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Knicks rookie Obi Toppin wants in on slam dunk contest

Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks dunks

Obi Toppin of the New York Knicks dunks the ball in the second quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on January 24, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Abbie Parr

There was no official word from the NBA, and the Knicks weren’t going to admit that Obi Toppin will be in Atlanta on March 7 to compete in the Slam Dunk competition, but for weeks now, the energetic rookie has had a hard time containing his enthusiasm about the opportunity.

And who could blame him? It’s time on the court, which has been hard to come by this season as he finds his way in the NBA, and it’s a showcase to display his most eye-opening skill.

Toppin may not have found his place in the Knicks’ rotation yet, but he has put together a handful of highlight-reel dunks, raising his 6-9 frame far above the rim for powerful slams.

So for now, he takes what he can get.

"I haven’t heard anything about that yet," Toppin said Friday afternoon, trying his best to stay straight-faced. "I would love to be in the dunk contest, but right now we got a couple more games before All-Star break. So we’ve got to focus on that right now, but I’d definitely love to be in the dunk contest when that time comes.

"Yeah, just because I grew up watching All-Star Weekend and watching the dunk contest, the skills challenge, the All-Star Game. I’d definitely love to be a part of that, it would definitely be amazing. But like I said, we still have three or four more games left until that day, so we still have to focus on these days coming ahead."

Still, it seems like a dip in expectations.

Maybe it was a little optimistic to believe that Toppin would arrive in New York as a rookie and earn a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster, but predictions for his contributions this season certainly were higher than just a high-flying sidelight to the game.

Toppin entered the league unlike so many of the rookies coming to the NBA now. He was 22 years old (he will turn 23 three days ahead of the All-Star Game), with a year of prep school after high school and two collegiate seasons at Dayton.

He was the NCAA Player of the Year last season, and given his skilled inside-outside offensive game, many draft experts pegged him as a likely rookie of the year because he was so far ahead of players such as LaMelo Ball, who had spent erratic time overseas, and Jonathan Wiseman, who played three college games.

Playing in New York, where he grew up and where his family still lives, combined with his enthusiastic personality already has made Toppin a fan favorite.

But an opening-night injury sidelined him for the next 10 games (11 if you count the 57-second cameo in his first game back). Since opening night, he has not played 20 minutes in a game once. He has been undone by his own learning curve as well as what surfaced in his absence — an All-Star season from Julius Randle.

The best position for both players is power forward, and while coach Tom Thibodeau has experimented with a few lineups that put them on the floor together, he has been more apt to put Toppin in to relieve Randle — and then call for Randle a minute later after a rookie miscue by Toppin.

Randle entered the season on the final fully guaranteed year of his contract, but his performance and leadership have proved he is a valuable asset who could become a long-time piece at Madison Square Garden. And that leaves Toppin with, well, this dunk competition.

So it’s a showcase opportunity, a time to remind fans that he is an athletic attacker of the rim. This he has been prepped for all his life. He has been in slam dunk contests in high school and in his prep school season, winning one and losing one, but his family history precedes any competition. His father, Obadiah Toppin Sr., was a street ball legend in New York, known as "Dunkers Delight" during his time with the Court Kings and other playground leagues.

"Yeah, for sure. I grew up watching my dad," Toppin said. "My dad’s nickname is ‘Dunkers Delight.’ He had a lot of trick dunks when he was playing with the Court Kings and all the other teams he played for. Maybe I might pull out one of his dunks. We’ll have to see. He definitely had some tricks. I think I have better ones."

He mentioned his love of watching the competitions growing up, seeing Vince Carter throw down dunks that still are YouTube sensations and Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon competing.

"It’s been a lot of guys in the dunk contest that I’ve been watching through my life that have really good dunks," he said. "If the time comes for me to be in it and they say I’m in the dunk contest, I’ll have to do a lot of studying and hopefully come up with something nobody’s seen."

He’s already thinking about it. It’s what he has for now.

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