With each impressive Obi Toppin outing, each new career high in points, or each crowd outburst in “Obi” chants, the question grows louder:
Can this happen with Julius Randle?
For two seasons, this is not the case. Coach Tom Thibodeau, who prioritizes big centers for rim protection, viewed Toppin and Randle as too defensive a liability as a front-line tandem. And with Randle averaging around 36 minutes since last season, Toppin has been on the bench frequently.
But the teammates discussed their potential as a duo.
“Me and Jules actually talked about it, we really think in today’s game it’s a big thing, just because a lot of teams are playing small, a lot of teams want to play fast, shoot at three, running on the ground and just going out in transition,” Toppin said. “And I feel like when Jules and I are on the court, we definitely play a lot faster. Me or Jules can be in the paint or we can screen and roll. There’s so many different things we can do when we’re on the pitch. We’ve certainly talked about it and hopefully we’ll both be back here next year and get to see that stuff.
Thibodeau wasn’t as enthusiastic, again expressing hesitation to play smallball after Randle returned next season.
“I like having a component of being able to downsize,” the coach said. “But the thing is, we’re losing our defence, and so it’s going to be tough because once you do that, you’re basically committing to outplay somebody.”
Whether or not the formation of double forwards becomes a staple, it will be hard to justify playing Toppin so sparingly in Year Three. He surged to finish this season while Randle rests, with Friday’s 114-92 win over the Wizards as the latest example. of the 24-year-old’s improved game and confidence.
He dropped a career-high 35 points on six 3-pointers and 14 of 22 total shooting, raising his last 10-game averages to 16.8 points on 57% shooting.
Last season, Toppin struggled to hit the 3-point rim. Now he knocks them down with regularity.
“I used to think, ‘Don’t mess up,'” Toppin said. “Now I’m thinking, ‘Shoot first’, then go back, dribble with the guys and just play with a different kind of confidence now.”
Still, Toppin can’t help but worry about getting fired when he makes a mistake. It happened frequently when Randle was available, when Thibodeau had a quick hook for Toppin.
“I always watch the bench, I’m not going to lie,” Toppin said.
Lately, however, the subs aren’t coming. If Randle isn’t traded and returns next season, Toppin’s improvement will put more pressure to get him on the court. And even Thibodeau seems more sold than ever.
“Everyone loves Obi,” the coach said. “We were all worried when he got sick that he was going to make us all sick because nobody gives more (slaps) than Obi. Every day what you love about him is that he walks in the gym and he has energy. He gets on the bus; he has energy. Your team can feed on it. He reminds me, in some ways, not in the way they play, but in the way they bounce in their attitude, it’s Taj (Gibson). He was a young Taj. In the middle of winter, he will come to the gymnasium and this is how you will feel about Obi when he enters the building. You’re like, ‘OK, Obi is here.’ You feel it.”