2020 NBA Draft: The Curious Athleticism of Obi Toppin
6’9″ and 220 pounds with jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism. 39 percent 3-point shooting, 1.06 points per possession on post-ups and 4.4 ppg in transition.
The anchor of the nation’s most efficient offense and a National Player of the Year candidate for a team that went 29-2.
Obi Toppin checks a lot of boxes.
He’s a prototypical inside-outside scorer with polished footwork, a reliable jumper and above-the-rim thunder slams. The success he achieved being the high-volume anchor of the nation’s highest efficiency offense is not often seen.
A season ago, that was Rui Hachimura at Gonzaga. Two years ago, the balanced attack of Villanova ruled the national landscape. In 2017, Lonzo Ball’s UCLA Bruins took the cake.
There’s precedent for these guys succeeding at the next level and proving themselves worthy of a top-ten selection. The similarity of Dayton’s attack (formulated by head coach Anthony Grant, a former assistant under Billy Donovan for the Oklahoma City Thunder) to an NBA offense makes Toppin’s strengths translatable. The insane open floor dunks and ability to play in transition always migrate over, especially for someone his size.
Still, there’s something off with Toppin’s athleticism. For all he does on offense, he’s really bad on defense.
I mean really bad.
Someone who possesses vertical athleticism and great offensive footwork like Toppin rarely struggles in the way he does moving his feet laterally on defense. He’s got the tools to be a foundational offensive piece, even if he was a late bloomer in college. But there’s a ton of work to be done with him on defense, so much so that it could talk a few teams out of taking him with a top-five pick.
See the rim-rattling dunks, the supreme highlights and the between-the-legs in-game moments and it’s hard not to think this guy is a freak athlete. His combination of leaping and power is rarely seen.
But Toppin doesn’t play like just an open-floor athlete. He combines his 6’11” frame and good interior size with fluid quickness and mobility.
In the half-court, Toppin’s most consistent usage comes from post-ups. A dying breed in the NBA, his post ability is unlocked by dominating smaller guys whom he has an advantage over. Think: Blake Griffin with the Detroit Pistons—handling a bit and dribbling switches or mismatches into the low post.
Toppin’s post skills are a bit neutralized against a full-time 5 with over a seven-foot wingspan, however. Yet, those are guys he can face up and take from the perimeter.
Obviously, the shooting aspect is what makes defenders have to guard him out there. Toppin’s a fluid handler—a product of the time he spent in high school as a wing. He can dribble in tight spaces and has the ability to pass on the move, something most bigs do not.
His ability to read dribble handoffs and engage in keepers to get to the rim is a highly sought-after skill from bigs.
Bigger, less mobile 5s will struggle to keep Toppin in front if he develops good face-up acumen. (He was only 0-2 on face-up situations when catching the ball in the post.)
Part of his positional ambiguity isn’t just with his size, but if he is going to be a full-time 5, will that negate the value of his back-to-the-basket scoring?
Because he has such a reliable jump shot, none of that is pivotal to Toppin’s offensive success. He’s smooth, fluid and best as a trailer in semi-transition. He fits well as either a 4 or a 5, and of all the bigs in this class, he is the most consistent outside shooter.
While it sounds like I’m hyping up Toppin due to the diversity in his offensive game, note that I haven’t dug into that defense yet. Dayton went 29-2 this year in an underrated Atlantic-10, and that success isn’t possible if the Flyers are only a one-sided basketball team.
The issue from Toppin’s defensive impact is the two areas where he is weakest: closeouts to the perimeter and guarding the pick-and-roll.
Unfortunately, those are the most vital areas for an NBA big.
For some, the ability of Toppin to play both the 4 and the 5 is an endorsement of his game. He’ll take 4s in the post and stretch 5s to the perimeter, and that’s why I list him as an “athlete” and not just a post player. But on defense, the same questions exist from a negative perspective.
If he’s a 4, he’ll be involved in a lot of closeouts on faster guys. If he’s a 5, he’ll spend a ton of time guarding the pick-and-roll.
There’s a lot to clean up here. For starters, Toppin has slow feet when he finally gets balanced on the perimeter. He’s late to react to quick rips and gets driven past frequently. As a result, he lunges at guys’ first steps in hopes of guessing right and cutting off their drive.
So he gets completely worked by jab steps and fakes.
His angles with his chest are poor, as he opens up his hips too wide and allows straight-line drives. Guys with his chest strength and size shouldn’t narrow themselves like that. There’s no need for Toppin to try and gamble on the perimeter, either, but he still reaches for steals or blocks and gets out of position.
For all the vertical athleticism Toppin possesses, his lateral athleticism is atrocious. Watch the section above on lateral athleticism where he’s guarding pick-and-pops: The slow speed at which he can plant, change direction and go to the pop man is going to doom him at the next level.
His angles in the pick-and-roll aren’t great, either.
Whether lazy or unprepared from a positional standpoint, Toppin frequently struggled to guard both the ball and his man while his teammate would recover from contact on the screen. He over-committed early in the play instead of trying a cat-and-mouse approach to bait the ball handler into making a mistake.
While he’s a fine shot-blocker from the weak-side, he’s the type of defender that teams can go directly at and have success. Pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, or kickouts to his man on the perimeter—he’ll struggle initially with them all.
To put Toppin at the 5 probably saves him most of the trouble he’ll find on defense. There he can be blanketed by certain types of coverage, like Drop or Ice, where Toppin doesn’t have to venture more than ten feet from the rim when the screen comes.
I’m not sold on Toppin being a great rebounder against NBA size at the 5, though.
Overall Analysis and Draft Projections
There’s too much offensive firepower here to ignore. Toppin is going to be drafted in the top-six or seven of this draft and has an outside shot of being taken as the number-one overall pick. But that shouldn’t remove the need for pause.
Toppin is already 22 years old. Per Jonathan Wasserman, only 17 players since 2007 have been lottery picks who were 22 years old on draft night. Of the lot, Joakim Noah is the only All-Star, and Buddy Hield the only other high-level player.
Obviously, that is not a pure indicator of how Toppin will fare, but it could give pause to teams that like him but don’t want to take him early in the draft.
To take him in the top-five over a guy three years younger with more room (and time) to grow requires imagination: You’re imagining what Toppin will be like four years from now versus what the other player will be like in seven. The tie tends to go to the younger guy.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a prospect whose athleticism is as baffling as Toppin’s. He’s so good vertically and in the open floor, but constrains himself in the half-court as a reactionary lateral athlete without quick feet. He looks like two different players altogether.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t take Toppin inside the top-ten. His age certainly is one factor, but the Enes Kanter-level poor defense is what drives this decision. I’m certainly not sold on playing him at the 4 for long stretches, and I’m not sure if he has the chops to be a great rim protector.
His positional value is more closely aligned with Kevin Love than it is with someone of Toppin’s vertical athleticism.
Toppin will play a big role in most any offense he joins and will likely be able to operate as a low post scorer. Different teams will value that skill differently, and some may tolerate or view his defense as workable.
At 22, in a weak draft where I’d feel more comfortable swinging on a younger guy, Toppin would slide outside the top ten. That may be a bold take for a player who is widely considered a contender for the top selection, but it should illustrate how important the worries about his defense really are.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.