Where does Obi Toppin fit in the NBA?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: Obadiah Toppin #1 of the Dayton Flyers celebrates a shot during a college basketball game against the George Washington Colonials at the Smith Center on January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: Obadiah Toppin #1 of the Dayton Flyers celebrates a shot during a college basketball game against the George Washington Colonials at the Smith Center on January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

This college season has proven Obi Toppin can score. But can he function in an NBA role that makes the most of his skills?

Obi Toppin of Dayton has been one of the 2020 NBA Draft’s biggest risers since the start of the season. He has been the catalyst behind Dayton’s surge into the top 10 of the AP poll, and he is certainly a lock to be an All-America First Team member. Averaging 19.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, Toppin has shown impressive efficiency as a scorer in high usage, and he’s one of the tougher matchups for college basketball teams to account for — stronger than your typical 4, quicker than most 5s, and perfectly at home creating from the elbow and post, helping him break 2-3 zones. Simply put, Toppin is a great college basketball player, built to succeed at this level.

This success has certainly made him an interesting option in a wide open 2020 NBA Draft class. While so many of the one-and-done types have struggled to put pen to paper and post big numbers to back up their potential talents, Toppin is certainly producing, and he appears to have the athletic profile of a player teams love to take chances on. At 6-foot-9 with decent quickness and a good handle, Toppin could have the making of being a big wing with some creation ability at the NBA level, and that’s one of the most valuable skill sets you can have. The league is currently dominated by LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, and even the second tier in this archetype, with players like Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, creates easy positive impact in terms of wins.

Toppin has some skills that suggest he could get to that level. His handle is well developed for a player of his size, and getting to the rim really isn’t an issue for him. Over half his attempts come at the rim, per Hoop-Math, and he’s finishing at a Brandon Clarke-esque 82.7 percent there. A lot of this comes from post-ups and transition, but he’s certainly capable of squeezing through tight spaces with the ball and using his length to get above contests off the dribble.

Toppin’s offensive game is also based largely on his vertical pop, which is excellent. it helps him be a useful half-court play finisher and a dynamite transition finisher.

The combination of those two things with a burgeoning 3-point shot and decent pull-up mechanics suggests a pretty solid scoring package for Toppin at the next level. Not only able to take the simple stuff from the defense, it looks like with refinement of his shooting mechanics, Toppin should be able to command a good usage at the NBA level. In a draft without many sure efficient scoring options, Toppin might be one of the best at self-creation against an NBA defense.

That scoring potential is what has him as a lottery prospect in most circles, along with his shot-blocking at the college level, which is a product of his vertical leap. Toppin’s 4.4 percent block rate is pretty good for a player who isn’t a center, and having a player who can score at a high level and has some rim protection value certainly sounds palatable. Even if that rim protection looks like it will mostly come in help defense, it’s still pretty reasonable to expect Toppin to offer some value here.

Discussion of Toppin in this light somewhat misses the trees for the forest, so to speak. There are significant limiting factors to Toppin’s potential usefulness at the NBA level, which may limit not just his ceiling but his ability to put his scoring skills to use. Chief among these are his defensive limitations, which will likely keep him from actually playing the 3 in much capacity at the NBA level. Toppin is a great vertical athlete, but he struggles to change directions laterally, showing poor flexibility and footwork in defending on the perimeter.

This is a recurrent theme, and with this problem, it’s hard to see Toppin operating successfully in two vital capacities — drop coverage in the pick-and-roll and switching against good shooting guards. Toppin probably isn’t capable of doing either consistently, and that’s going to pin him into the free safety role on the weak side, which, while still a necessary defensive role, limits what lineups he’s going to be successful in.

Toppin’s offensive game also has room for improvement, primarily in terms of playing within an offensive system. Toppin’s proven he can be the focal point of a college offense, but there are real questions about how well he can blend in as a second, third or fourth option, which he will certainly have to do at the next level. His 3-point shooting is one concern; he’s hitting an acceptable rate at 36.4 percent on 66 total attempts, but he doesn’t show much off-movement shooting ability at this point, and he is prone to rushing shots when he gets opportunities to catch and shoot.

That is likely fixable, but players in this role have to be useful off-ball shooting options to be able to play off other scorers. Guys like Harris, Kyle Kuzma and Harrison Barnes are effective not just as scoring hubs, but as players who can thrive as complementary shooters. Barnes is a very good shooter, Harris is decent and Kuzma, while streaky, at least has the confidence to shoot off the catch. Toppin doesn’t appear to have that yet, and it’s perhaps the most important building block for him to become a useful scorer.

Toppin’s other offensive swing skills are also potential limits on his effectiveness. He has potential as a passer, showing good awareness for making simple reads when the defense collapses on him.

But he is a much more reactive than proactive passer at this point, and misses open looks in favor of trying to create shots for himself, especially out of post-ups and double-teams.

His pick-and-roll ability also fits in here. His vertical lift should allow him to be used as a roll man in the NBA, especially because he’s perhaps the best technical screen setter in the draft class:

This will be a tool used to help him play some small-ball 5, where his scoring profile is probably more effective at the next level. But without a pick-and-pop threat, it’s hard to really say that this can be a go-to weapon in his arsenal given his lack of length, and there isn’t much utility to playing him there given his struggles defensively. It’s a nice tool in the toolbox, but it’s something that won’t really make a difference unless he makes significant strides elsewhere.

Toppin is an intriguing prospect because of his scoring skills. He’s probably the second-most polished college scorer among non-point guards behind Anthony Edwards, and if things click for him, there’s a potential that he tops out as a second or third scorer — a pretty good proposition for this draft. But he may also just be Jeff Green or a variant of Kuzma, players who struggle to provide value outside of on-ball scoring and whose scoring rarely actually creates much positive impact because it’s difficult to build functional offense around it. Without continued growth as a passer and shooter, Toppin should still be able to put up points at the NBA level. But those points might be empty, and he is likely to have a firm ceiling on his role in the league if that’s the case.

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