Once an afterthought, Obi Toppin turned Dayton into NCAA title threat

Once an afterthought, Obi Toppin turned Dayton into NCAA title threat

His mother, Roni Toppin, described the season as “unimaginable” and “mind-blowing.” Close friend and teammate Jalen Crutcher called it “crazy.” Dayton Daily News beat writer David Jablonski labeled it “unprecedented” for the Dayton Flyers to have such a player.

Even Obi Toppin, a National Player of the Year favorite originally from Brooklyn, can’t believe the turn his life has taken over the last few months.

“It doesn’t feel real at all,” the 22-year-old redshirt sophomore told The Post in a phone interview. “I sit back and sometimes think, ‘What is going on?’ ”

This Cinderella, rags-to-riches story is hard to fathom. Nobody could see this late bloomer, who grew 8 inches from his junior year of high school until freshman year of college, coming.

The most exciting player in college basketball, the leader of the third-ranked team in the country, a consensus top-five NBA draft pick, didn’t have a single scholarship offer coming out of Ossining High School in Westchester. His first season at Dayton, he could only practice, due to academic shortcomings.

Now, you can’t turn on ESPN without hearing about the selfless 6-foot-9, 220-pound dunking machine, the son of Obadiah Toppin Sr., a New York City streetball legend known as “Dunker’s Delight.” He has turned Dayton into a national championship contender and potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if the Flyers can win this week’s Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn, leading the Flyers to a perfect league season and a 29-2 record, with the lone two setbacks in overtime to No. 1 Kansas and Colorado.

“He’s for real,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said.

There was buzz surrounding Toppin before the season began. In his first year on the court at Dayton last season, he became the first freshman to be the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and be voted a first-team selection since Lamar Odom in 1999. He averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds, then excelled at the Nike Skills Academy, outplaying the top returning college players in the country.

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The Toppin family. Roni (top left), Obadiah Sr., Jacob (bottom left) and Obi.Roni Toppin

Dayton played in the prestigious Maui Invitational in November and the pro prospect everyone was talking about was Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards. The Bulldogs were Dayton’s opening-round opponent, and Toppin led an 80-61 rout, scoring 14 of his team’s first 16 points.

“We have the best player in the country,” Crutcher thought to himself. “I knew then.”

Dayton knocked off Virginia Tech in the second round and took Kansas to overtime. Toppin was named to the all-tournament team, averaging 22.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. It was the start of this hard-to-believe season in western Ohio.

Toppin is averaging team-highs of 20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, shooting a ridiculous 63.3 percent from the field and also knocking down 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. His star turn hasn’t changed his ball-moving ways. He’s averaging 2.2 assists, another factor in his NBA stock skyrocketing.

Teams love his athleticism, leaping prowess and team-first approach. Toppin reminds Vitale of former overall No. 1 pick Kenyon Martin and Vitale sees some attributes of Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen in him as well.

“No question, top five,” an NBA scout said. “Not even an issue. … All I know is from summer until now, he would be a top-10 pick in most drafts.”

Roni has heard from more than 100 people with connections to the NBA. Some have even contacted people she works with. But she tells them all the same thing: Wait until the season is over. It’s gotten so hectic she has changed the settings on her phone. Numbers not in her contact list go straight to voicemail.

“It’s off the charts,” said Roni, a special-education teacher.

This attention isn’t just new to the Toppin family, it’s a first for Dayton. ESPN brought it’s “College GameDay” show to campus over the weekend. The last Dayton player to be drafted in the first round was Jim Paxton in 1979 (12th overall). The team has never been higher than a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament and Paxton was the school’s last All-American.

Roni laughed when asked if her son has become a celebrity. She is one, too. Fans will give her hugs and kisses, thanking her for allowing her son to attend the school. He has trouble getting around campus. He couldn’t even get to his car to get lunch last Saturday, his mother recalled.

“There’s never been a player like Obi at Dayton,” said Jablonski, the Dayton writer.

