With the uncertainty surrounding, well, everything right now, it seems increasingly likely that we won’t see the NBA get the chance to wrap up the 2019-20 season. This, coupled with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, makes things much more difficult than usual for NBA teams and post-college evaluators. I’m sure by now you’ve heard more than enough about how weak the 2020 draft is, and mostly, that stuff is true. The top-10 or so this year is about as rough as it’s been in a decade, although the overall depth is pretty good, even down into the 50s.
This brings up an obvious conundrum for most of the lottery teams: Do you swing for the fences on a potential cornerstone who has not looked like a star in college, or do you take a solid, productive player with a winning pedigree? Last year, far too many teams passed on the latter in the form of Brandon Clarke, and this year seems even less likely to produce multiple stars. Enter Dayton’s Obi Toppin.
After a redshirting a season due to academic ineligibility, Toppin burst onto the scene in 2018-19, averaging 21.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per 40 minutes en route to winning the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year award and being named first-team all-conference, something no player in the A-10 had done since Lamar Odom in 1999. He got at least some first-round buzz before deciding to return to school last summer, and it’s hard to fault him for that decision.
Dayton ended the year 29-2 with both losses coming at neutral sites in overtime against power conference opponents, Kansas and Colorado. They had one of the nation’s best offenses by most metrics, sitting tops in effective field goal and two-point field goal percentage. They have more good players than I think highlight packages would have you believe, but Toppin is undoubtedly the best. His per 40 minute numbers have jumped to 25.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, he shot 39 percent on 3.3 attempts per 40 from behind the three-point line (a 21.2 three-point rate), and he led the country in dunks with 107. Of all the players with at least 50 dunks, he was the only one to also make at least 30 threes. Since 2008, he’s one of only seven players to achieve this feat.
Perhaps most importantly, Toppin’s been exciting in a way that few players in 2020 truly are. His dunks routinely led SportsCenter’s NCAA coverage, and he’s a complete monster in transition at this level, pulling out multiple dunk contest-worthy finishes for no reason other than he can. It’s hard not to understand why so many outlets have moved him firmly into the top-5 conversations. Comparisons to Ja Morant and Clarke have been rampant, and he’s quickly become the most viral player in the 2020 class. The problem with this is that, unlike Morant, he’s not any kind of ball-handler, and unlike Clarke, he’s not a particularly imposing defender. Projecting Toppin to the NBA level is a tricky proposition unless you truly believe he’s the next Amar’e Stoudemire.
The flaws in Toppin’s game start with his frame. He’s a solid 6’9 and 220 pounds, so height isn’t really an issue. However, he’s got a relatively short looking wingspan and weirdly proportioned shoulders, which seem to make it really hard for him to change direction and mirror people effectively, one of the most important skills for defending on the perimeter in modern basketball. His size and lack of length make it a stretch to imagine him as any kind of real rim protector, either.
Filtering those same dunk stats from before, but with players who logged a block percentage of less than five, reveals a lot of similar PF/C tweener-types whose lack of real length has hurt them in the pros: Trevor Booker, Markieff Morris, Miles Bridges, Cameron Bairstow, Chimezie Metu, PJ Washington, Montrezl Harrell, Brice Johnson, Lavoy Allen, Cory Jefferson. Some of these guys have been quite good in the NBA, but I’d be hard pressed to call any of them true rim protectors. Bam Adebayo also made this list, but the difference between him and Toppin as fluid lateral movers is stark.
Toppin’s lack of ball-handling hurts him as a playmaking 5. While he’s not a bad passer — some of his reads out of double-teams and kickouts are terrific, and he’s logged multiple 4+ assist games on a team with a lot of playmakers — it is hard to project that he’ll be, say, a Marc Gasol-type. Perhaps the most damning number for Toppin’s case as a future NBA star, however, is his age. A 22-year-old college sophomore, he is one day younger than Jayson Tatum. That’s the kind of development curve that feels like it’s nearing completion.
Most athletes peak at around 24 or 25, and having only two years to shore up his weaknesses makes the idea of Toppin as a franchise building block and perennial All-Star seem difficult. It was already hard enough to see happening for someone like Clarke, and he had the excuse of having to rework his entire shot during his season off. Toppin’s shot seems like a finished product — he’s a solid, but not spectacular, shooter.
None of this is meant to imply that Toppin will be a bad NBA player. He’s quite likely to, at the very least, be an extremely effective garbage man and lob threat off the bench. It’s very possible a team like Portland or Atlanta turns him into a starter (John Collins and Aaron Gordon seem to me two pretty solid high-end outcomes for him), which would absolutely make him worth a lottery pick, but the idea of him as becoming a star seems like it would require a handful of breaks that run in complete opposition with everything we know about today’s NBA.
In the end, it’s certainly plausible at least one team convinces themselves he’s a star prospect worth building around, and while it’s pretty unlikely that move backfires in the way it did for the teams that drafted Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams, there’s at least some chance that ten years from now, we’re all using Toppin’s name the same way we use Joe Smith or Glenn Robinson: Not quite a cautionary tale, just one about how hard it truly is to find a true building block in a draft like this.