The 2020-2021 Kentucky Wildcat basketball team is officially on campus and has begun workouts to prepare for the 2020-2021 season. And while there is still some uncertainty about what exactly the season will look like, some games will eventually be played. And because of it, it’s never too early to know the new players on this roster even better.
Therefore, in addition to all the long-form articles KSR did in the spring, we’ll also spend the next few weeks trying to track down other people who know these new players well, to get even further insight on them. For the incoming high school players, it might be a high school or AAU coach, and for the college transfers, maybe an assistant or head coach who went against them this past season.
Today, it’s time to focus on Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin, with insight coming from an assistant coach who faced him last season.
A few days ago I fired off a text to a prominent, Atlantic 10 assistant basketball coach. My request was simple: I was looking for any insight I could get into Jacob Toppin, one of the newest Kentucky Wildcats, who spent last season playing at the University of Rhode Island.
Admittedly, I wasn’t too optimistic. Having done a million of these scouting reports, I know they can be hit or miss. To coaches, some players stick out like a sore thumb, impossible to ignore when they’re on the court and even harder forget even months after they play. Others are more forgettable, guys who just kind of blend in and do nothing particular to stand out.
Considering that Toppin averaged just 5.1 points per game during his freshman season at Rhode Island, I expected the latter. Understand, that’s no disrespect to the kid. But instead just the reality that he was a role player on a good, but not elite team. Over the course of a 30-game season, in a game that was played six months ago, how much could any coach really remember.
A lot, apparently.
This was the text I got back from the coach just minutes later:
“Yes of course [I’m happy to help],” the text said. “I think he is really damn good and skilled. Glad he is not on our scouting report next year. But hate it for the league to lose an elite talent.”
An elite talent.
Now, if that sounds like hyperbole or coach speak, understand it’s not. This particular assistant has been involved in high level college basketball for years, serving as an assistant in both the ACC and Big Ten. He has both recruited and coached McDonald’s All-Americans and lottery picks. Therefore the man knows talent and doesn’t throw the term around loosely.
When he calls Toppin an “elite talent” he isn’t pulling punches. Instead, it’s where Toppin could end up with a little hard work.
At this point Toppin’s story is well-known, as the younger brother of potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft Obi Toppin. And given his older brother’s stature it’d be easy to look past Jacob after a decent, but not specular freshman year. Of all nine new players in Kentucky’s program this season, Toppin may have the least hype. And it’s not just because of his plans to sit out this season.
Yet when comparing the younger Toppin to his older brother, what gets lost in the shuffler is that Obi Toppin only evolved into the National Player of the Year, after a long, circuitous road in high school (Obi Toppin actually joined the Aaron Torres Podcast in March, if you care to hear his story).
What gets lost in the shuffle is that when Obi Toppin graduated high school he was a recruit with all the physical tools, but one who hadn’t yet put them all together. He actually did a post-grad year in what was supposed to be his freshman season of college, then sat out as a redshirt his first year on campus at Dayton. It was only during what should’ve been his junior year in college that he blossomed into an All-Conference player in 2019. And it wasn’t until this past year, in what should’ve been his senior year, that he became the best player in college basketball.
So in a lot of ways “late blooming” may just be in the Toppin bloodlines. Meaning that Jacob Toppin might be on a similar track as his brother. He is a different player, more of true “wing” than low post player. And no one is saying he will ever win National Player of the Year.
But he’s got all the physical skills to succeed at the college level and beyond. And right now it’s on John Calipari and his staff to – as they do with every kid – maximize that talent.
“He wasn’t physically imposing or strong,” the coach said when assessing the younger Toppin. “[But] he can move his feet, he can put it on the deck. He’s very athletic. We played them kind of early on. There were a lot of his two-point buckets where he offensive rebound crashes, where he just went in there and because he’s thin and slight, he was able to wiggle through cracks and get to where he needed to go to get a tip in. He has a great wing span, he’s really long.”
So yeah, there are a lot of things to like in Toppin’s game, but admittedly, there is also a lot to work on too. He needs to refine his skills, and as the coach said, he needs to add weight and bulk to his skinny frame. That’s also why sitting out this season will be so important to Toppin’s development overall. Not only will it allow him to acclimate to a new school and new surroundings, but he will be allowed to do in a pressure free environment.
“It’s a luxury to have a talented sit out guy to learn your system,” the coach said. “He can be stress free, he can do extra lifts that won’t affect him because he isn’t playing the next day. He can do extra drills that might add to his skill-set, that, like if it is the middle of the season, you can’t normally do because you’re prepping for a game. It’s like dude, you don’t have a game.”
Beyond that, there is the on the court element of it too. It’s no secret that having the ability to practice against two of the best wings in college basketball next year – BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke – will only help Toppin up his game. In a lot of ways, having to be on the scout team every day may not only help him elevate his game, but evolve as a player too.
Understand that when you’re on the scout team, it’s no longer about you, but instead, helping the team in whatever way is needed. One day he may be asked to play LSU’s Javonte Smart in practice and initiate the offense. A week later, he may be asked to act as Tennessee’s Yves Pons and play on the wing.
All of it should make Toppin a more refined player when he returns to game action in the fall of 2021.
“He’s going to have to be those guys in practice and so he is going to have all these opportunities to try new things, the coach said. “He’s got enough skill where he can try things and have some ‘Ah ha’ moments, where he is going to be like ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could do that.’ He can. Based on what he’s got in his repertoire.”
The coach then listed examples.
“He’s not a great ‘beat you off the bounce’ guy. Well guess what? He’s going to be asked to beat a few people off the bounce in practice. And guess what, he’s going to beat some people off the bounce, and now he will have that in his game.”
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the year off will also allow him to… not be Obi Toppin’s brother for a few months.
While the coach was quick to admit that he didn’t know either Toppin personally, he said that just seeing both Toppin’s from a distance, the coach believed Jacob was carrying the weight that came from his last name. It wasn’t just that his older brother was a first team All-American and National Player of the Year. It was he was a first team All-American and National Player of the Year in the same conference.
Only Jacob Toppin knows whether any fan on the street or player on the court actually did compare him to his older brother. But the burden is something that would weigh on any kid. Especially in the social media world we live in.
“Every 18-year-old is a comparer right now,” the coach said. “‘Oh, he’s got a cool graphic and a Top 10 list? I need a Top 10.’ S**t, you don’t even have 10 schools recruiting you, but you need a Top 10. So I can only imagine the pressure he felt being in the same league as his brother, being at a school, but not being in the starting lineup. Every kid is going to put pressure on themselves.”
So yes, having a season off may be a good thing for Toppin, to help him clear his brain, and focus solely on getting better during the 2020=2021 campaign.
And when he comes back a year from now, the coach believes he can be a different player.
“He’s never going to get a sub in practice, he’s going to play against whoever Kentucky’s starting five is and compete and challenge them every day,” the coach said. “I know he’s competitive, he’s not trying to lose, so he might get his ass busted in practice one day because he’s tired or whatever. But he’s just going to dig deeper and deeper into his well and create more energy for himself. This is going to make him who everyone on campus on Rhode Island thought he could be. All those students walking around saying ‘you’re good’ but thinking in their head ‘but you’re not as good as your brother’ this will make him that level of a guy.”
It should also turn him into an immediate contributor for Kentucky in 2021-2022.
And maybe an eventual NBA player as well.
“He’ll averaged double-figures at some point at Kentucky,” the coach said. “The offensive talent is there. He isn’t going to be 20 and 10 like his brother. But he’ll average double figures, four or five rebounds, two of which will be offensive and productive tip ins.”
“Either way, he’s got a chance to be a pro.”