247Sports ranked 558 players coming out of the 2017 high school class. Out of Mount Zion Baptist Christian School in Baltimore, Maryland, Obi Toppin was not one of them.
Three years later, the six-foot-nine big man is currently ranked seventh on ESPN’s top 100 at the time of writing and is widely expected to end up a lottery pick in this year’s Draft, whenever that is.
Even if you consider the level of imperfection that surrounds high school rankings, that’s quite the amazing rise to prominence the Ossining, New York native has experienced this past season.
Toppin sat out his first year at Dayton but stepped in right away into a key role as a redshirt freshman – averaging 26.5 minutes per game and logging 25% usage rate for a team that ended in the NIT. As I wrote prior to the season, though the statistical indicators for a breakout into a collegiate star were there, as a pro prospect, Toppin profiled more as a potential star role player who could excel as a inside-outside play-finisher and maybe post-up weaker matchups in a pinch, while his nimbleness made him a promising defender in some areas.
But his sophomore season kind of shattered that projection, for the most part. Toppin averaged 25.3 points per 40 minutes on 68.4% true shooting and 28% usage, leading Dayton to 29 wins in 31 games, and winning Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year honors as a result.
The 22-year-old is still probably more likely to settle in as a play-finisher in the pros rather than the superstar focal point of the offense he was in his final year of college, but reality is that the sheer volume of stats he compiled this past season and the level of dominance he played with, even if not against a particularly tough schedule , completely changed the perception of him. His 32.9 PER ranks fourth among players on ESPN’s top 100.
So, now Toppin is viewed as one of those big men who might be special enough to escape the devaluing of the position, especially of those who probably need another big man with them in the lineup to anchor the defense, which is likely to be his case, considering his defense was more exposed and picked apart in year two than it had been in year one.
Toppin exceled as a threat to score around the basket – converting 82.8% of his 203 shots at the rim this past season, with two thirds of his makes assisted .
Though he is mostly an up-and-down leaper who didn’t often show particularly impressive flexibility hanging and adjusting his body in the air or a diverse arsenal of finishes around rim protectors, Toppin can score with either hand around the goal on non-dunk finishes and finish through contact.
But the bigger deal is how he proved himself capable of making his way to the basket in a number of ways, which is really what drives the perception of his specialness – the versatility of his scoring.
He is a good screener who looks to draw contact and disrupt the on-ball defender and even flashed some savviness setting some moving picks. On the roll, Toppin can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense on longer rolls and even flashed some noteworthy explosiveness rising in a crowd down the lane without needing to load up to go up with power.
Perhaps equally as appealing, he has shown great coordination in instances where he has had to catch the ball around the foul line, take a dribble to balance himself and gallop into a two-foot leap in traffic. His body control not to crash into the help stepping up between him and the rim stands out as well.
Besides the pick-and-roll, Toppin is also a threat to score on catch-and-finish’s off cuts, as he’s proven himself a smart off ball mover.
But not on the glass. Though there are highlights of a few thundering putback dunks here and there, he collected just 5.2% of Dayton’s misses when he was on the floor this past season and had just 14 putbacks in 31 appearances.
Toppin shot fairly well and in higher volume from three-point range as a sophomore, which demanded closeouts and opened pathways for him to drive on occasion. He is well-coordinated putting the ball on the floor on a straight line and can go up with power off one foot if left unchallenged. If kept in front, Toppin is nimble enough to weave into a spin move to gain ground. And he has also taken some chances to drive off fake-handoffs.
His 42 unassisted makes at the rim that were not put backs average out to 1.7 such makes per 40 minutes, which amounts to not insignificant found money.
Toppin nailed 39% of his 82 three-point shots this past season, though at a pace of just 3.3 such attempts per 40 minutes. He finishes his collegiate career nailing 41% of his 103 three-point shots over his two years in the NCAA, though at a pace of just 2.2 such attempts per 40 minutes.
Toppin has a pretty clean shooting stroke – getting little elevation off the ground and releasing the ball from a low point out in front but setting his feet quickly, either on the hop off a standstill on corner spot-ups or off 1-2 footwork when he’s stepping into the shot, and going through his mechanics quite quickly to be able to get the shot off prior to closeouts more often than not.
Besides basic spot-ups, Toppin has proven himself able to take long-range bombs off the pick-and-pop and relocating off an offensive rebound as well.
He’s pretty smart relocating off the ball to sustain proper spacing on the weak-side and has flashed pretty impressive coordination setting his feet quickly in instances where he was not spaced out but backpedaled his way beyond the arc in a hurry.
His 70.6% foul shooting on 228 free throws in his time at Dayton causes some hesitation regarding how great a shooter he really is at this point of his development, though.
Toppin did quite a bit of his scoring in the post this past season, which is unlikely to translate to the pros, at least in terms of volume, because most of it was done by him overwhelming outmatched competition.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Toppin, who turned 22 last month, was older and more physically developed than the average opponent he went against.
