Obi Toppin made eye contact and raised his right hand as he sprinted toward the basket, and teammate Immanuel Quickley fed him a perfect lob from midcourt for a rattling dunk to energize the Garden crowd in the second quarter of Tuesday night’s win against the Lakers.
As Toppin’s minutes have increased in his second season with the Knicks, those energizing moments also have become more frequent. The 2020 lottery pick’s minutes are up to 15.3 per game through the team’s 10-8 start, and he’s provided 8.1 points per appearance — nearly double last year’s output of 4.1 points per game.
“I’m just going in the game, knowing that I’ve got to bring a spark or do whatever I’ve got to do to basically bring excitement and bring energy to the team,” Toppin said after practice Wednesday in Tarrytown. “I feel like when I’m on the floor and I’m running the floor hard, helping other people get shots or getting easy buckets in transition, I feel like that brings the spirit of our team up.
“Not only me, but like when people are doing it, hustle plays, diving on the floor, getting 50-50 balls and doing things that’s going to excite the team, I feel like those little plays get our team going.”
Tom Thibodeau hasn’t been shy to use his second unit — usually including some combination of Quickley, Derrick Rose and Alec Burks — late in games, especially if the starters are having an off night offensively.
With centers Mitchell Robinson (concussion) and Taj Gibson (groin) sidelined against the Lakers, the 6-foot-9 Toppin logged 22 minutes, often in a smaller alignment alongside starting power forward Julius Randle.
“There’s some real positives to it. And I feel last year obviously wasn’t as good because I don’t think Obi was the player that he is today,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s a good sign. In some ways, we’re a lot better offensively. And then in some ways, we lose some of the rim protection. But I think Obi’s growing on defense as well.”
After the Knicks selected him with the eighth-overall selection in the 2020 draft out of Dayton, Toppin earned only 11 minutes per game over 62 appearances off the bench as a rookie.
“I’m not gonna say I got discouraged, just because I knew my time would get there,” the Brooklyn native said. “I never show emotion a lot. I take it out on the court. … If I’m upset about something, run the floor and get an easy dunk or something, that’s gonna make me feel better.
“But I’ve never really showed emotion, like, I’m always the same guy. I have a lot of joy, a lot of excitement for this game, and I love playing in New York.”
The New York fans also clearly have taken to Toppin, often chanting his first name after one of his dunks.
“It’s the energy. He plays with energy all day,” Thibodeau said. “Every time he goes onto the floor, there’s energy. That’s a big part of this league, and it’s a talent.
“Quick’s the same way. The two of those guys give us a big spark. Sometimes it’s not always perfect, but the energy you can count on every game.”
Toppin says he feels the same way about the MSG crowd, especially after much of his rookie season was spent playing before empty or mostly empty arenas due to COVID-19.
“For sure, it’s New York. We have the best fan base in the world,” Toppin said. “Having an opportunity to play in front of these guys a lot is amazing. So any time we can get the crowd up jumping, and get them screaming, it’s bringing us energy, too.”
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