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Knicks’ biggest X-factor for the 2021-22 season

Knicks, Obi Toppin, Julius Randle, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks have gotten off to a strong start as they fight to prove their 2020-21 playoff berth wasn’t a fluke. Thanks to their incredible depth, they have been able to support their key players and play stretches of the game without starters. One reserve, in particular, might be one of the team’s biggest X-factors due to his developing skills.

Although Julius Randle is the leader of the pack, Obi Toppin can be one of the most important supporting players. Although he likely won’t be among the very best players on the team, the second-year big man’s abilities help unlock those of everyone else.

Toppin’s dunks will always be his most notable contributions, but they are far from the only ones. Recently, he has been showing more comfort in attacking the hoop and handling the ball in the open court. He has the dexterity to finish in a variety of ways, in addition to the leaping prowess that he shows whenever he slams it down.

At the beginning of last season, Toppin didn’t do much besides running the open floor and failing to score on his own. He showed a modicum of confidence in his shot and a pretty good ability to read the floor but didn’t provide much. As the season went on, he began to come out of his shell, finding more comfort on both sides of the ball. Now he is flashing true offensive potential by shooting 3-pointers quicker and taking more initiative.

And he’s still running the floor with gusto, offering easy opportunities for points.

As the Knicks look to address offensive concerns that plagued them last year, they shouldn’t ignore the steadily improving Obi Toppin. Tom Thibodeau already saw impressive results with the Randle-Toppin frontcourt. In times when New York can’t get their offense going, they already have an example to show why pairing the two power forwards can ignite some offense.

Last season, Thibodeau relied on his reserves frequently, mainly giving Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks the green light when they had the hot hand. Toppin often used their scoring gravity to get himself opportunities. As Toppin looks to handle the ball more, he can truly unlock the bench unit by finding them opportunities to score.

Since Rose is a quick and crafty slasher, Quickley and Burks are each proficient shooters, and Jericho Sims—currently filling in for the injured Nerlens Noel—has similar sky-high hops, Toppin has options.

When he plays with the starters, Toppin’s options only get better. With Randle, Kemba Walker, RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier, Toppin can help each skilled scorer operate with more space and get them the ball when they’re open. He’ll probably be used as a screener and roller/popper, but he has more abilities to make plays than the Knicks’ centers, who are mainly just tasked with catching lobs.

Toppin, when he was drafted, was seen as having questionable upside despite dominating his last collegiate season. His ability to improve his game has silenced his major critics and made Knicks fans chant his name proudly and loudly on numerous occasions. As he continues to grow, so does the impact he can have on the team.