It is fair to say that the New York Knicks have surpassed many experts’ expectations, currently sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference, and are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in two seasons. Julius Randle is having a career year, and many see Jalen Brunson as one of the league’s premier point guards. Though all seems to be going right in “The City That Never Sleeps,” that is, however, not the case. New York has a dilemma on their hands: the former Dayton star Obi Toppin.
Toppin was selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, despite being what many viewed as a top-five talent in the draft. Two years ago, experts praised New York for taking the 6-foot-9-inch forward, but have since changed their tone. When teams typically draft someone out of college in the top 10, you expect them to find a starting job and garner significant minutes, yet Toppin got neither. Toppin is in the midst of his third season in the Association, and he averages 14.3 minutes per game and 6.6 points per game while shooting 48.6% from the field, all of which, on the surface, seem unimpressive. In Toppin’s defense, he never got a fair chance — constantly averaging little to no playing time has hindered his development and any value New York could get for him in a trade.
While the acquisition of Josh Hart and trading Cam Reddish has proved to be one of the best deals at this year’s NBA deadline, New York missed out on a key opportunity: deal Toppin for anything of value. The reason Toppin plays little to no minutes doesn’t have to do with him not being good enough. He gets such few minutes because Julius Randle has played the role of an All-Star during his tenure in New York. In fact, Toppin’s counterpart is also in the top 15 in minutes per game. Because of his success, James Dolan’s squad has invested nearly $180 million in two separate contracts for Randle, blocking out Toppin from playing time in the process.
Interestingly enough, in the final 15 games of the 2021-2022 season, when Randle missed significant time, Toppin was called upon to make up the minutes and was excellent. The former Flyer averaged 16.1 PPG and just under five rebounds while playing 25 minutes per game. Toppin also shot 57.1% from the field and 42.3% from beyond the arc. The young power forward is only 25 years old; he isn’t fully developed, and this stretch indicates that he has the potential to bring it on even more when it matters. It may not be possible with Randle in the Big Apple.
The Knicks have failed Toppin from the get-go by drafting him, which never made sense. New York already inked Randle up to a three-year, $62.1 million deal one season prior. Contributing significant funds towards Randle instead of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant —who were in the same free agency class— means that he is the player they want to lead the franchise. The Knicks could have done anything else with that pick; they could have traded it or drafted anyone else but didn’t. They need to either give Toppin more minutes or deal him. At this point in the season, giving Toppin more minutes makes sense, as New York plays four teams at or below .500. Giving rest to Randle makes sense as Thibodeau needs Randle to be in perfect condition for the playoffs. The Knicks only have five games to go before the start of the postseason. It makes sense to give the younger talent more minutes, considering the last time Randle played in the playoffs he underperformed, shooting less than 30% from the field and averaging only 18 points, a series on the mind of many fans and which should be on the mind of head coach Tom Thibodeau.
It has been 50 years since the Knicks last hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. This number will only increase if the Knicks continue to do what they do with Toppin: nothing. Toppin has too much talent to ride the pine; he needs to be on the floor doing what he does best — scoring from all places on the floor and being a leader. Toppin can shoot and can undoubtedly dunk, which was evident when he won the 2022 NBA Dunk Contest. After all, coming into the Association, he was arguably the most valuable player in college basketball. The Dayton star averaged 20 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in his final season on what many considered the top offense in the country. Because of this, Toppin captured nearly every player of the year honor. Dayton was projected to be a top seed for the NCAA tournament, but the season abruptly ended due to COVID-19.
If the status quo doesn’t change in the Empire State, it is mutually beneficial to both sides if Toppin is traded; certainly, Toppin wants to make an impact playing in the Association, and New York is better off by getting more value than what they already have. The Knicks had an opportunity to do this at the trade deadline but failed to do so. Since this happened, Toppin needs to play at the top of his game with the few minutes he gets to show the NBA universe why he was the top college recruit and why he is one of the league’s best.