In the hours leading up to the NBA Draft there was a thought in the Knicks war room. Could they move up to get one of the top players on their board, Obi Toppin?
But balking at the price, Leon Rose, in his first draft as Knicks president, sat and watched patiently as the draft moved forward. And as players began to move around the board, Toppin was still there - near the top of their board and still available.
Maybe decades as an agent allowed him to have a hint that Toppin, a client of the agency, CAA, that Rose headed up, was slipping. However it happened, he waited and when the opportunity came, Rose jumped at the chance to get his man - making Toppin the Knicks' lottery pick and the first player he has brought to New York.
"As one of the highest-ranked players on our draft board, Obi was someone we really coveted," Rose said in a statement. "He’s an explosive athlete and one of the most dynamic players in college basketball, which earned him the Naismith Player of the Year honors. Just as importantly, he’s also a high character individual with a tremendous work ethic. We look forward to a bright future with him and are excited to bring a native New Yorker home to The Garden."
In this first draft for Rose, he made little secret of his allegiances, taking the CAA client first and then reaching out to the Kentucky connections. The Knicks added SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley from the University of Kentucky with the 25th pick after a pair of trades moved them from 27 and 38 to 25 and 33. The 33rd pick eventually went to the Pistons for a second-round choice in 2023.
The Knicks were one of four teams to work out Toppin - the other three all picking ahead of the Knicks in the draft - and even there the links were evident. The workout was conducted in South Jersey, where Rose is from, and was orchestrated by Rick Brunson, the first client that Rose ever had as an agent, and an assistant coach under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota. At times, Knicks’ lottery pick from two years ago, Kevin Knox, worked out with him.
"I want to have a brotherhood," Toppin said on a Zoom call. "I want to build the relationship with everybody on the team, and not only the team, the organization, and have a lot of W's. New York has been down a couple years, and I feel like with the guys they have now, and myself added to that, I feel like we're going to win a lot of games, and we're going to put New York back on the map, for sure."
In Toppin the Knicks get a 6-9 power forward who has been compared to Amar’e Stoudemire with great speed and athleticism as well as good range on his shot. But he also is 22 years old - older than RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson or Knox. He was a late bloomer, not offered a Division I scholarship out of high school. So the Brooklyn native headed to a postgraduate year at Mt. Zion Prep and he jumped at a chance to play for the University of Dayton.
"Yeah, I feel like nothing has came easy for me," he said. "I went through a lot of things growing up, and I feel like through those struggles and through those bad times that I've been through growing up, it's made me the person and player that I am today. I learned from those experiences on court and off court. I feel like going through those experiences helped me become who I am today, and I wouldn't change it for anything."
He grew up in Brooklyn where his father, Obadiah, was a streetball legend known as Dunkers Delight, playing for the New York Gauchos and the Brooklyn Kings of the United States Basketball League. The family moved to Florida and then Toppin returned to New York, playing a season at Ossining High School.
Toppin was the NCAA’s consensus player of the year this past season, averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds .
This pick came nearly 12 hours after Rose was putting the final touches on his first personnel move since taking over eight months ago as team president of the Knicks. It was a minor move, sending the No. 27 and 38 picks in the draft to the Utah Jazz to move forward four spots to No. 23, also receiving the draft rights to a player who will never play in the NBA, 2008 second-round pick Ante Tomic as a trade chip.
The Knicks then swapped No. 23 to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 25th and 33rd picks. With long connections with the University of Kentucky for Rose, William Wesley and Knicks assistant coach Kenny Payne, it was little surprise that they grabbed Quickley.
"They’re getting a worker, a great kid, a terrific basketball player," Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Quickley on ESPN. "He helps build the culture you’re talking about."
University of Dayton, 22, 6-9, 220 PF
The good: Tremendous athlete — the comparisons to Amar’e Stoudemire are well-earned for a player who led Div. I basketball with 107 dunks last season. He has the ability to stretch the floor with three-point range. Mature and hard-working, he went from a player with no D-I offers to a lottery pick
The bad: Scouts have picked apart his defense, a lack of lateral speed and his concentration drifting at times. That will be a project for new coach Tom Thibodeau, but he also might be what he is — already older than Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and RJ Barrett after a post-grad year of high school and a redshirt season at Dayton..
University of Kentucky, 21, 6-3, 190 PG
The good: The reigning SEC Player of the Year began the season coming off the bench for the Wildcats but emerged as not only the starter but the player of the year, leading Kentucky to the SEC regular-season title. Deep range as a catch-and-shoot guy, sort of a combo guard who was in a three-guard rotation at Kentucky for most of his two seasons.
The bad: 1.9 assists to 1.6 turnovers - not exactly the sort of numbers you want to see in your point guard. But he wasn’t a pure point guard at Kentucky, sharing the backcourt with Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans.