicks’ top pick, has limited chances because of Julius Randle

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Kristian Winfield, New York Daily News
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

NEW YORK — Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Obi Toppin is on the floor, even when he is.

The Knicks’ rookie out of Dayton has totaled just seven points over his last six games and did not crack the 10-minute mark in any of those outings. His minutes shortage can be explained best in two words: Julius Randle.

If the Knicks know what’s good for them, as they’ve ostensibly known since hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach, they’ll play Randle as many minutes as he can take. They’ll also look to lock Randle into as many years as he’ll agree to in free agency.

That creates a shortage of opportunity for Toppin, the Brooklyn-born forward who mostly plays Randle’s position. Or it creates an opportunity for him to mold his game in a way that makes him more versatile alongside the Knicks’ star forward.

That means more 3s at a more efficient clip. That means quick feet to stay in front of crafty wings or chase shooters around screens. It means growing into a legitimate rim protector. Ultimately, it means doing things to take pressure off of Randle on both ends of the floor.

The Knicks selected the 23-year-old Toppin No. 8 overall in the 2020 NBA draft after he rocked rims as a high-flyer and floor spacer in college. Randle responded to the selection and the Thibodeau hiring by taking his game to a new level.

He’s become a first-time All-Star, one of the league’s more difficult front-court checks, and the engine that has powered the Knicks’ first legitimate playoff run since the Carmelo Anthony era.

In short, the Knicks can ill afford to take Randle off the floor.

Meanwhile, Toppin continues to learn the NBA ropes, a tall task for a first-year player maneuvering a unique, condensed season. There’s little to no practice time, and teams are using real game minutes, of which Toppin sees few, to refine their processes as if it were practice. The Knicks’ prized draft pick, understandably, is coming along slow: He is averaging four points and two rebounds, seeing just 11 minutes per game.

Randle plays the other 37 minutes and has only missed one game this season. He has blossomed and taken full advantage of his talents under Thibodeau, as evidenced by his All-Star nod, the way opposing teams defend him, and league-wide honors, most recently the East’s Player of the Week after averaging 36 points over a four-game stretch.

How is Toppin supposed to compete with that?

“He’s a young player, a rookie, who’s learning the league, and obviously didn’t have the benefit of summer league, or a summer with the staff and the full part of what we can do,” Thibodeau said. “So there’ll be continued growth. I think if you look at the last month or so, he’s making really good strides. I expect that to continue throughout the rest of the season and over the course of the summer. So he’ll get stronger, he’ll get better as we go, but I’m very pleased with how he’s worked and approached each day.”

The conundrum is twofold. First, there just aren’t enough minutes, especially if Randle can continue his output. Second, the fit doesn’t make much sense, at least not yet.

In late February, Thibodeau experimented with Toppin at the center, then pulled the plug before suggesting he wasn’t ready for that role.

“Him learning one position right now is probably better in terms of his overall development,” he said on Feb. 23.

There’s also the obvious: The center position belongs to Mitchell Robinson (when healthy), Nerlens Noel or Taj Gibson this season. In future seasons, it should belong exclusively to Robinson if he can stay on the floor, and whoever his best backup is.

That means Toppin at the three, a particularly tough sell given his 19% shooting clip from 3-point range.

There’s also time, and a whole lot of it: Randle is in the second-year of a team-friendly three-year, $62 million deal. The final year on the deal functions as a team option: It’s guaranteed for only $4 million until June 28, when the remaining $15.8 million triggers.

Provided good health and sustained star-level play, Randle, 26, will likely command a five-year max or near max in free agency, and the Knicks who will be able to offer more years and money than any other team.

That means seven total seasons for Toppin playing in Randle’s shadow.

Or as Randle’s frontcourt mate.

If there’s hope, it’s certainly in the numbers. The Knicks have outscored opponents by eight points for every 100 possessions both Randle and Toppin have spent together. Those minutes, however, have been scarce: just 39 minutes spread over six games as a two-man tandem this season.

For now, the status quo is working. The Knicks are in the middle of the playoff race and could end up with home-court advantage if they play their cards right. Randle is dominating, easily the best player in New York not named Kevin Durant, James Harden or Kyrie Irving.

His play has made Toppin’s minutes an afterthought. It’s worth wondering where the rookie’s future minutes will come.