Knicks: Mapping out how Obi Toppin can develop his defense

NY Knicks, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
NY Knicks, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images) /
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PHOENIX, ARIZONA – DECEMBER 29: Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Phoenix Suns Arena on December 29, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

DeAndre Ayton C, Phoenix Suns:

DeAndre Ayton’s physical frame and offensive skillset enticed the Phoenix Suns to select him over Luka Doncic. Ayton’s defense was always a concern in college, and continued to be a concern at the professional level. During his rookie season, Ayton’s defensive box-plus-minus (-1.1) was ranked 155th amongst all players and 29th amongst centers that played at least 1500 minutes.

Ayton was a sieve in the pick-and-roll, routinely missing assignments, getting blown by the opposing player, and frequently out of position. But, fast-forward a year later, despite playing only 38 games during the 2019-2020 season, Ayton’s defense reputation improved. As FanSided’s Silas Wilbur wrote, the former Arizona star improved in all statistical categories including, defensive field goal percentage, defensive field goal percentage under 6 feet, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, blocks per game and block percentage.

Furthermore, writers and content creators like Xin Varlock and Bright Side of the Sun’s Brendon Kleen have also highlighted Atyon’s growth on defense, giving credit to the Suns for keeping his defensive reads simple and playing towards his strengths.

Ayton’s lateral foot speed and elite athleticism enable him to switch onto smaller forwards and guards on the perimeter. Even if he gets beat off the dribble, or is asked to hedge on a screen, Ayton can recover with the best of them, alter the shot at the rim, or make a highlight-reel block. Switch, challenge shots, and tag the roll man. This was the formula for Ayton’s success on the defensive end.

Unfortunately, for the Knicks and Toppin, the plan isn’t so simple. While his vertical leap ranks within the top one percent of athletes, Toppin’s lateral foot speed, and stiff hips are concerns when it comes to his defensive potential. In fact, switching the pick-and-roll, which in some cases will be inevitable, is almost always going to be recipe for disaster for Toppin.