There may not have been a better frontcourt scorer than Obi Toppin in all of college basketball last season. As the sun around which Dayton’s system orbited, Toppin was the rare offensive player who was smart enough to feast on the easy stuff and skilled enough to cook up even more. And at 22 and already quite polished, Toppin in this year’s Draft — with a limited pre-Draft process and no tournament tape — is nearly certain to go in the top 10.
A somewhat surprising tweet from Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report from Wednesday morning, however, indicates that Toppin may be even more well-regarded than that.
Asking around the NBA, feels like Obi Toppin may be the most popular prospect in this draft
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) October 14, 2020
This may just mean that in a Draft full of maybes and high-variance players, NBA teams are more unanimous in their appreciation of Toppin, not necessarily that he is the most likely player to be selected No. 1 overall. Even those who like Toppin tend to agree he will have some challenges adjusting to the NBA game because of his lack of lateral mobility and athleticism. The positional advantages Toppin had over more traditional lineups as a small-ball center will also be harder to come by as a pro. Still, landing someone who you know is likely to score in the NBA and be a rotation big man (think someone in the mold of John Collins) is enticing in a Draft that is weak at the very top.
The playoffs offer an interesting showcase of what style is dominating the league and which players can hang in that environment. Where does Toppin fit against a Lakers team playing Anthony Davis at center? What’s he to do if he matches up with Giannis Antetkounmpo? This is a high bar to hold a potential pick to, but because he is older and therefore closer to a finished product and because teams seem to be truly considering him more of a top-five option than simply a lottery pick, it’s the bar Toppin must clear if a team is to invest so much in him.
The other factor to consider is what top teams would be giving up if they go with Toppin over a more high-ceiling player like Onyeka Okongwu or Devin Vassell. The value right now of a versatile two-way big like Okongwu or a plug-and-play 3-and-D wing like Vassell is just higher than what Toppin is expected to be. It’s hard to see the league changing in a way that values Toppin’s finishing and spot-up shooting at forward more highly than an elite wing or a potentially dominant center.
Minnesota highlights this well. A top-heavy and offense-first roster with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell leading the way needs complementary talent far more than a scoring forward. Positionally, the Timberwolves do have openings at forward, but stylistically, what Toppin does is a strange fit alongside the franchise’s two pillars, and he can’t maintain his value playing alongside superstars the same way a more balanced player could.
That balance equation poses the same issue for the Warriors, who will pick second in November’s Draft. They are looking for depth pieces who fit around their Big Three better than the likes of Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook, who were pressed into action in the 2019 Finals and struggled. It would be odd to see them value Toppin’s skill set over a player who is an even better shooter (Toppin doesn’t have the quickest release and rarely will shoot off movement or pull up from deep) and defender, especially if that player is a wing — it does no seem like a coincidence that Steve Kerr talked up Vassell on Bill Simmons’ podcast this summer.
The Hornets, who pick third this year, observed this challenge in 2019. They selected P.J. Washington, a player who is fairly similar to Toppin. In Washington, they acquired a more experienced and polished player who was a proven shooter, scorer, and good enough defender who could flex between multiple frontcourt positions depending on the lineup. Yet his ceiling is already in full view, and he’s still almost a year younger than Toppin. Charlotte has been more welcome to clear role players in the Draft if they are the best player available where they typically pick in the middle of the lottery, but they are now a roster in real need of star-level talent to make a playoff push.
Chicago is the first team that starts to make sense for Toppin. Having picked in the lottery for so many years now, the Bulls don’t have a particular need at any one spot on the depth chart, so they could afford to take a swing on a less-explosive player who they know will perform well for them. Take note as well of the fact that Toppin’s Dayton coach, Anthony Grant, is a disciple of new Bulls coach Billy Donovan dating all the way back to their time together at Florida, and Toppin could thrive in Donovan’s screen-and-move system, which Grant ran a version of at Dayton.
The Cavs, like the Bulls, possess enough high-ceiling perimeter talent that taking Toppin at No. 5 makes some sense. Cleveland could believe that on their more traditional roster, Toppin could work as a floor spacer and secondary scorer who could thrive getting easy looks from Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. That makes sense in theory and you could see Toppin filling a similar — if less dynamic — role to Kevin Love’s, but Cleveland could run into a similar issue as Minnesota in that exercise, suddenly looking at a roster that is very heavy on offense and short on the type of versatile wing that every great team has in 2020.
Looking through the Draft, it’s not until No. 9 where the Wizards pick that Toppin would be a really snug fit. Washington has a star in Bradley Beal and another in John Wall that they theoretically hope to keep around long-term and remain competitive. Add in another combo forward in Rui Hachimura and interesting wing play-makers like Troy Brown Jr. and Isaac Bonga, and the Wizards theoretically have the type of balanced roster, star power, and depth that could allow them to bring in Toppin and maximize his value right away rather than asking too much of him or forcing him into a challenging role. There are major concerns about what this team would be defensively, but their offense would, theoretically, be quite good.
As the NBA evolves toward the perimeter, having too many guys like Toppin would have drawbacks. It’s difficult to believe in Toppin’s perimeter defense or his jump shot becoming more dynamic, though perhaps his passing continues to evolve and he becomes a great play-maker for his teammates or can create his own shot at a high level. Players like that are just hard to fit into a modern roster unless they are truly elite offensive creators, and it’s hard to see a pathway to that type of output for Toppin right now.
In this Draft, the Dayton big man is clearly a lottery pick. NBA teams often value certainty more than the average fan. But a survey of the top five illustrates the challenges of fitting him onto a young core and why NBA teams would be wise to consider more than just his prolific talent alone before spending that kind of pick on him this November.