When it comes to NBA prospects, the perceived correlation between youth and upside can be quite a differentiator on various levels. General convention suggests the better a player is at a younger age relative to his peers, the more room there is to develop moving forward, from a physical, mental and skill perspective. Those specific tenets of evaluation have varied among top players year to year, but early draft picks are almost always college freshmen, with few exceptions. That said, player development and growth is sometimes aggressively non-linear. Perhaps no prospect encapsulates that variance better than Dayton’s Obi Toppin, who has become college basketball’s brightest star in a short period of time, and in the process has put himself in play as an early selection in the upcoming draft.
Following a strong showing at the Nike Skills Academy in August that vaulted him to the forefront of discussion in front offices, Toppin opened the season as a projected first-rounder on this website and others. Breakout performances against Georgia, Virginia Tech and Kansas at November’s Maui Invitational cemented him as one of the top prospects in college basketball. And with Dayton heading into post-season play at 29–2, undefeated in the Atlantic 10, and in the mix to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the question with Toppin is simply how high his draft stock can climb from now until June.
“I didn’t have all the attention that I have now in high school or prep school,” Toppin told Sports Illustrated last week, following a win over Rhode Island that happened to come on his 22nd birthday. ”These amazing coaches gave me this opportunity…[Dayton] built me, basically.”
Safe to say, the Flyers’ staff didn’t do all the heavy lifting in that department: Toppin, a quintessential late bloomer, stood just 6’2” as a junior point guard at Ossining High School in New York. He grew three inches going into his senior year, dunked for the first time, and became a versatile frontcourt player. He added two more inches during a prep year at Mt. Zion in Baltimore, and his athletic explosiveness was fully unlocked.“Being a guard really helped me,” Toppin explains. “Having the handles I had then, being able to read the floor and find the shots I need, that allowed me to become the player I am today.”
Toppin was an academic redshirt his first year at Dayton, during which, as those around the program have speculated, he grew, again. Now a sophomore, Toppin has landed at an officially-listed at 6’9” and 220 pounds. He scales defenders, drains open threes, and has become a dynamic offensive threat from multiple spots on the court. And the Flyers, who employ a variety of shooters in a spread attack that optimizes Toppin’s space to operate, are widely viewed as legitimate title contenders under Anthony Grant, who spent two seasons as an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder before taking the Dayton job in 2017.
Toppin tested the waters last season and worked out for the Jazz, Spurs, Cavs, Celtics and Hawks before ultimately deciding to stay at Dayton. He wasn’t invited to the draft combine, but according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, his camp sought a late first-round promise in order to stay in the draft. At the time, that proposition felt like a stretch to NBA teams, based on Toppin’s body of work in just one year. That type of scenario never fully materialized. Certainly, it’s been gravy out for Toppin and Dayton, with both player and program now peaking together at the right time. “I definitely wanted to stay another year, just to play with these guys,” Toppin said. “But I wanted to get a feel for what the next level was like, and I got a lot of good feedback.”
The whole story almost sounds too good to be true, and Toppin acknowledges the relative oddity of his budding career. The question NBA teams have to ask themselves is at what point his unusual trajectory wins out over conventional thought—which, in a vacuum, devalues the proposition of using a lottery pick on a 22-year-old. But this is not viewed as a normal draft, with the sub-par talent level of the potential player pool having been well-discussed at this point. And, probably burying the lede a bit, Toppin has had quite the season, averaging 20 points on 12 field goal attempts, shooting 69% on two-point attempts and 39% from three point range, grabbing seven rebounds per game, and putting himself among the contenders for every top national award.
There’s some immediate precedent for college stars punting the age question: Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter vaulted into the top five of last year’s draft on the strength of his team’s national championship run, despite being 21 years old and at least 18 months older than all three players selected before him. North Carolina sharpshooter Cam Johnson, then 23, was selected 11th by Phoenix, becoming the oldest lottery pick since Buddy Hield (albeit a selection that was widely panned across the industry). Hield went sixth to New Orleans in 2016 after four years at Oklahoma, and was recently revealed to have been born in 1992, not 1993, making him 23 on draft night.
At 22, Toppin is close to maxed out physically, but boasts a good deal of polish offensively, as well as room to improve as a shooter and complementary playmaker. Optimistic evaluators see a readymade role player who can help teams win right away. Others hold concerns about him defensively, where he’s not particularly mobile or prolific as a shot blocker, and can at times be averse to contact. But there appears to be enough buzz in Toppin’s favor to project him comfortably somewhere in the mid to late lottery at this stage, barring a major sea change in consensus.
“Obi fits the mold for a modern big perfectly,” says one Eastern Conference scout. “Well rounded offensive skillset, combined with explosive athleticism. I think he’s one of the safest bets in the draft. Long term starter potential, and could have a similar career to a Paul Millsap or Al Horford. He won’t be your first or second-best guy, but he can be a key piece on winning teams.”
Understandably, Toppin told reporters last week that he wasn’t ready to think about the prospect of his college career ending. He acknowledged the likelihood that he’d turn pro in the spring, and justifiably so. With an A-10 tournament title firmly within reach, and potentially more on a national level, there’s a real platform for Toppin to endear himself further to NBA decision-makers. Dayton’s focus is on the next few weeks. But Toppin’s future will remain a point of debate all the way through June.
“He almost reminds you of Kyle Kuzma a bit, just because he’s really interesting offensively in a variety of ways,” says another Eastern Conference executive. “I’m not worried there. But he also creates some issues on the defensive end, where I’m not sure how high I’d go. But there comes a point in the draft where you really have to think about it.”