Knicks’ Obi Toppin, Julius Randle discuss playing together next season

Obi Toppin’s recent offensive surge only has accentuated the intriguing question — and the clamoring of chanting fans — whether the Knicks can find him more playing time next season, particularly when Julius Randle is healthy and available.

If the Knicks remain committed to Randle, who will miss his fifth consecutive game in Sunday’s season finale against Toronto due to a quad injury, coach Tom Thibodeau’s only choice is to use the two power forwards more often together in a small-ball alignment.

The defensively minded Thibodeau mostly has resisted going with a smaller lineup because he prefers to have a center on the court for rim protection. But Toppin admitted Friday that he and Randle have discussed playing together — and the second-year forward made the case why he believes it could work.

“For sure, me and Jules actually talked about it, we definitely feel in today’s game that’s a big thing, just because a lot of teams are playing small, a lot of teams want to play fast, shoot 3s, run the floor and just get out in transition,” Toppin said after scoring a career-high 35 points in Friday’s win in Washington. “And I feel like when me and Jules are on the court, we’re definitely playing a lot more faster. Either me or Jules can be in the paint or we can screen and roll.

Obi Toppin (left) said he and Julius Randle have discussed playing together in a small-ball lineup.
Getty Images

“There are so many different things we can do when we’re both on the court. But we’ve definitely talked about it and hopefully we’re both back here next year and we can see that. I feel like we can definitely do some damage in the league if we’re on the court together.”

Randle has averaged 36.4 minutes per game over the past two seasons, including leading the league last year at 37.6. Randle and Toppin were on the court together in just 20 of the team’s games this season for a total of 101 minutes.

“I like having a component of being able to downsize,” Thibodeau said after Friday’s game. “But the thing is, we lose our defense, and so it’s gonna be hard because once you do that, you’re basically committing to outscoring somebody.”

Before starting the past four games in Randle’s absence, the 24-year-old Toppin had been afforded just 15.6 minutes per game over his first 67 appearances this season. The 2020 lottery pick is averaging 23.5 points while shooting 48.1 percent from 3-point range (13-for-27) over his four recent starts.

Toppin, the 2021 Slam Dunk champion, has improved his 3-point percentage to 33.8 percent in 29 games since Jan. 23 after connecting on just 19.7 of his long-range attempts through his first 42 appearances.

“I just feel like it’s mainly confidence right now. That’s one thing I’m really working on when I’m in the gym because it opens up a lot of things for me,” Toppin said. “Before I was thinking, ‘Don’t mess up.’ Now I’m thinking shoot first and then go backside, dribble-handoff with guys and I’m just playing with a different type of confidence now.”

The Brooklyn native also joked that he’s “still looking at the bench” for a quick hook after making a mistake, but Thibodeau presently doesn’t have the option of putting Randle back in the game.

“Everyone loves Obi,” Thibodeau said. “We were all worried when he got sick [with COVID-19 in December] that he was going to get us all sick because nobody gives out more daps than Obi.

“Every day, the thing that you love about him is he walks in the gym and he’s got energy. He walks onto the bus; he’s got energy. Your team can feed off that. He reminds me, in some ways, not in the way they play, but in the way they bounce in their attitude is Taj [Gibson]. That was a young Taj. In the middle of winter, he’ll come in the gym and that’s what you’d feel from Obi when he walks in the building. You’re like, ‘OK, Obi’s here.’ You feel it.”

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