Knicks’ Obi Toppin missed out on crucial learning experience


Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ rookie lottery pick, had bright moments in preseason, but more regarding his passing than his dunking. The 22-year-old out of Dayton still has a lot to figure out.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t surprised. Toppin, a late-bloomer from Brooklyn, could have used a summer league, but that got zapped by the pandemic.

“The passing part has been really good,’’ Thibodeau said on the eve of Wednesday’s season opener in Indiana. “He’s probably rushing a bit offensively. That’s the part of his game, I’m not worried about. That will come. He’s a gifted scorer. Not having summer league and [voluntary] practices slowed him a bit. He’s coming on in practice and that usually will reflect in the games.”

The next step during Toppin’s rookie ride will be his regular-season Knicks debut Wednesday. The four preseason games will turn into a footnote.

“I always said, this opportunity for me to be in this position is a blessing,’’ Toppin said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m super excited.”

Toppin’s Garden debut won’t come until Saturday against the 76ers, but there will be no fans — just like there will be no chance to enjoy the limelight of Manhattan. Most rookie lottery picks aren’t yet close to drinking age, as Toppin is.

Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin
NBAE via Getty Images

“I don’t think I’m missing out on anything,” Toppin said of the pandemic. “I’m in a position where people pray to be in and I prayed to be in. I wouldn’t change this for the world. When I say basketball is really all I do every single day, I come to the gym, come home. By the time I come home, I don’t want to do anything. I just want to eat and go to sleep. I’m in the gym multiple hours working on my game to be great.”

Toppin, the national college player of the year, was a handful in the first half of his preseason debut versus Detroit, but the Pistons made adjustments. Since then, Toppin struggled to create his own shots. But he cut to the basket well to receive lobs for dunks and layups. And Toppin didn’t force anything. He whipped passes to his mates — not all of them on target.

“I feel like the time I was at Dayton, I had so much attention on me, if I got doubled or tripled in the post, I had no choice but to pass it,’’ Toppin said. “We worked on it in practice and workouts at Dayton. I’ve been working on it here too. I just feel comfortable finding the open man. I want to give up a good shot for a better shot.‘’

The No. 8-overall pick in the draft averaged 7.2 points in 25.4 preseason minutes, but shot just 38 percent. That’s mostly because he was adrift on 3-point shots (1-for-11).

“I watched film with a couple of coaches,’’ Toppin said. “There’s a lot of things I did good and a couple of things I did bad. You can make a couple of mistakes and learn from it and be ready for when the real games come when [you need] less mistakes as possible.’’

Coming off the bench to spell Julius Randle, Toppin is assimilating to not being the No. 1 option, as he was at Dayton.

“We’d get the ball in the post and do certain things,’’ Toppin said of his college years. “Here, it’s like you’re finding a flow in the game. We’re doing different things for different guys and you adapt to it. I’m still adapting to it.’’

Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ 2017 lottery pick, was never expected to be in line for a rookie contract extension, but it became official Monday and he’ll be a 2021 restricted free agent.

The bigger issue is Ntilikina no longer is viewed as a point guard and it’s unclear if he’ll crack Thibodeau’s 10-man rotation.

Thibodeau said “the thing he likes about” Ntilikina is he plays both point guard and shooting guard. Hence, Thibodeau aligns the Frenchman with another point guard. Ntilikina missed the final two preseason games with a sore Achilles.

“When you look at today’s NBA oftentimes you see more than one point guard on the floor or you see two combo guards on the floor together,’’ Thibodeau said. “That’s what I do like about our roster.”

The Pacers have a scouting edge on the Knicks. Kaleb Canales, who served as a Knicks assistant under David Fizdale and Mike Miller from 2018 to 2020, is a member of Indiana’s new staff. Canales knows the tendencies of several of the Knicks’ young guys. … Indiana should benefit in the early going as it has the NBA’s most stable roster. The top 13 players in minutes from last season all return.

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