Obi Toppin Selection Puts Pressure On Mitchell Robinson Defensively

By: Daniel Lubofsky

The New York Knicks brought in Obi Toppin with the No. 8 pick in the 2020 Draft, solidifying their frontcourt of the future along with Mitchell Robinson.

Both provide the type of vertical spacing that is sure to result in breathtaking dunks and an impressive highlight reel. But while they’ll seek to rip off the rims at Madison Square Garden, the more pressing issue comes at the other end of the court, specifically in regards to New York’s incoming rookie.

The glaring weakness in Toppin’s game lies in his defensive woes. The reigning National Player of the Year has a modest build standing 6’9’’ with a 6’11’’ wingspan. Tight hips and lackadaisical awareness get him exposed when trying to execute pick-and-roll defense or guard out on the perimeter.

Gone are the days when the struggles of a subpar stopper could be mitigated by the selective matchup of the opposing teams’ worst offensive threat. Offenses are too smart nowadays to allow poor defenders to go unexposed, no matter where on the court they are.

Toppin will be involved in plenty of action both on-ball and off. He’ll be forced onto scorers who will chomp at the bit trying to take him off the dribble. The Knicks are hoping that’s where Robinson will come in to pick up the slack.

In just two seasons, Robinson has opened eyes with an incredible blend of length and agility that make no shot unblockable. He’s got career averages of 2.2 blocks per game despite getting just 21.8 minutes a night — translates to 3.4 per-36 minutes. The former second-round pick also had opposing players shooting 8.4 percent worse as the closest defender within six feet of the rim this past season.

And yet as tantalizing an interior defender as Robinson is in the best of times, he is nowhere close to a finished product.

At 22 years of age, Robinson is still in the process of absorbing the nuances NBA-level defenses require him to master. He reaches for silly fouls, is easily baited by pump fakes, and possesses a general lack of discipline that’s resulted in over five career fouls per-36 minutes.

Remember, Robinson didn’t go to college, instead opting for a gap year out of high school before putting his name in the 2018 Draft. His learning curve remains steep and he needs on-court support and off-court guidance to help him along the way, neither of which can come from a new frontcourt partner of the same age.

There is a world in which Robinson becomes one of the best detractors in the league, warding off the opposition from the paint with a lurking presence that helps him clean up the messes left by teammates, including Toppin. As a raw youngster still just trying to earn consistent minutes, that scenario is far down the line.

New York can do its part in the present by bringing in the right type of veterans via their plethora of cap space to create the necessary support system. But burdening Robinson with the extra responsibilities a player like Toppin will require from the big man behind him might do more harm than good for a player who still has plenty of work to do on himself before he can begin to aid others.