New York Knicks teammates Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley do just about everything together.
They work together. They celebrate holidays together. Sometimes they combine the two and leave the holiday season to go to the gym. Quickley left the Toppin household at 1 a.m. after the Christmas festivities and headed to court, a story Toppin likes to tell. The guard was inspired after watching Stephen Curry, one of his favorites, drop 33 points to the Suns over Christmas and felt the need for an end-of-hour session alone with his sweater.
A few months later, it was Toppin who inspired him.
As the final game of the regular season approached, with the Knicks already well out of playoff contention, Toppin made a prediction behind the wheel of his car.
The striker would lead Quickley to games not as a favor or even as a bonding exercise, although it could have started out that way. Instead, “Chauffeur Toppin” was an ongoing superstition. Earlier in the season, Toppin took Quickley to Madison Square Garden and Toppin played well. He told Quickley that after that night they now had to go to every game together.
“You’re not allowed to go there alone,” Quickley recalled telling Toppin.
“I was like, ‘Brah, you play well because you work hard,” Quickley recalled. “He was like, ‘no.’ ”
Thus, the carpooling continued until the very end.
On this final day of the season, Toppin watched Quickley in the passenger seat and blurted out, “I’m going crazy tonight.” The energetic striker doesn’t normally make those kinds of statements, Quickley says, but he was already in the middle of his best run ever. Toppin had set or tied a career high in points in three of his previous four performances, finally getting a consistent playing-time opportunity with Knicks starting forward Julius Randle out of lineup for the home stretch.
Quickley felt that if his pal was so confident, so was he.
“I’m about to go crazy too,” Quickley replied. “I guess we’re both going to go crazy.”
Hours later, Toppin set a fourth career high in five games, this one against the Raptors: 42 points, 10 rebounds and 6-for-14 3-pointers to close the season. Quickley wasn’t much different: a career-best 34 points as part of his second career triple-double, which included 10 rebounds and 12 assists. And after that, once the biggest performances of each of their second pro seasons were over, all the skippy guard wanted to discuss was one event… that prescient car ride when they predicted it all, starting with Toppin.
“(Toppin) wasn’t saying that kind of stuff at the start of the season,” Quickley said. “So for him to come in just before the game and say things like that, that’s when I know Obi kinda feels a little bit.”
This season-ending game was less an indicator of what was to come and more a symbol of what could have been. Toppin amped up his action in the spring, no doubt. He started hitting more 3s and looking for his shot more often, but he helped win throughout the season with scouting, cutting, and any other basketball trait that could be categorized under l. aegis of “hyperactivity”. Meanwhile, the Knicks were always better when Quickley was in games, and the numbers backed it up, even when he was in the middle of one of his snappy shooting funks.
Both were able to play more at the end of the season. Toppin has averaged 20.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists with starting minutes over the past 10 games. He shot 68 percent on 2 and 45 percent on nearly six 3-point attempts per game during that streak as well. Quickley’s heating lasted even longer. He averaged 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 45-39-85 over the final 24 games of the season when he headed more to the free throw line and seemed more comfortable running around and finding shooters or cutters.
Yet we see time and time again examples of players on teams that are far from playoff contention doing weird stuff in late March or April that doesn’t last into future seasons.
Over the next few weeks, with the draft coming up on June 23 and the launch of free agency on June 30, we’ll have a clue if the Knicks are ready to bet on these two guys.
Toppin was buried this season, stuck under Randle’s rubble. Head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t want to use those two forwards together too much because it would be like not having a rim protector on the ground. This seriously limited Toppin’s opportunity. He later attributed his performance uptick at the end of the season to opportunity.
“I feel a little more relaxed now, knowing that I won’t get out if I make a mistake,” Toppin said.
At some point, the Knicks have to give him a chance to run more than 16 minutes a night. They drafted him No. 8 two years ago, and Randle has blocked him ever since. He grew behind the scenes anyway, like many young Knicks. Impressive draft placement doesn’t guarantee a top-notch career, but it should give you a chance to show your assets. A team can’t use the eighth pick on a guy and still be as tasteless about the type of player he is heading into Years 3 and 4. Toppin is eligible for an extension next summer; however, the Knicks are unaware of his fully fit condition.
Does he have to be a first-rate third big man? Should he start full time? Was the 3-point shot at the end of the season sustainable? Is he better when he can play all five in attack, filtering and cutting from midfield instead of hanging on in the corner, and all four in defence?
A team would prefer a better grasp of these issues two years into a lottery pick’s career.
Of the players who entered the top 10 in 2020, only James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Smith have played fewer minutes than Toppin in two seasons. Wiseman and Okongwu are so low purely through injury, however, and Smith struggled so much as a rookie that the Suns waived him after one season, declining his thirdOne-year rookie option, a dramatic move, then tie up a second-round pick to trade him for Torrey Craig.
Toppin showed lightning. It should not be mentioned in this group. Yet it is, and it is because of the impasse.
If Thibodeau doesn’t want to use Toppin and Randle together, the front office can look for ways to get Toppin on the court anyway. There are high-profile rumors of Randle finding a new home, although a trade may be easier said than done, since the rest of the league also saw Randle play last season, and he has a four-year extension that comes into effect at the start of 2022-23.
They could also open up a spot in the middle, so Thibodeau will have to force Toppin’s reserve minutes there with the ones he’s already receiving behind Randle; trade Nerlens Noel, whose contract is expiring, let Mitchell Robinson walk into free agency and strut proudly with Jericho Sims and Toppin at five – oh, and probably Taj Gibson too. It’s not an ideal strategy, but it might be necessary if Thibodeau plans to approach Toppin’s role in the same way next season.
Either way, it’s now up to the organization to dig up 25 minutes for Toppin. It’s also up to them to buy time for Quickley, who looked the most comfortable as a point guard at the end of the season, although he still had moments of overdribbling. Do the Knicks recruit a point guard, sign a veteran and put him back in an instant attack role where he still manages to manage, but doesn’t carry quite the same burden as in April, when the young players controlled the show ?
These are the types of questions that arise when a team is full of youngsters, but is trying to compete today. The same kind of questions could be asked about Cam Reddish, the personification of a divergent front office and management staff. The Knicks traded a first-round pick for Reddish in January to give him less playing time than he received in Atlanta, where he requested a trade because he was unhappy with his role . Reddish can become a restricted free agent next summer. Can the Knicks find him a role to see what they have?
The reality is that you can’t play against everyone. The Knicks have seven players 24 and under. It will be eight when they make their first pick and nine if they re-sign Robinson. They have all these veterans commanding different levels of playing time: Randle, Noel, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and somehow Kemba Walker is still on the list. However, not all of these players will return.
The Knicks need to decide which ones should. Often a front office will design a roster in a way that rewards the players it invests in with opportunities. After all, what’s the point of investing if you don’t create chances for returns.
The Knicks invested a No. 8 pick on Toppin. It’s extremely rare for a player to go this high, show talent, and then get stuck behind the vets of a sub-.500 team, especially in today’s “positionless NBA” which shouldn’t not be as positionless as we say, considering Toppin is siled because he and Randle play the same position.
Now the Knicks – both Thibodeau with day-to-day decisions and the front office with how they build the roster – are the ones with the opportunity to create bigger roles for Toppin and for Quickley, who capitalized when they were given freedom. Come the draft and the start of free agency, the rest of the NBA world will have an idea of how they want to handle this.
(Quickley and Toppin top photo: Raj Mehta/USA Today)