Good games, weird data

Obi Toppin, De'Andre Hunter, and the slim margins of playoff glory

Obi Toppin, De'Andre Hunter, and the slim margins of playoff glory

In the crucible of the NBA Playoffs, a single play at the right time can instantly rewrite a player's story.

Obi Toppin, a rookie for the New York Knicks, struggled to get his footing in an unorthodox, COVID-impacted first year. Between the veteran-heavy rotations of his head coach Tom Thibodeau and uneven play when he did get time, Toppin never had the immediate impact of Immanuel Quickley, his draft classmate picked at the end of the first round.

Per Basketball Reference, Toppin averaged 4.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in eleven minutes per game. He played more than twenty minutes twice, only scored in double digits three times, and flashed little of the upside that made him the 8th overall pick.

Grading rookies during this pandemic season seems like a fool's errand, but the broader media consensus reflected poorly on Toppin's development. The Athletic left him out of their lottery redraft entirely, Bleacher Report dropped him six picks to 14, and Complex had Toppin falling almost out of the first round to pick 26. In an otherwise joyous Knicks season, Toppin's difficulties offered a rare point of contention.

Playoff success erases all of that

All of that noise can disappear with one moment in the playoffs.

Toppin's maintained his role as a second unit big in the first two games of the playoffs, providing an energy spark in each game. Alex Smith of SNY covered the Knicks' Game 2 win, and in his article he quoted Taj Gibson on the impact of having Toppin and Quickley on the team. Gibson explained:

It’s so fun, and even when they mess up or even when they do good, there’s just so much energy, because the way we have our young guys, they’re just so in-tuned with the game. They appreciate just being out there, but they watch so much film, and they’re just ready to go.

That energy and fun manifested itself in one of the most moving NBA plays of recent memory.

On Wednesday, with his mother in the stands, Toppin soared to catch an Alec Burks pass. He gathered and threw down an alley oop that sparked OBI chants throughout the packed arena.

The MSG camera crew captured Toppin's mother basking in this adulation for her son.

h/t this Reddit post for grabbing the clip

Toppin was born in Brooklyn, played some of his high school ball in New York, and grew up surrounded by Knicks fans in his family. I cannot imagine the elation and joy that he and his mother felt having a raucous and rapid Garden crowd celebrate him on the biggest stage of his career.

These moments make basketball so wonderful and fun, reminders of the humanity of these larger-than-life athletes. Yet, most brutally, the players who miss out on these moments can do so by the absolute thinnest of margins.

De'Andre Hunter battles missing games and buckets

De'Andre Hunter may have been the biggest surprise of the beginning of this NBA season. The fourth overall pick in 2019 for the Atlanta Hawks, Hunter struggled immensely to find his footing in the pandemic-shortened season. Per Stathead, Hunter produced the sixth-worst box plus-minus among qualified players in 2019-20, actively reducing his team's chances to win while on the court.

a bunch of young guys and...Vince Carter?

John Hollinger of The Athletic bemoaned the lack of production for that 2019 rookie class, and called out Hunter specifically as an underperformer.

He shows limited playmaking ability as a 3 – including a high turnover rate for a secondary option — but barely rebounds enough for a wing, let alone a 4. He can guard either spot competently and shows switchability at that end, which should at least allow him to get minutes while he figures out the offensive side. However, he makes little impact in terms of dynamic plays, with just 13 steals and five blocks on the season.

Hunter's rough season mirrored the Hawks' own struggles on the court; Atlanta finished the year 20-47, too far down the standings to get an invite to the NBA Bubble.

One year later, Hunter rewrote his own story entirely. He surprised the league with a playmaking capacity and growth on both ends of the court. Hollinger's colleague at The Athletic, Hawks beat writer Chris Kirschner, profiled this early season improvement in an excellent piece on Hunter. He writes:

The growth he has shown across the board in his second season has been astounding. Last season, the Hawks scored 1.01 points per possession with Hunter as a spot-up shooter, 1.11 PPP in transition and 0.69 with him as the pick-and-roll ballhandler. Those numbers jump up this season to 1.21 PPP as a spot-up shooter, 1.32 PPP in transition and 0.96 PPP as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, according to Synergy.

Hunter managed to become more efficient in three of the most important actions for a modern NBA offense. His leap to an above-average producer increased Atlanta's ceiling as a young, exciting team. Even Hollinger, barely a season after his pessimistic analysis, slotted Hunter fourth overall in a 2019 redraft.

Inches away from playoff glory

Hunter's evolution from potential bust to key rotation piece made for a wonderful early season story, but the joy did not last. Tragically, he injured his knee 18 games into the season and missed over forty games while rehabbing.

He managed to sneak in three regular games before the playoffs started, and has slowly integrated himself back into the lineup. Hunter struggled in the first game of the series, only scoring five points on six shots and ending the night -7 in a game the Hawks won by two.

In Game 2, Hunter shot poorly—going 3 for 10—but grinded his way to the free throw line eleven times. He snagged six rebounds, and the Hawks finished +5 in Hunter's 32 minutes. However, two of those seven misses came at the absolute worst time.

In two straight crunch time possessions, Hunter found himself wide open beyond the arc. In both, he bricked the shot.

I pulled both plays from the tracking data. Here, with 2:36 left and the Hawks down five, Atlanta runs a pick and roll with Clint Capela and Trae Young. No doubt scarred by the Game 1 heartbreak, the Knicks sell out to stop Young. Julius Randle helps off his Hunter assignment by cutting off the driving lane for Young and the passing lane for Capela.

As a result, Hunter spotted up with nary a Knick in site.

The Knicks failed to score after the Hunter miss, and Atlanta came back on the very next possession down by five. Here, Young drives to the hoop and pulls in three Knicks defenders before firing a pass out to a wide-open Hunter in the corner.

Either of these baskets cuts the lead to one possession. Instead, Hunter misses both amid a brutal Hawks cold spell, and the Knicks grind out a pivotal Game 2 win to even the series.

The Knicks will certainly continue to do their best to make anyone but Trae beat them in the fourth. After a season of reclamation and excitement, Hunter ended up millimeters away from producing his own indelible playoff moments.

He'll get another crack at writing that story tonight at home in Atlanta, where one play like that could get a crowd of former skeptics chanting his name.

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Jamie Larson