New York Knicks teammates Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley do just about everything together.
They work out together. They celebrate holidays together. Sometimes, they combine the two and leave holiday parties to go to the gym. Quickley departed the Toppin household at 1 a.m. after Christmas festivities and headed to the court, a story Toppin enjoys retelling. The guard was inspired after watching Stephen Curry, one of his favorites, drop 33 points on the Suns on Christmas and felt the urge for a late-hour session alone with his jumper.
A few months after, it was Toppin who inspired him.
Heading into the last game of the regular season, with the Knicks already well out of the playoff race, Toppin made a prediction while at the wheel of his car.
The forward would drive Quickley to games not as a favor or even as a bonding exercise, though it may have started that way. Instead, “Chauffeur Toppin” was a continued superstition. Earlier in the season, Toppin had given Quickley a ride 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 by yourself,” Quickley remembers Toppin saying.
“I was like, ‘Brah, you’re playing good because you work hard,” Quickley recalled. “He was like, ‘nah.’ ”
So, the carpooling continued until the very end.
On that final day of the season, Toppin eyed Quickley in the passenger’s seat and blurted out, “I’m about to go crazy tonight.” The energetic forward normally doesn’t make those kinds of declarations, says Quickley, but he was already in the midst of his best-ever run. Toppin had either set or tied a career-high in points in three of his four previous performances, finally getting an opportunity for consistent playing time with Knicks starting power forward Julius Randle out of the lineup for the final stretch.
Quickley felt if his buddy was so confident, then so was he.
“I’m about to go crazy, too,” Quickley responded. “I guess we’re both going to go crazy.”
Hours later, Toppin set a fourth career-high in five games, this one coming against the Raptors: 42 points, 10 rebounds and 6-of-14 3-point shooting 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 it, once the greatest performances of each of their second pro seasons concluded, all the skippy guard wanted to discuss was one event … that prescient car ride when they predicted all of this, starting with Toppin.
“(Toppin) wasn’t saying that type of stuff early in the season,” Quickley said. “So, for him to just come in before the game and say stuff like that, that’s when I know Obi is feeling himself a little bit.”
That season-wrapping game was less an indicator of what’s to come and more a symbol of what could have been. Toppin amped up his action in the spring, no question. He started hitting more 3s and looked for his shot more often, but he contributed to winning throughout the season with screening, cutting and any other basketball trait one could file under the umbrella of “hyperactivity.” Meanwhile, the Knicks were consistently better when Quickley was in games, and the numbers back it up, even when he was in the midst of one of his clanky shooting funks.
The two got to play more at the end of the season. Toppin averaged 20.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists with starter’s minutes over the final 10 games. He shot 68 percent on 2s and 45 percent on almost six 3-point attempts a game during that streak, as well. Quickley’s heater lasted even longer. He averaged 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 45-39-85 shooting over the season’s final 24 games, when he deked his way to the free-throw line more and looked more comfortable running offense and finding shooters or cutters.
Yet, we see time and time again examples of players on teams that are far out of the playoff race doing weird stuff at the end of March or into April that doesn’t sustain into future seasons.
Over the next few weeks, with the draft coming June 23 and free agency kickstarting June 30, we will get a hint if the Knicks are willing to bet on those two guys.
Toppin got buried this season, stuck beneath the rubble of Randle. Head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t want to use those two forwards together too much since it would mean not having a rim protector on the floor. It seriously limited Toppin’s opportunity. He later credited his uptick in performance at the end of the season to getting an opportunity.
“I feel a little more relaxed now, knowing I’m not coming out if I make a mistake,” Toppin said.
At some point, the Knicks have to give him a chance to run for more than 16 minutes a night. They drafted him No. 8 two years ago, and Randle has blocked him ever since. He’s developed behind the scenes anyway, as have many of the young Knicks. Impressive draft positioning doesn’t guarantee a top-notch career, but it should get you a chance to show your chops. A team can’t use the eighth pick on a guy and still be so wishy-washy on what kind of player he is as he approaches Years 3 and 4. Toppin is extension-eligible next summer; yet, the Knicks don’t know his fully-formed state.
Is he bound to be a blue-chip third big man? Should he start full time? Was the 3-point shooting at the end of the season sustainable? Is he better when he can play the five on offense, screening and cutting from the middle of the floor instead of hanging in the corner, and the four on defense?
A team would prefer a better handle on these questions two years into a lottery pick’s career.
Of the players who went in the top 10 in 2020, only James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Smith have played fewer minutes than Toppin through two seasons. Wiseman and Okongwu are so low only because of injuries, though, and Smith struggled so much as a rookie that the Suns gave up on him after one season, declining his third-year rookie option, a dramatic move, then attaching a second-round pick to trade him for Torrey Craig.
Toppin has shown flashes. He should not be mentioned in this group. Yet, he is, and it’s because of the logjam.
If Thibodeau doesn’t want to use Toppin and Randle together, then the front office can look for ways to get Toppin onto the court, anyway. There are the resounding whispers about finding a new home for Randle, though a trade might be easier said than done, since the rest of the league saw Randle play this past season, too, and he has a four-year extension that kicks in at the start of 2022-23.
They could open up a spot at center, as well, so that Thibodeau has to force-feed Toppin back-up minutes there along with the ones he already receives behind Randle; trade Nerlens Noel, who’s on an expiring deal, let Mitchell Robinson walk in free agency and proudly strut forward with Jericho Sims and Toppin at the five — oh, and probably Taj Gibson, too. It’s not an ideal strategy, but it might be necessary if Thibodeau plans on approaching Toppin’s role similarly next season.
Either way, it’s on the organization now to dig up 25 minutes for Toppin. It’s on them to gather time for Quickley, too, who looked the most comfortable as a lead ballhandler late in the season, even if he still had moments of overdribbling. Do the Knicks draft a point guard, sign a veteran and move him back into an instant-offense role where he still gets to handle, yet doesn’t carry quite the same burden as he did in April, when the young players controlled the show?
These are the types of questions that come when a team is loaded with youth, yet is trying to compete today. The same sort of ones could be asked about Cam Reddish, the personification of a front office and coaching staff diverging. The Knicks traded a first-round pick for Reddish in January only to give him less playing time than he received in Atlanta, the place he requested a trade from because he was unhappy in his role. Reddish can become a restricted free agent next summer. Can the Knicks uncover a role for him to see what they have?
The reality is, you can’t play everyone. The Knicks have seven players who are 24 and under. It’ll be eight when they make their first-round pick and nine if they re-sign Robinson. They have all those vets who command varying levels of playing time: Randle, Noel, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and somehow Kemba Walker is still on the roster. Not every one of those players will return, though.
The Knicks need to decide which ones should. Often, a front office will design a roster in a way that rewards the players it’s invested in with opportunity. 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 exceedingly rare for a player to go so high, show talent, then get stuck behind vets on a sub-.500 squad, especially in today’s “position-less NBA,” which must not be as position-less as we say, considering Toppin is siloed 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 construct the roster — are the ones with the opportunity to create grander roles for Toppin and for Quickley, who have capitalized when given freedom. Come the draft and the start of free agency, the rest of the NBA world will get an idea of how they want to handle this.
(Top photo of Quickley and Toppin: Raj Mehta / USA Today)