That said, he was able to show a patient approach operating with his back to the basket and just about enough versatility with his right-handed push shot, his right-handed hook and his nasty hard spin move towards the baseline to gallop into a powerful two-foot leap to project as capable of posting up weaker matchups in emergency situations, especially in alternate lineups bereft of more capable perimeter shot creators. His coordination dribbling into post-ups is a plus in those instances, though his lack of a left-handed hook or a lefty scoop finish might become more of a problem in the pros.
What is certain to become a problem is his so-so feel for double-teams and his iffy decision making trying to thread the needle on a few crosscourt passes with a forest of arms surrounding him. There are times when Toppin impresses with his coordination escape-dribbling against hard double teams but those aren’t as frequent as the highlight clips suggest, as his 0.99 assist-to-turnover ratio attests.
But when he can hit the open man on a crosscourt dart to the opposite wing, it looks very appealing.
Toppin has also flashed some impressive quick ball moving out of the short roll and making the extra pass around the horn. He is an asset to facilitate offense out of the elbows as well and can hit a backdoor cutter on occasion too – assisting on 14.5% of Dayton’s scores when he was on the floor this past season.
Pick & Roll Defense
I had found his defense to be reasonably promising in year one, as Toppin flashed a good deal of fluidity and coordination to move sideways and backpedal while stopping the ball handler from turning the corner or getting downhill right away off the screen in middle high pick-and-roll.
Year two revealed him to be a lot more uneven, especially as Dayton demanded a little more from him, asking him to defend the pick-and-roll in more diverse ways, which he struggled with, for the most part.
When Dayton asked him to venture far beyond the foul line and show hard at the three-point line, Toppin was at times lackadaisical in his approach to the ball handler and would even overplay the level of the screen, giving up the side of the rejection of the pick completely and rarely being able to get back into the play once the ball handler got downhill.
In more conservative drop-back coverage, going up no more than a step beyond the foul line, he didn’t prove capable of making a substantial contribution either. Toppin rarely contested pull-up jumpers effectively and, though he was able to keep pace with ball handlers on a straight-line foul line down, he was not much of a threat to block shots defending on the ball.
But perhaps more concerning for his pro prospects, Toppin didn’t prove himself quick enough to guard both the ball handler and keep the roll man from getting behind him or to shut down pocket passes and bat away lobs, which limits his team’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll two-on-two, which is what the NBA is looking for these days. Especially considering he didn’t show enough footspeed to stop the ball and hustle to contest stretch big men in the pick-and-pop either.
If you can’t guard the pick-and-roll two-on-two and limit help as much as you can, what NBA teams prefer to do then is switch and Toppin also doesn’t figure to be an asset for that strategy either.
On pre-arranged switches, he was a little more active exchanging onto the ball handler, proved himself capable of cutting off dribble penetration at first and even flashed some ability to stay attached to less threatening ball handlers. But quicker and shiftier types didn’t have much trouble just blowing by him when they backed off for a split second and then isolated him out on an island.
Dayton tried to get him a little more out of him by having him hedge way out on the perimeter at times but Toppin wasn’t particularly effectively in those instances either, often struggling to cut off the ball handler from getting to the side of the floor he wanted to get to.
Toppin is attentive to his responsibilities stepping up to the front of the rim as the last of the defense but has shown only so-so proactivity and quickness coming across the lane in help defense on longer rotations. Keeping a hunched posture off ball, he looked to have heavier feet moving off the ball than I remember seeing from him as a freshman or even that you usually see from him on offense.
Toppin didn’t make much of an impact in the hidden areas of the game either, as you don’t often see him shadowing isolations to intervene at the last second when a teammate gets beat or making preventive rotations that cut off a driver’s path to the basket. He is actually quite detrimental in one of the hidden areas, as he’s often blown by on closeouts and exposes the defense behind him.
Toppin is a quick leaper off two feet out of a standstill to block shots or challenge via verticality standing in front of the goal but hasn’t impressed with his explosiveness covering ground and meeting a finisher at the summit, nor is he quick enough for multiple effort plays where he cuts off the driver and then quickly turns around to contest his man on the dunker spot – averaging just 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes this past season and logging 31.5 minutes per game for a team that ranked 187th in the country in field goal percentage allowed at the rim .
Toppin is considered undersized for a big man but has a chiseled 220-pound frame and didn’t struggle all that badly in the more physical areas of the game.
He was somewhat soft with his boxouts at times but showed decent attention to his responsibilities putting a body on whoever was close by and chased the ball off the rim quicker or higher than his competition reasonably well – collecting 22% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor this past season.
His struggles in the post were a little more evident, as his high center of gravity keeps from offering much resistance and holding his ground effectively. His propensity to biting on fakes is also a huge negative. But given the fact he profiles as someone who will probably have to be paired up with another big man most of the time, this deficiency might not be that big a problem, as he’ll probably end up hidden on opponents who can’t expose him one-on-one.