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How Obi Toppin went from overlooked recruit to NBA draft lottery pick

This is how Toppin went from recruiting afterthought to national player of the year and a future lottery pick at Dayton.

Obi Toppin pinpoints a man in the lower bowl wearing a Dayton jersey minutes before tip-off during a December game against Saint Mary’s. The two make eye contact and appear to be the only people in the building who know what’s coming next. Toppin jogs toward the hoop and throws down an achingly beautiful windmill dunk, with levitation and fury unfurled in equal parts. The crowd explodes, as does teammate Jalen Crutcher, who sarcastically celebrates next to his superstar teammate.

Toppin is ready. He opens the game with a block at the rim after switching onto Saint Mary’s standout Jordan Ford. The transition dunks pile up. The Gaels are one of the best teams Dayton will face all year, but they are no match for the Flyers’ high-powered offensive attack. Toppin finishes with 16 points and six rebounds on the way to a 78-68 win that pushes Dayton to 7-1 on the season. The school that received just one vote in the preseason AP top 25 is well on its way to becoming one of the biggest stories in college basketball.

Toppin’s rise has just begun.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Toppin came across as just another New York teenager with a basketball jones. He didn’t play in the AAU circuit and didn’t dunk until he was a senior in high school. No national recruiting service ranked him coming out of high school. A family connection might have been the only way anyone was going to see him. A friendship between Toppin’s godfather and Rodrick Harrison, the head coach of the Baltimore prep school Mt. Zion, brought Harrison to New York to watch Toppin play.

Harrison saw Division I talent, despite how raw Toppin was. He also saw a hunger in Toppin to prove himself in a crowded field of recruits with bigger names.

“You can find any 6’4 kid around the city, maybe 1,000 of them if you look hard enough, so he wasn’t sought after,” Harrison says.

Not only was Toppin behind because he didn’t gain the experience of competing against great players, he didn’t get the same exposure as other kids. Toppin desperately wanted to understand how he could distinguish himself.

“He had boundaries around him and it humbled him,” Harrison says.

Most top NBA Draft prospects never consider prep school — they’re given scholarship offers by the time they’re able to drive. Toppin took the long road. He was never ranked by any of the major recruiting services, and only started to come on after the early signing period. The eight scholarship offers made to Toppin were viewed simply as a means to add some upside depth late in the recruiting process when supply is lower than demand.

But after growing four to five inches and gaining 20 pounds from his junior year of high school through the end of prep school, Toppin signed with Dayton and coach Anthony Grant. Knowing academic ineligibility was looming, Toppin focused during his redshirt year on readying teammates as part of the scout team in practice, measuring himself up against the players on opposing teams he was imitating. At the end of the season, Toppin received the Dayton Spirit Award. Grant believes it was the first time the honor was ever awarded to an inactive player.

Former Dayton star Josh Cunningham, now with the Westchester Knicks of the G League, remembers how tireless Toppin was, even then. “When I was around, he was really one of those people who attacked every practice, every workout, every lift session, every conditioning session, he really got after it,” he says.

Toppin went on to set the Dayton freshman scoring record and immediately turn NBA scouts’ heads. Though he appreciated the feedback he got from teams as he tested the waters that offseason, he knew he’d have a starting spot waiting for him at Dayton, and never really expected to leave school before his redshirt sophomore year.

NBA evaluators had a lot of praise for Toppin, noting how Grant’s system helped him show skills — such as three-point shooting and defensive versatility — that they would need from him at the next level. Toppin took what they said and brought it back to his team.

“My whole motive was to go to these workouts, get a lot of feedback to bring back here to school and help myself and help my teammates with what it takes to play at the next level,” Toppin says.

He did more than help. On his way to winning the national player of the year award, Toppin turned in one of the most dominant individual season in recent memory. He finished in the 99th percentile of points per possession throughout college basketball and had a sky-high 68.4 true shooting percentage. Thanks in large part to Toppin’s growth as a shot creator, Dayton had the country’s No. 2 offense and was poised to enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed before the coronavirus pandemic canceled it.

Though Toppin led Dayton’s improvement, the sophomore is undoubtedly a product of the program around him, the head coach atop it, and the teammates that unlocked his special style.

Take, for example, Toppin’s jumper. Sensing the versatility inherent in Toppin’s physique and skill level as a teen, Harrison pushed him hard to become a better shooter all the way back at Mt. Zion. They would take sets of 1,000 shots and practice the rhythms of spacing the floor.

“He may have looked at me like I was crazy a couple times, but he never ran from it,” Harrison says. “That’s why he is who he is now. Once he trusts you, he’s going to do anything for you.”