Toppin loved basketball at a young age because of his father, a streetball star who also played overseas. Along with his younger brother, Jacob, a freshman at Rhode Island, he would spend summer days watching his father on the city’s streetball circuit. The eldest Toppin would take them to open gyms.

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Obi Toppin (right) with his younger brother Jacob.Roni Toppin

Toppin watched his father dunk in those games and began to mimic him once he was old enough.

“He did some crazy ones,” Toppin recalled.

He and Crutcher now go by the nickname “Peanut Butter and Jam,” instead of jelly, due to their frequent alley-oops. Toppin landed the No. 1 highlight on ESPN’s Top 10 plays after his between-the-legs slam in a regular-season closing win over George Washington. An appearance in the NBA Slam Dunk contest could be in his future.

“He put on three dunks in transition during the game [I was at] that were just electrifying,” Vitale said.

In the first grade, the family moved from Brooklyn to Florida, before returning to Ossining following his sophomore year of high school. Toppin was growing at a crazy rate, and his knees hurt all the time. He didn’t play much his junior year of high school, but he finally shined as a senior, averaging 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Still, he had no real options by the end of that season. Junior college was the plan.

That plan changed in the summer, after Victor Monaros, who had played with Toppin’s father in college and overseas, came to watch him play at The Rucker in Harlem. Monaros was impressed by his raw ability and skill set. He thought prep school would help him. Roni, though, had already explored that avenue. She couldn’t afford it.

“Give me one week,” Manaros told her.

A week later, Manaros presented the family with an opportunity at Mount Zion Prep in Maryland that included a scholarship. Junior college was put on hold.

Less than a month after his arrival, Toppin was already seeing the benefits of the training he was now receiving. His body was getting pushed and it was responding. Facing stiffer competition added motivation. At his first official practice, he received his first scholarship offer, from Georgia.

One day, he called his mother and said, “I’m going to the NBA.”

“That’s why I am the player I am today,” Toppin said.

So excited by that Georgia offer, Toppin wanted to commit on the spot. He didn’t know more would be coming. Illinois, Mississippi State and Georgetown were among others to offer him a scholarship. Eventually, he settled on Dayton. On the way to the airport for his official visit, Toppin thought the school was in Florida. He knew so little about it. Soon, he realized it was in Ohio. There were Dayton fans on the plane, and they knew about him. He felt that same love during his visit, a connection to the school.

Despite all the accolades, the stunning dunks and the gaudy record, what stands out the most about Toppin is his character. The year he sat out he won the team’s Dr. George Rau Spirit Award, the first time it went to an inactive player. He was a superstar cheerleader, always trying to boost everyone around him, even in a dismal season that saw Dayton finish under .500 for the first time in 11 years. In the background of photos Jablonski took, he would always see Toppin jumping up and down after made baskets.

“I always like to see a smile on someone’s face,” he said.

“You want to be around guys like that,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “It’s who Obi he is. He’s all about team, he’s always been wired that way.”

As a kid, Roni called him “The Mayor.” Toppin wanted to be everyone’s friend. He would be in a stroller, waving to people as they passed.

When asked about his season, Toppin will acknowledge his teammates first every time. Without them, he repeated multiple times, his rise wouldn’t be possible. It’s more than talk. Toppin plays the part, always making the extra pass. Vitale noticed how teammates gravitated toward him in warm-ups.

“He’s addicting — people love to be around him,” Roni said.

When asked about the NBA, Toppin passed on the topic, preferring to focus on the season. Even last year, as he was thriving, he could never imagine being in this position. The NBA was always a dream, just like playing at the highest level of college basketball was, too. He never imagined it playing out this way. It feels like a fantasy, one he’s living out every day. Recently, he asked his mom, “Did you think I was going to be this good?”

A psychic could not have anticipated this.

Obi Toppin is dunking Dayton to a No. 1 seed. He’s going to be a high lottery pick. He could wind up the National Player of the Year.

He still can’t fathom how fast all of this has happened. Just yesterday, it seems like, he was getting ready to go to junior college.

“I came from the bottom,” Toppin said.

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