Struggling Obi Toppin still can be key contributor for Knicks

There was the early speed. It was enough to draw a lot of attention to Obi Toppin. Opening night it was 14 ppg, five rebounds and 6-for-9 shooting. There were also a few electric plays. He followed that up with 13 points in Game 2, Orlando. Amway Arena was filled with large numbers of Knicks fans who also responded.

It is has slowed from there for Toppin, the Knicks’ second-year forward. His minutes have decreased again and he is now mainly serving as a backup to Julius Randle. From an average of 26 minutes for the first two games, it has now fallen to 12.0 for the last five. The numbers have declined accordingly.

It ain’t easy being a junior member of Thibs’ Army.

“I don’t feel pressure at all because it’s basketball,” Toppin said Wednesday morning, a few hours before the Knicks would tip it up with the Pacers at Indianapolis’ Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “I just know what I have to do when I go out there. Either it’s going to go really good — which I hope is every day — but I don’t feel pressure. I just go out and have fun and play my role.”

This is the key. Toppin is still a streaky and athletic player. Tom Thibodeau is working with him to find the best way to use those skills. It is telling that both of the Knicks’ losses so far this year entering play Wednesday — against the Magic and the Raptors, both at home — came at the hands of teams who couldn’t match up well with the Knicks in terms of basketball skill but had a clear advantage in young legs and athleticism.

Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin
NBAE via Getty Images

In the five games since Toppin’s splendid two-game opening to the season, he has yet to return to double figures in scoring, turning in nights of 2, 9, 5, 1 and 6 points. He is still shooting 50 percent in those games, still blocking a shot per game, still grabbing 2 ½ rebounds. He just hasn’t seen the floor as often.

Those opportunities will come, you would think, since the Knicks’ backup-center tandem of Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel have struggled to stay completely healthy. Toppin will once again have the opportunity to play alongside Randle on nights when they are both healthy.

Whatever Thibodeau is looking for — and the coach has never come close to criticizing Toppin, he simply hasn’t shown a true and full confidence in him yet — he has to show during those opportunities.

“I feel like the key is knowing what I have to do when I’m on the court with those guys,” Toppin said. “Whether I’m on the court with Jules or on the court with Taj, or Mitch. I know I’m out there bringing energy out on the court, running the floor, doing little things that will help the team win.

“We definitely have to rebound a lot better when it’s me and Jules out there. Rim-protect a lot better. But I’ve got to do whatever I can do stay on the court and help the team win.”

One thing hasn’t changed: the fans at Madison Square Garden still enjoy what he brings to the floor, regardless of how small those bites might be right now. They still chant his name — “It’s an easy chant, for real,” Toppin said — and he feeds off that love.

“I don’t know but it brings chills to me every time they do that,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

He’ll feel even better when he settles into a nightly role where he’s regularly making contributions that honor what he showed he could do in the season’s first week.

“Everyone isn’t perfect,” Toppin said. “Everyone isn’t going to have a great night every single day, but what we can do is make the best of it every time we’re on the court, get better and do what we do best — play basketball.”

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