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Knicks’ Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley finished the season well, but now comes the hard part

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New York Knicks teammates Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley do just about everything together.

They work together. They celebrate the holidays together. Sometimes, they combine the two and leave the Christmas parties to go to the gym. Quickley left Toppin’s house at 1 a.m. after the Christmas festivities and headed to court, a story Toppin likes to retell. The guard was inspired after watching Stephen Curry, one of his favorites, lose 33 points to the Suns on Christmas and felt the need for a last-minute session alone with his jump shot.

A few months later, it was Toppin who inspired him.

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Heading into the final game of the regular season, with the Knicks already out of the playoff race, Toppin made a prediction behind the wheel of his car.

The forward would bring Quickley to games not as a favor or even as a bonding exercise, though he may have started out that way. Instead, “Chauffeur Toppin” was a continuing superstition. Earlier in the season, Toppin had brought Quickley to Madison Square Garden, and Toppin played well. He told Quickley that after tonight they now had to go to every game together.

“You’re not allowed to go alone,” Quickley remembers Toppin saying.

“I was like, ‘Brah, you’re playing good because you work hard,'” Quickley recalled. “He was like, ‘no.’ ”

So the carpool continued to the end.

On that last day of the season, Toppin looked at Quickley in the passenger seat and blurted out, “I’m about to go crazy tonight.” The power forward doesn’t normally make those kinds of statements, Quickley says, but he was already in the midst of his best streak. Toppin had set or tied a career high in points in three of his previous four outings, finally getting a chance to get some consistent playing time with Knicks starting power forward Julius Randle out of the lineup for the stretch. final.

Quickley felt that if his friend was so confident, so was he.

“I’m about to go crazy too,” Quickley replied. “I guess we’re both going to go crazy.”

Hours later, Toppin set a fourth career high in five games, this one against the Raptors: 42 points, 10 rebounds and 6-of-14 3-point shooting to close out the season. Quickley wasn’t much different: a career-high 34 points as part of his second career triple-double, which included 10 rebounds and 12 assists. And after that, once the best performances of each of his second pro seasons wrapped up, all the skippy guard wanted to discuss was one event…that fateful car ride when they predicted all of this, starting with Toppin.

“(Toppin) wasn’t saying those kinds of things early in the season,” Quickley said. “So for him to come in before the game and say stuff like that, that’s when I know Obi feels a little bit better.”

That season-closing game was less of an indicator of things to come and more of a symbol of what could have been. Toppin increased the action of him in the spring, no doubt. He started hitting more 3s and looking for his shot more often, but he contributed to winning throughout the season with blocks, cuts and any other characteristic of basketball that one could file under the umbrella of “hyperactivity.” Meanwhile, the Knicks were consistently better when Quickley was in games, and the numbers back that up, even when he was in the midst of one of his shooting problems.

The two got to play more at the end of the season. Toppin averaged 20.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists with starting minutes in the last 10 games. He shot 68 percent on 2-pointers and 45 percent on nearly six 3-point attempts per game during that streak as well. Quickley’s heater lasted even longer. He averaged 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 45-39-85 shooting over the last 24 games of the season, when he made his way further to the free throw line and seemed more comfortable running offense and finding shooters or cutters. .

Yet again and again we see examples of players on teams that are a long way from the playoff race doing weird things in late March or into April that don’t hold up in future seasons.

Over the next few weeks, with the draft June 23 and free agency starting June 30, we’ll get a hint if the Knicks are willing to bet on those two guys.

Toppin was buried this season, trapped under Randle’s rubble. Head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t want to use those two forwards too much together, as it would mean not having a rim protector on the floor. He severely limited Toppin’s opportunity. He later attributed his increase in performance at the end of the season to having a chance.

“I feel a little bit more relaxed now, knowing I’m not going to go out if I make a mistake,” Toppin said.

At some point, the Knicks have to give him the chance to run more than 16 minutes a night. He was drafted No. 8 two years ago and has been locked by Randle ever since. Still, he has developed behind the scenes, as have many of the young Knicks. Impressive draft placement doesn’t guarantee a top-tier career, but it should give you a chance to show off your skills. A team can’t use the eighth pick on a guy and still be so insecure about what kind of player he is as he approaches Years 3 and 4. Toppin is eligible for an extension next summer; however, the Knicks don’t know his full status.

Is he destined to be a third big man of the front line? Should he start full time? Was the three-point shot at the end of the season sustainable? Is it better when he can play all five on offense, blocking and cutting from the middle of the court instead of hanging in the corner, and all four on defense?

A team would prefer a better handling of these questions two years after the race of a lottery pick.

Of the players who were in the top 10 in 2020, only James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Smith have played fewer minutes than Toppin in two seasons. However, Wiseman and Okongwu are so low only due to injuries, and Smith struggled so much as a rookie that the Suns dropped him after one season, rejecting his thirdOne-year rookie option, a dramatic move, and then attach a second-round pick to trade him for Torrey Craig.

Toppin has shown flashes. He is not to be mentioned in this group. However, he is, and it’s because of the jam.

If Thibodeau doesn’t want to use Toppin and Randle together, then the front office can look at ways to get Toppin on the court anyway. There are buzzing rumors about Randle’s search for a new home, though a trade might be easier said than done, as the rest of the league also saw Randle play last season, and he has a four-year extension coming into play. effective at the beginning of 2022-23.

They could also open up a spot in center so that Thibodeau has to force-feed Toppin’s backup minutes there along with the ones he already gets behind Randle; trade Nerlens Noel, who has an expiring contract, let Mitchell Robinson hit free agency and strut proudly with Jericho Sims and Toppin in the five, oh, and probably Taj Gibson too. It’s not an ideal strategy, but it could be necessary if Thibodeau plans to approach the Toppin role in a similar way next season.

Either way, it’s up to the organization now to dig up 25 minutes for Toppin. It’s also up to them to carve out time for Quickley, who looked more comfortable as the leading ball handler late in the season, even if he still had moments of overdriving. Do the Knicks draft a point guard, sign a veteran and return him to an instant offense role where he can still handle but doesn’t carry the same load as he did in April, when the young players controlled the show? ?

These are the kinds of questions that come up when a team is full of youngsters but is trying to compete today. The same could be asked about Cam Reddish, the personification of a divergent front office and coaching staff. The Knicks traded a first-round pick for Reddish in January just to give him less playing time than he received in Atlanta, the place he requested a trade to because he wasn’t happy with his role. Reddish can become a restricted free agent next summer. Can the Knicks figure him out for a role to see what they have?

The reality is that you can’t play with everyone. The Knicks have seven players under the age of 24. That will be eight when they make their first-round pick and nine if they re-sign Robinson. They have all these veterans who dominate different levels of playing time: Randle, Noel, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and somehow Kemba Walker is still on the list. However, not all of those players will return.

The Knicks need to decide which ones should do it. Often a front office will design a roster in a way that rewards the players it has invested in with opportunities. After all, what’s the point of investing if you don’t create return opportunities?

The Knicks invested a No. 8 pick in Toppin. It’s extremely rare for a player to get that high, show talent, and then get stuck behind veterans on a sub-.500 team, especially in today’s “positionless NBA,” which shouldn’t be so positionless. as we say, considering Toppin is isolated because he and Randle play the same position.

Now, the Knicks — both Thibodeau with the day-to-day decisions and the front office with how they build the roster — are the ones with the opportunity to create larger roles for Toppin and Quickley, who capitalized when they were given free reign. . Come the draft and the start of free agency, the rest of the NBA world will have an idea of ​​how they want to handle this.

(Top photo of Quickley and Toppin: Raj Mehta/USA Today)

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