When Obi Toppin entered Tuesday's game, his first appearance of the preseason, it didn’t take long for him to make an impact.
He rebounded a missed free throw by Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and immediately turned upcourt, dribbling the length of the floor and converting a layup as he outraced the smaller defenders. If the speed seemed different from his frame, it wasn’t the only part of his game to belie expectations.
Toppin looked like a different player from the one who began his rookie season with the Knicks just under a year ago, not in stature or athleticism, but in attitude. The tentativeness that countered his talents at the start now seems a thing of the past.
While a preseason game may mean little, just as his stellar play in summer league can be fool’s gold, the year of experience, a steady postseason performance and plain hard work have changed Toppin.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "I feel like I've put in a lot of work this summer, not only me but everyone here. We put in a lot of work and this is just the start. This is just preseason.
"We still have a lot of work to do for the regular season and moving forward. I feel like I just have a little bit more knowledge of being here now. I feel like I've kind of put my foot in the water already, so I kind of have a feel of what it's like playing out there. The fans weren't like how the playoffs were, but they're still fans out there in the building and we feed off the energy they've had. It was just an amazing atmosphere."
Toppin, the first draft pick of the current regime, felt the pressure last season as coach Tom Thibodeau often gave him a quick hook in his limited opportunities. Toppin said earlier in camp that he didn’t need to wait for Thibodeau to send his replacement to the scorer’s table. He knew the mistake he’d made and knew the hook would be coming.
But he spent the entire summer either in the gym in New York or with the team in Las Vegas, mimicking the work habits of the player whom he has backed up, Julius Randle.
"He’s gotten a lot better," Thibodeau said. "He’s put a lot of extra time in. But I think more than anything, it’s probably the experience. I thought last year was difficult in some ways for him because of not really having the summer league, a fall, where you can grow into it. And he’s one of those guys that with repetition, he gets a lot more confident.
"I think the game has slowed down a little bit. I like the way he played offensively. He wasn’t rushing at all and made good decisions. And he’s skilled."
It isn’t just comfort with Toppin's own place in the game but also on the second unit. The Knicks brought back Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Taj Gibson as free agents, and all three could be on the second unit together again, along with last year’s rookies, Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.
When Rose arrived in a trade last season, it helped turn Toppin’s fortunes, from teachings off the court to finding him running the floor on it.
"I feel like our second unit, because we're kind of the same as last year, I feel like we're comfortable playing with each other,’ Toppin said. "And it's just a matter of getting on the court, doing what we have to do to either keep the lead, improve the lead or bring it back if we're down a couple of points, bring back the lead. We know when we get onto the court, we know our job is to bring the energy and just fight as much as we can, so when the first unit comes back in, they know they just got to continue off of what we did."