Toppin knows the total number of threes he took as a freshman (21) off the top of his head. It was one of the main things he heard from NBA evaluators last summer, so he knew he would have to increase his volume and comfort level from deep. Teams wanted him to be less streaky. Toppin responded by tripling his attempts from 2018-19 and nailing a solid 36.2 percent. He made at least one triple in 19 of Dayton’s 26 games.

“I just stay true to what the coaches ask me to do and what’s best for our team, and I think that’s why they have so much trust in me and why I’ve been shooting a lot more threes,” Toppin says.

Few coaches in the league, however, would have the gall to start Toppin and Ryan Mikesell in the frontcourt. Grant says he believed the reward of playing small would outweigh the risk on defense. In Toppin, he found the perfect happy warrior to pull it off, with the right dose of offensive versatility.

The threat of Toppin’s jumper turned the pick and pop into a devastating weapon for Dayton. With Toppin slipping the screen, defenses didn’t know if he would pop out for a three, roll to the rim, or settle into the post. With an improved handle and incredible passing vision, he became a threat to create a high-efficiency shot in any situation. Everything flowed from the rim, where Toppin shot 82 percent this season.

The threat of a Toppin dunk comes in every area of the game. Because of how well Dayton moved the ball, Toppin could trust that when he gave it up, there was always a strong chance the ball would find its way back to him.

When there wasn’t an immediate opening, Toppin was perhaps even more comfortable settling into the post, where nearly a quarter of his possessions ended this season. Toppin’s ability to keep his dribble and spray passes around the floor from inside was key to making Grant’s small-ball dreams come alive.

“I’m always going to trade up a hard shot for a better shot,” Toppin says. “The game started to slow down for me, and my teammates and coaches started talking to me, that with the recognition that I’m getting, the way I roll to the post, the athleticism that I have, the amount of attention that’s gonna come toward me if they double-team or triple-team me in the post, there’s always going to be someone open.”

The veteran experience at Dayton also helped. All five starters had been at the school for at least three years. That cohesiveness allowed them to improve dramatically on defense over the course of the season, though this is the area in which Toppin still needs the most work. One NBA scout who saw Toppin in-person this year believes the defense is a big enough question to negate his positional versatility.

While Toppin’s mobility is above-average compared with most college forwards, he still gets blown by on the perimeter in Dayton’s switch-heavy scheme. Though Grant’s unique Dayton scheme suited Toppin well, he was equally challenged by it, asked to play on the perimeter more than nearly any college big. Without a traditional rim protector among their core rotation, Toppin was relied upon to contain dribble drives off switches, and the results weren’t always pretty.

Because of a high center of gravity that limits his shiftiness, it will be difficult for Toppin to negotiate the NBA’s favorite action, the pick and roll, as a traditional big man defender. So in the pros, teams still should take advantage of his length and athleticism (and an “intangible ability to react” as former Dayton assistant Donnie Jones calls it) on switches. Coaches may be picking between the lesser of evils when deploying Toppin defensively. It’s not as if he’s a terrible perimeter defender. In many situations, his length and athleticism have helped him contain ball-handlers and contest their shots — it just takes more effort for him than most.

Toppin exclusively played center in college, but he might not have the size and defensive instincts to hold down that position in the NBA. He may have to be a swing big man who can play either spot depending on which look his coach wants to give — a “prototypical 4” according to Jones, who also spent time as a scout for the Clippers.

Some have compared Toppin to Atlanta’s John Collins, another tweener big man with enough size and offensive versatility to merit some minutes at center. Toppin could be more consistent as weak-side rim protector and learn to move better on defense, but he’s shown enough flashes for their to be belief in his ability to improve in these departments. The onus falls on Toppin to work on his body, earn coaches’ trust and demand the chance to prove himself. If there’s anything he’s succeed at with Dayton, it’s that.

Since before the NBA was even a dream, Toppin has worked tirelessly. Now, he’s a near lock to be a top-10 pick. Through it all, he has maintained the humility of a player who had been overlooked all his life.

“His continued effort to stay humble in spite of our team success will only make us better,” Grant says. “I’ve had the experience of 30 years in this game, and I’ve seen guys who sometimes get accolades and when they get to certain positions, it becomes hard to accept when adversity hits or when challenges come your way, so I try to stay real.”

Toppin’s focus is on the day-by-day grind just as it was when he was on the scout team, prepping guys like Cunningham for the next matchup. Now that the college season is over, and he’s officially declared for the NBA Draft, college basketball’s best player and most pleasant surprise is onto the next phase of his career.

“I’m not the person who focuses on a next-year thing,” Toppin says. “I’m always worried about the next day because tomorrow’s never guaranteed to anybody.”