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.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.