LAS VEGAS — Obi Toppin got a phone call Friday from Texas to essentially say: “Keep up the good work. I’m going to need you.”
Knicks All-Star power forward Julius Randle, who led the NBA in minutes last season, rang Toppin to express admiration for his play in the Las Vegas Summer League.
In five games, Toppin has averaged 36.5 minutes and been a consistent scoring machine — from everywhere. The 6-foot-9 power forward has bulled his way to the hoop for buckets, used his athleticism for theatrical alley-oop dunks and looked decent shooting from 3-point range (35.5 percent).
“I was talking to Julius [Friday],’’ Toppin told The Post late Saturday night after the Knicks beat the Cavaliers to move to 3-2. “That’s my boy. That’s my brother. He told me: ‘Good job, just keeping hooping.’ He said it looks like I’m having fun out there. Just keep enjoying what I’m doing.’’
In Toppin’s rookie season, the Dayton dunker didn’t hoop enough.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t trust the Brooklyn native on defense and Toppin’s efficiency on offense wasn’t enough to keep the power forward on the court for long stretches. Not when Randle was having his blazing season. Toppin averaged just 11 minutes and 4.0 points.
Now, the Knicks 2020 lottery pick is spreading his wings, hotter than nearby Death Valley. The Knicks have one consolation game left Monday versus Atlanta but it’s up in the air on whether Toppin plays.
He’s proven enough, averaging 23.0 points — fifth-highest in summer league — and shot 45.9 percent from the field. Though turnovers have been an issue, Toppin is averaging 8.2 rebounds.
“It feels great putting up the numbers I’ve been putting up,’’ said Toppin, who scored 21 points versus Cleveland on Saturday. “Today wasn’t what I wanted on the rebounding side. I’m just having fun out there, having fun with all these guys. Being here I have to be the leader and help these guys get wins.’’
Finding more minutes for the 23-year-old Toppin would be a boon as it would give Randle more breathers. Randle led the NBA in total minutes last season in playing 71 of 72 games. Randle averaged 37.4 minutes per game.
If Toppin can log 18 minutes, Randle’s haul could be reduced to 33 minutes or so — if they share the court briefly. Randle looked worn out by the playoffs.
According to one NBA scout, Toppin’s offensive game no longer looks to be a worry, but he still must work on team defense and being a better interior defender in order to earn more minutes from Thibodeau.
“I feel like I know my role,’’ Toppin said. “I tried to focus on rebounding and defense mostly. Just improving in that, offensively things will come to me. I feel like defense is the most important thing when playing for coach Thibs — and playing anywhere.
“You do hustle plays on defense, get a block, a steal. It’s picking up the team and giving players energy. If you get a stop on defense, you convert it to offense. We have a lot of different weapons offensively. So when we get that stop, we’ll finish on the opposite side.’’
Thibodeau did not talk to the press at summer league. He still hasn’t addressed the Knicks’ four 2021 draft picks despite them excelling in Las Vegas. Knicks brass is delighted by the improvements since June’s Draft Combine made by Quentin Grimes, Miles McBride and Jericho Sims. (Rokas Jokubaitis left the summer team Saturday to join Barcelona and won’t be on the Knicks roster.)
The additions of new point guard Kemba Walker and swingman Evan Fournier will help. If a couple of the rookies contribute and add depth, the Knicks could possibly hold their top-5 standing in the much-improved East.
“I feel like next year’s team is going to be great,’’ Toppin said. “We have a lot of different weapons, like we did last year. We added a couple more guys. With coach Thibs, we’ll lock in defensively and everything is going to go our way. I feel we’ll be No. 1 in defense again and push offensively to be top tier.’’
And if Toppin makes a big leap, all bets are off.
“Obi put a lot of time in in the summer and it’s showed,’’ Knicks summer league coach Dice Yoshimoto. “He’s got to continue to put time in and results will take care of itself. This was a chance to show who he is and build the right habits.’’
After being drafted No. 8 last November, Toppin never got to ease into the NBA with the Las Vegas showcase. Perhaps events would’ve gone smoother his rookie year if he had that experience here.
“It didn’t happen,’’ Toppin said. “It would’ve been great to have a summer league last year.”
View original post