Obi Toppin likely going back to Knicks bench role when Julius Randle returns


In one memorable second-quarter hookup on Sunday, Obi Toppin lofted a long, crosscourt pass to RJ Barrett to jump-start a fast break and then sprinted down court. Barrett slowed up and left a behind-the-back ball for a streaking Toppin, who laid it home. 

It does not sound as if some nice passing from Toppin — who finished with a career-best six assists — will help him quickly leapfrog others in the rotation. The big man likely will revert to being a backup quarterback. 

Toppin played solidly in Toronto in his second start following Julius Randle being lost to the COVID-19 list, replacing the reigning All-Star in the lineup — like plenty of fans had called for — due to circumstance and not a change of the team’s vision. But the Knicks have lost both games Randle has missed and been undermanned underneath. 

Tom Thibodeau did not directly compare Toppin with the most popular player in town — the second-string QB on a struggling team — but the dots are easy to connect. 

“Everyone thinks the backup should start until he has to start,” the Knicks coach said after their 120-105 loss to the Raptors. “Julius is a terrific player. Derrick [Rose is] terrific. Kemba [Walker is] terrific. But guys are going to miss games, and when they do, there’s terrific players on our bench.” 

Obi Toppin tied a career-high with 19 points against the Raptors.
Getty Images

Thus, the Knicks should revert back to a Randle-centric team when the power forward is activated from the health and safety protocols, which he entered Thursday. In the meantime, Toppin is showing the Knicks something — if not enough — with his added minutes. 

Seen all season as a spark plug off the bench, Toppin had not logged 30 minutes in a game until Sunday — when Thibodeau, as if making up for lost time, leaned on the 23-year-old for just over 45 minutes. 

The Knicks were short underneath the basket, with Randle, Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims all out, and Toppin even got some looks at center when Taj Gibson took breathers. While Toppin tied a career-high with 19 points and looked far from the problem, he also could not help the Knicks overcome their shortcomings. 

The Raptors out-rebounded them, 44-30. Pascal Siakam grabbed 14 — to Toppin’s six — and the 6-foot-9 Scottie Barnes leapt over the 6-9 Toppin for an early tip-in that set the tone. 

There was not a Knicks player on the right side of the plus-minus line, and Toppin finished as a minus-9 despite shooting 7 of 12 from the field and chipping in two blocks and a steal. 

“It’s a lot of guys who are out and a lot of new guys who are starting to play a lot more,” said Toppin, whose 53.8 field-goal percentage would be 15th best in the NBA if he qualified. “All I’m saying is we have to find a way to play with each other and just be consistent.” 

With Robinson and Sims cleared from the protocols Monday and questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Pacers at the Garden, the second-year lottery pick may be able to get a chance to play alongside a truer center, which would get Toppin a better matchup and allow him to run as much as he wants. 

There was a wonder whether he could continue jolting the Knicks’ offense in a longer span, rather than in 15-minute bursts off the bench. 

The Knicks lost both games without Julius Randle.
The Knicks lost both games without Julius Randle.
NBAE via Getty Images

As he poured in more points than each Knick except Evan Fournier (who had 20), Toppin never stopped running and remained active. 

“It means something,” Toppin said about the opportunity he is grasping. “But obviously the loss sucks. We’re just going to learn from this game and get better for the upcoming games.” 

At some point in the upcoming games, Randle will be cleared and the Knicks will clear space for the polarizing power forward. Perhaps the Knicks slipping without their $117 million man will quiet calls for Toppin to play more minutes. Or maybe Randle’s shot will continue to struggle (just 32.8 percent from beyond the arc) and pressure will build for a longer look at Toppin. 

He has not stolen the job, but he has been closer to Mike White than Mike Glennon.

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