What The Knicks’ Frontcourt Of The Future Might Look Like With Obi Toppin And Mitchell Robinson (sports.yahoo.com)

Obi Toppin Knicks jersey swap
Obi Toppin Knicks jersey swap

With the eighth pick in this week’s NBA Draft, the Knicks selected Obi Toppin, the skyscraping 6-foot-9 forward who is known as one of the incoming class’s most league-ready scorers.

What comes next remains in flux, with the Knicks making minor trades and potentially major ones along with free agency on the horizon. However, this pick seems to deliver on a new, young tandem in the frontcourt for New York in Toppin and the ever-improving Mitchell Robinson. There are some valid concerns about how the two will mesh, but equally valid reasons to be excited.

What makes predicting how these two will fare together difficult is the fact that we’ve seen little to none of Toppin playing alongside a center at Dayton. Robinson will more or less have the role he had last season, barring massive strides in his jumper. He’ll pick and roll to the rim, finish lobs, work the boards and anchor the defense. Toppin was a small-ball center in college, a slot he’ll get to fill once again in stretches, but not if he’s paired with Robinson. Analyzing him as a stretch four changes things about his profile.

Let’s start with the halfcourt offense. Toppin only attempted 2.6 threes a game last season, to be expected due to his position. He shot an impressive 39% from deep, but he’ll have to maintain that clip on added volume and a further arc if he’s going to fit with Robinson. In other words, spacing the floor will have to be a key part of his game, not an added bonus. His quick and fundamentally sound stroke should translate easily, so long as he sticks to catch-and-shoot threes, as he made close to zero unassisted long bombs. The Knicks should use him in a bunch of pick-and-pops.

This isn’t to say his damage from the short corner should disappear entirely, but he can’t hang around there. He’ll need to be actively moving around, flashing for open shots and cutting into finishing lanes. Thankfully, most of his mobility complaints come on the defensive end, and he showed off great spatial awareness offensively at Dayton.

On one possession against Fordham, Toppin cleared to the weak-side short corner for his guard, Jalen Crutcher, to attack. Crutcher knifed into the paint, opening up a lob for Toppin, but instead passed out to a corner shooter for no shot. Toppin recognized the crammed paint, saw all the defensive attention on the (now) strong side, and quickly pivoted back to the opposite corner for a three. New York will want to see a lot of this.

Things get interesting when Toppin is used as a roll man. Robinson likely won’t be spreading the floor, and that’s okay, because Toppin showed the ability to create for others, granted in small doses. For him and Robinson to work together, Toppin is coming in as a threat to score on the roll, but he’ll need to be able to take the dump-off on a short roll, immediately read the floor and either find the shooter open or Robinson on the lob. It’s a big ask that likely won’t be possible right out of the gates, but can be with enough reps. As for Toppin’s post-up opportunities, they should be reserved for quick hits in transition and on switches, as well as when Robinson is off the floor.

Toppin’s transition play should thrive with Robinson not only there to clean up some of his defensive mistakes but also being a fellow standout on the break. At the four, Toppin will be in better position to sprint down the floor and fill a lane or await an outlet following a stop. Robinson is also a big threat in transition, and his rim-running could open things up for Toppin as a trailing shooter or cutter.

Defense has been the biggest fear with Toppin, but like judging his offense, having Robinson behind him changes how we look at it. No longer is Toppin the primary source of rim protection for his team, instead his responsibilities are simply not to screw up too badly, versus anchoring a team defense. His lateral and backpedaling quickness have been much maligned, and is problematic for a center guarding the pick-and-roll, but maybe less so for a forward that is more likely to switch or step out to guard a shooting four. It’s still not ideal and could allow for blow-bys, but having Robinson and head coach Tom Thibodeau as mentors can help lessen his liability and even turn him around on this side of the ball.

Rebounding is another area that will likely see Robinson shouldering much of the load, at least early on, but Toppin’s verticality should eventually translate into high production there. The dream scenario for Knicks fans is getting to a point where these two are netting New York 10 extra points a night just from putbacks or kick-outs off the offensive glass. This may take some time.

Meshing new pieces is always a challenge, one usually amplified by plugging in rookies that have holes in their game yet to be filled. Toppin seemed to be New York’s pick for a while, and it’s hard to imagine the front office coming to that conclusion without anticipating his fit with their best prospect and his future frontcourt partner. How much of the above comes to fruition and to what degree remains to be seen, but if the two manage to jell, the Knicks are looking at an enthralling and productive duo for years to come.