In the first days of Knicks training camp, one of the early tasks was a conditioning drill, and when it was Obi Toppin’s turn, the rookie asked the trainers what the record was for the test. He marked that as a goal — and his first achievement in the NBA.
"I feel like me being who I am, me wanting to grind, me wanting to always win, I just feel like I always put in the work [that] when conditioning time comes up, it’s like I’m automatically ready for it,’’ Toppin said in a Zoom call Thursday. "When I go out there, I try my best to have the highest score. I always ask what the highest score is so I can beat it. We had a conditioning test and I asked what the highest score was and I had to beat it."
Although Knicks sources said they don’t keep an official list and that this was based on the trainer’s recollections, the agreement was that the record was real and that Toppin was given a time to beat — and shattered it.
Given what his new teammates have seen, maybe that’s not surprising. The Brooklyn native has begun to take his high-flying act around the Madison Square Garden Training Center.
"He’s a freak athlete, man," said Kevin Knox, who spent a month working out with Toppin in South Jersey before the draft. "He comes in the gym 8 in the morning and his first shot is a between-the-legs dunk. It was just crazy his athleticism is where it’s at now. It’s only going to continue to get better.’’
"Obi Toppin is beyond a freak athlete," Austin Rivers said. "He’s going to be really good. I know I obviously didn’t get to play against him last year, but just seeing him in here, my God."
But that high-flying skill didn’t always carry Toppin. When he graduated from Ossining High School, he didn’t have a single Division I offer, so he opted for a postgraduate season at Mt. Zion prep school in Maryland and leaped at the first school to make him an offer, landing at Dayton, where he redshirted his first year.
Even after a solid freshman season, he worked out for NBA teams but opted to head back to school. This time, after earning NCAA Player of the Year honors, he was a certain lottery pick.
When the Knicks took him with the No. 8 overall pick, there was little doubt about the 22-year-old’s athleticism. But he understands that to earn minutes under coach Tom Thibodeau, there still is plenty of work to do, particularly on the defensive end.
"Coach Thibs, he’s known for his defense," Toppin said. "I feel like with my athletic ability, my speed, the way I move my body, I understand my body and I understand the things I need to do to get better and to take my game to another level.
"So I’m locked in, I’m at another level, I’m not in college anymore, and I’m locked into what I have to do to be great. With the coaching staff and players we have, they’re going to push me as well as I’m going to push them to do everything we can to be successful."
The push certainly will come from Thibodeau and his staff, and Toppin insists that he will follow the lead. He already has heard the talk that with his age, experience and skills, he could be a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors if he gets the minutes and lives up to the opportunity.
If not, as a native New Yorker, he is well-acquainted with what the fallout would be.
"I’m not worried about all the outside stuff that’s going to happen," he said. "Growing up in New York, to have the opportunity to play in Rucker Park, Dyckman, West 4th Street, all those amazing parks in the city. I feel like there were crazy fans out there. If you can play in that, you can play anywhere. We have a great fan base. At the end of the day, they aren’t between those lines like we are."