NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Why Obi Toppin isn’t worth the No. 1 pick

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There isn’t a player in this year’s draft class that sums up how weird the top of the 2020 NBA Draft is going to be better than Obi Toppin.

He’s college basketball’s reigning National Player of the Year. He is already 22 years old and coming off of a redshirt sophomore season where he was the linchpin for one of the most efficient offenses in the country. He stands 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds and is one of the most explosive athletes in the draft, and given the totality of his skill-set, I think it’s fair to say that no one in 2020 NBA Draft is as ready to slide into a role in the NBA as Toppin is.

In a draft that lacks sure-fire star-power at the top, that has quite a bit of value.

The catch?

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Toppin will likely top out as a role player. If we’re being honest, that’s more or less what he was asked to be this past season with Dayton — we’ll talk more about this in a bit — and justifying the use of a top three pick on a player that is a piece to the puzzle as opposed to a franchise-changing talent is a tough sell.

As always, we’ll start with the positives.

Toppin is perfectly suited to play as a big in pick-and-roll actions. The offense designed by Dayton coach Anthony Grant, a former assistant for Billy Donovan at Florida and Oklahoma City, was the closest thing you’ll find to an NBA offense in college basketball. The system allowed Toppin to thrive.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the value of point guards that can make every read and every pass coming off of a ball-screen. By that same logic, a big that can do all of the things that a screener is asked to do has value as well. That’s Toppin. He’s incredibly explosive around the basket, making him one of the best lob targets and vertical spacers in the draft. While his wingspan is somewhat limited, Toppin’s reach is impressive due to the fact that he has high shoulders and no neck. Put another way, he plays like someone that’s 6-foot-11, not 6-foot-9, and this makes him even more of a threat.

But he’s more than just a leaper. Toppin shot 42 percent from three on more than 100 attempts in his 65-game college career. This past season, he shot 39 percent from three on 2.6 attempts per game. He can struggle when his shot is rushed, and according to Synergy’s logs, he made just a single off-the-dribble jumper this past season. That can be developed, and if we’re being frank, Toppin is not going to be asked to do too much of that at the next level — more on this in a bit.

The third part of it is Toppin’s ability to pass out of short-roll actions. He averaged 2.0 assists for his career and 2.2 assists this past season. He can read a defense and make the right pass in 4-on-3 scenarios.

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Toppin does have some limitations as a post player, but he routinely overpowered smaller defenders at the college level and should be able to take advantage of switches on the block. He can finish over either shoulder, his pure explosiveness is difficult to stop and he can pass out of double-teams. We mentioned this with Okongwu, but the fact that Toppin is able to read the floor when posting up lends credence to the idea that he can thrive as a decision-maker in short-rolls.

Bigs that can space the floor vertically, that have to be guarded out to the three-point line, that can create out of short-rolls and in 4-on-3 scenarios and are capable of beating switches are incredibly dangerous in a league where ball-screens are the dominant form of offense. Toppin can do all of those things, and for the most part, he can do them well.

The problem, however, is that Toppin is something of a tweener. The biggest question that NBA teams have about him right now is whether or not he’s a four or a five.

Offensively, that problem is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Toppin is not going to be a player asked to create much on his own. He was not squaring bigger defenders up on the perimeter and beating them off the dribble. That’s not what he does. He’s not overly skilled as a perimeter player. So much of what he did on the offensive end of the floor this past season was a by-product of the offense that Grant employed and Toppin’s fit as the centerpiece of it. He was the best pick-and-roll big in college basketball, he played the five in an NBA-style offense and he had four sharp-shooters around him at all times. There’s a reason Grant was the Coach of the Year in college basketball.

The bigger concern, however, is on the defensive end of the floor. As the saying goes, you are the position that you can guard, and there are very real concerns about Toppin’s ability to defend both the four and the five spot in the league.

At Dayton, Toppin played primarily at the five, but he did so on a team that played in the Atlantic 10 and only faced off with two top 25 opponents all season long. When the Flyers did go up against teams with bigger, more physical post players, Toppin struggled. He does not have a great deal of lower body strength and bruising players like Udoka Azubuike were able to dislodge him in the post a concerning number of times. He can protect the rim given his athleticism, but he topped out at just 1.5 blocks-per-40 minutes this past season. There are examples of him perfectly using verticality to protect the rim, and his length and athleticism let him makes plays, but there were too many times where he bit on pump-fakes or opted out of contesting at the rim.

Can a guy that gets overpowered and is not a great rim protector play small-ball five in the NBA?

At the same time, he doesn’t profile as a good perimeter defender, either. He struggles sitting in a stance and he can’t really change directions when sliding. He too often was beaten on straight line drives by players that shouldn’t be blowing by him, and he had moments where he looked lost guarding pick-and-rolls. If he plays the four in the NBA, he’ll be asked to guard the best big wings in the NBA, and the idea of Obi Toppin staying in front of the likes of LeBron JAmes, or Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George, or Jayson Tatum is a scary proposition.

To sum it up, Toppin does have some very good, very real NBA skills. His physical tools cannot be taught, and he’ll absolutely be a useful weapon offensively for a clever coaching staff. It’s also probably worth noting that he was 6-foot-2 as a high school junior and was forced into a prep year after graduating high school because he was just 6-foot-5. He’s very much a late-bloomer.

But the concerns about his defense are real, and it’s difficult to imagine that a player that cannot create much for himself offensively that will also be a liability defensively will become a star in the NBA.