Dayton has hosted the start of the NCAA tournament with the First Four every year since 2011. This year, Dayton has a legitimate chance to be the last team standing in the NCAA tournament.
The biggest reason, both figuratively and literally, is sophomore power forward Obi Toppin — the 6-9, 220-pounder from Brooklyn — who has helped the Flyers make a push for a potential No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
I compared Toppin’s game to other big-time power forwards in recent college basketball history based on Karl Malone award winners. The short answer to where he ranks: he’s in good company with the likes of Zion Williamson and Deandre Ayton. Read on for the longer answer.
Toppin was named to the 2020 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year watch list in October and he’s now one of the 10 finalists for the award but he essentially plays the “five” for Dayton. That’s where he has played 84 percent of the team’s available minutes at center in its last five games, per kenpom.com. Still, I’m looking at him here as a power forward.
This is the sixth season of the Karl Malone Award, which gives me a half-decade of data points for which to compare Toppin. The players who have won the award are: Williamson, Ayton, Baylor’s Johnathan Motley, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell.
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The following stats for Toppin are through March 1.
Compared to the previous five winners of the Karl Malone Award, he attempts a higher percentage of his shots at the rim than everyone but the once-in-a-generation Zion Williamson, who recorded 72 percent of his field-goal attempts last season at the rim.
Toppin’s activity near the rim is warranted, too.
He’s a better finisher, statistically, than the last five Karl Malone Award winners, making 82.4 percent of his shots at the rim — barely edging Deandre Ayton’s 82.1 percent.
But Toppin also shoots from more places. He’s second only to Niang in shot distribution — at the rim, 2-point jumpers and 3-pointers.
A quarter of his shots are 2-point jumpers and another 22 percent are 3-pointers, per hoop-math.com. Advanced analytics will tell you mid-range shots are generally the least effective because they’re made at a lower rate than layups and dunks, and 3-pointers have a 50-percent greater payoff.
Almost 75 percent of Toppin’s field-goal attempts are at the rim or from 3-point range, which is second only to Williamson’s 88.3 percent last season — a number that obviously benefits from his ridiculously high percentage of attempts at the rim. Toppin’s 74.3 percent combined layup/dunk/3-pointer shot attempt rate is significantly higher than that of Niang (59.3%), Harrell (58.5%), Ayton (56.1%) and Motley (43.2%), which is why Dayton’s super sophomore has an offensive rating of 121.1 that ranks 61st nationally as of March 1.
He takes a high percentage of high-percentage shots and makes a high percentage of them.
The following table shows the shot-attempt percentage (meaning what percent of a player’s shots are from a specific area on the floor) and field-goal percentage for each type of shot.
Here’s more context to the shooting percentages listed above.
I took each player’s field-goal percentage at the rim and field goal percentage on 2-point jumpers, and multiplied them by two points in order to get an expected point value.
I multiplied a player’s 3-point percentage by three points to get his expected 3-point value.
This data reinforces why shots at the rim and behind the 3-point line are often the most efficient. In a vacuum, without considering factors like distance from the rim or the level of defense being played against Toppin, he averages 1.648 points per field-goal attempt at the rim and 1.164 points per 3-point attempt, while averaging just 0.904 points on 2-point jumpers.
For reference, Toppin’s expected point value on a 3-point attempt (1.164 points) isn’t terribly far from 2017 Karl Malone Award winner Johnathan Motley’s expected point value on shots at the rim (1.406 points). The difference is roughly a quarter of a point. The following shows the expected point values from each player’s shots at the rim, on 2-point jumpers and on 3-pointers.
Another compliment to Toppin’s game is how little of his 19.8 points per game comes from put-backs off of offensive rebounds. He has just 16 total put-back attempts this season, which are shot attempts within 4 seconds of him getting an offensive rebound, per hoop-math.com.
While two points are two points no matter how you get them, Toppin relies on his teammates’ missed shots for his offense much less than most of the past Karl Malone Award winners. Almost a quarter of Johnathan Motley’s shot attempts at the rim came from put-backs, and Harrell, Ayton and Williamson were at roughly 20 percent.
The other side of the put-back coin, however, is that Toppin isn’t quite as active of a rebounder on the offensive end as past Karl Malone Award winners.
So, players like Motley shouldn’t be devalued because a higher percent of their layups and dunks came off of put-backs, because it took work on their part to even have the chance to take those shots.
If there’s an area in which Toppin may not quite stack up to recent Karl Malone Award winners, it’s at the free-throw line.
It’s not as if he never gets there or misses a high percentage of his attempts once he’s there, but compared to the best power forward from each of the last five seasons, he has some work to do.
Toppin averages 4.3 free-throw attempts per game, which is roughly the equivalent of 35 percent of his number of shot attempts per game.
With a team-leading 28.4 percent shot rate (what percent of his team’s shots he takes when he’s on the floor), Toppin could stand to get to the line more often — say, 5.5 to six times per game, on average. He’s doing a fine job of making free throws at just shy of 70 percent but Georges Niang, Montrezl Harrell and Deandre Ayton were even better free-throw shooters.
Part of Toppin’s free-throw rate could be explained by his 3-point attempt rate. Ayton, Motley and Harrell each had a 3-point attempt rate that was less than 10 percent of their total field-goal attempts in the season in which they won the Karl Malone Award. Even though the percent of Toppin’s shot attempts at the rim is higher than everyone but Zion Williamson, it stands to reason that a player who spends a higher percent of his time on the floor further away from the basket might get fouled less than his anchored-to-the-paint peers.
While it may not always earn 50 percent of the airtime in college basketball discussions, defense is half of the game. How do the same six players compare defensively — at least on the a surface level? I analyzed block rate (percentage of opponent’s 2-point attempts that a player blocks when he’s on the floor), steal rate, fouls committed per 40 minutes and fouls drawn per 40 minutes.
Toppin is the best of the bunch at not fouling, he’s a respectable rim protector and he has active hands when it comes to steals.
When compared to the best power forward in college basketball from each of the last five seasons, Obi Toppin and his statistics fit in among those of past winners.
He’s stronger in some areas and a little behind in others, but as you saw in the tables above, the extremely efficient 2-point shooting, floor-spacing, rim-protecting play of Toppin makes him a special player — perhaps the best power forward in the country — and he’s the main reason why Dayton could make it to Atlanta for the Final Four this season.