The NBA didn't take Obi Toppin seriously last season, leaving him off a list of nearly 70 prospects for 2019's scouting combine. This year, he'll receive an invite to the draft's green room, whether it's live in Brooklyn, New York, or virtual.
Toppin has lottery teams' attention now after transforming into a 20-point-per-game scorer, National Player of the Year and better shooter to strengthen his projected NBA fit.
But some scouts are still hesitant about how high it's worth drafting Toppin, with their questions mostly related to his defense and how it could affect his value.
How should Toppin's questionable defense affect his evaluation and value?
Plenty of teams will be sold on Toppin's scoring translating, given his pro tools (6'9", 220 lbs), explosiveness around the basket (76.7 percent at rim), effective post game (1.02 PPP, 87th percentile), untapped face-up potential (1.33 PPP spot-ups, 98th percentile), developing jump shot (32 3PTM, 39 percent) and efficient production (32.5 player efficiency rating).
But what if he's a defensive liability? How much would it offset what he's able to accomplish offensively?
Toppin showed limited potential in rim protection. Despite his size and athleticism, opponents shot 57.6 percent around the basket when he was defending. His 4.1 block percentage was scarily low since he often played center. The instincts, reaction time and effort don't show up on tape.
Toppin figures to start his pro career as a 4, despite his struggles containing around the perimeter.
He does not appear graceful guarding away from the basket, whether he's isolated, closing out or asked to help. His footwork and general movements are clunky. Shooters shot 40.4 percent over him off the catch. He graded in the 26th percentile defending spot-ups, and he didn't stop pick-and-rolls (opponents converted 17-of-22 times).
Even his 14.5 rebounding percentage raises concerns. How could a big man as bouncy as him grab just 7.5 boards in 31.6 minutes per game?
Teams considering Toppin may have to accept they won't be getting a plus defender or intimidator. And that means needing to think about whether they have the right supporting cast to help mask his weaknesses.
How much should teams factor Toppin's defensive fit when considering him?
What if a struggling defensive team deems Toppin the best player available when it's on the clock?
Should teams just worry about talent in the draft and adding the right support later? Toppin could efficiently give teams 20-plus points a game. A scorer like that may be tougher to find than defensive role players who can fill in around him.
Ideally, the team that drafts Toppin can slot him between a rim protector and defensive wing. Or, it can use him at the 5 behind a strong team defense and shooters, like in Golden State.
How legitimate is Toppin's shooting improvement?
Freshman flashes of shooting (11-of-21 3PT) created optimism. This past season, Toppin took another step forward, hitting 32 threes in 31 games at a 39.0 percent clip.
The lack of volume still makes it difficult to fully buy in. He made three half-court jumpers all year that weren't threes, hit one pull-up and didn't make any shots off of a screen. His 70.2 free-throw percentage was fine but not persuasive.
Toppin didn't demonstrate obvious confidence in his shot. He hesitated or passed up open looks, and some of his misses were way off. He aims it. His shot consists mostly of upper-body work.
But the gradual improvement could be worth betting on to continue. On the other hand, he'll finish his NBA rookie season at 23 years old (March 2021).
How worrisome is Toppin's age?
Since 2007, the list of lottery picks who turned 22 before the draft includes: Cameron Johnson, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Taurean Prince, Denzel Valentine, Frank Kaminsky, Doug McDermott, Kelly Olynyk, Jimmer Fredette, Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, Hasheem Thabeet, Brandon Rush, Joakim Noah, Acie Law and Al Thornton.
History suggests teams aren't drafting a star at 22, though some have slipped through the cracks (into the second round) and gone on to become solid pros like Malcolm Brogdon or Devonte' Graham. Toppin turned 22 in March, raising questions about his NCAA dominance and NBA upside. He was the same age as many seniors during his breakout season. And how much room does he have left to improve his shooting, scoring skills and defensive IQ/coverage?
Teams have to ask how close Toppin already is to his ceiling, and then based on that answer, decide where to rank him in a tier that includes mostly 18- to 20-year-olds with more time/room to develop.
Toppin in the draft
Between this draft's uncertainty and varying opinions, Toppin could go as high as No. 2 or later toward the lottery's second half.
In the best-player-available discussion, Toppin will be competing for looks with mostly younger ball-handlers and wings—LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Deni Avdija, Killian Hayes and more. And in today's league, it's possible that unsure general managers lean toward guards over a big who struggles defensively.
But there are also lottery teams who could use a power forward, either to plug right in or to develop long term, like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs or Detroit Pistons.
Toppin versus James Wiseman should spark an interesting debate when discussing bigs. Wiseman, who's 7'1", 240 pounds with a 7'6" wingspan, has the superior physical profile and just turned 19 on March 31. But while Toppin was leading Dayton to a 29-2 record, Wiseman was training after leaving Memphis just three games into the season, and it's pretty clear he can't currently match Toppin's scoring versatility, passing or shooting range.
Wiseman's size and length are better suited for rim protection, but like Toppin, there are also questions about his defensive impact.
Compared to USC's Onyeka Okongwu, the other projected lottery big, Toppin is the more attractive offensive player. Okongwu is stronger, but he isn't as comfortable or threatening outside the paint.
However, Okongwu blocked 2.7 shots per game, and he comes off as a center who'll anchor a defense, unlike Toppin. Certain teams may prefer his defensive presence/potential and chances of improving his outside touch.
It seems like a safe bet to project a productive scorer in Toppin who'll shoot a high percentage from the floor. Offensively, it's not crazy to think he puts up numbers similar to Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins. But will they be enough to make up for his defensive issues, to what degree can he make them disappear, and is he definitely on track to evolve from a power player to an inside-out stretch big?