Obi Toppin’s recent offensive surge has only heightened the intriguing question — and the clamor of singing fans — whether the Knicks can find him more playing time next season, particularly when Julius Randle is healthy and available.
If the Knicks remain committed to Randle, who will miss his fifth straight game in Sunday’s season finale against Toronto because of a quad injury, coach Tom Thibodeau’s only option is to use the two closest power forwards. often together in a small ball lineup.
The defensive-minded Thibodeau has mostly resisted going with a smaller lineup because he prefers having a center on the court to protect the rim. But Toppin admitted Friday that he and Randle have discussed playing together, and the second-year forward explained why he thinks it could work.
“Of course Jules and I talked about it, we definitely feel like today’s game is a big thing, just because a lot of teams are playing small, a lot of teams want to play fast, shoot 3-pointers, run the floor and just come out in transition,” he said. Toppin after scoring a career-high 35 points in Friday’s win at Washington.”And I feel like when Jules and I are on the floor, we’re definitely playing a lot faster. Jules or I can be in the paint or we can project and shoot.
“There are so many different things we can do when we’re both on the court. But we’ve definitely talked about it and hopefully we’ll both come back here next year and we can see that. I feel like we can definitely do some damage in the league if we’re on the floor together.”
Randle has averaged 36.4 minutes per game the past two seasons, including leading the league last year with 37.6. Randle and Toppin were on the floor together in just 20 of the team’s games this season for a total of 101 minutes.
“I like to have a power-reducing component,” Thibodeau said after Friday’s game. “But the thing is, we lose our defense, so it’s going to be tough because once you do that, you’re basically committing yourself to overcoming somebody.”
Before starting the last four games in Randle’s absence, the 24-year-old Toppin had only 15.6 minutes per game in his first 67 appearances this season. The 2020 lottery pick is averaging 23.5 points while shooting 48.1 percent from 3-point range (13-for-27) in his four recent starts.
Toppin, the 2021 Slam Dunk champion, has improved his 3-point shooting percentage to 33.8 percent in 29 games since Jan. 23 after connecting just 19.7 of his attempts from long range in his first 42 appearances.
“I just feel like it’s mostly confidence right now. That’s something I’m really working on when I’m in the gym because it opens up a lot of things for me,” Toppin said. “Before I was thinking, ‘Make no mistake.’ Now I’m thinking about shooting first and then going back and dribbling and passing with the guys and now I’m playing with a different kind of confidence.”
The Brooklyn native also joked that he’s “still looking on the bench” for a quick hook after making a mistake, but Thibodeau currently doesn’t have an option to put Randle back in the game.
“Everyone loves Obi,” Thibodeau said. “We were all worried when he got sick. [with COVID-19 in December] that it was going to make us all sick because nobody gives more daps than Obi.
“Every day, what you love about him is that he walks in the gym and he has energy. He walks towards the bus; he has energy. Your team can feed off of that. He reminds me, in a way, not in the way they play, but in the way they bounce off the attitude that he is Taj. [Gibson]. That was a young Taj. In the middle of winter, he will come to the gym and that is what you will feel from Obi when he enters the building. You’re like, ‘OK, Obi is here.’ You feel it.”