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Jacob Toppin is a project, but he projects to be a valuable piece for Kentucky

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Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin’s arrival in Lexington may not have the hype or excitement of a BJ Boston or Terrence Clarke, but Toppin’s potential progression can elevate his value to that type of level in the future.

NCAA Basketball: Rhode Island at Dayton
New Kentucky transfer Jacob Toppin hopes to follow in brother Obi’s footsteps and become a legitimate NBA prospect in the coming future.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, Rhode Island freshman forward Jacob Toppin became the second transfer that Kentucky has landed in an extended offseason due to the COVID-19 chaos that’s continued to spread across the globe.

Toppin, a former three-star recruit and the younger brother of soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Obi from Dayton, decided to enter the transfer portal after just one season with the Rams, featuring in 30 games while averaging 5.1 points per contest. Two days later, after it was reported that he was considering Kentucky, Oregon and Iowa State, the younger Toppin chose the Cats.

Pending on the transfer rule voting that’s set to come next month, Toppin will either be eligible to play in 2020-21 or will be forced to sit a season with three eligible years remaining starting in ‘21-22. The rumors swirling around the vote signal that the rule will pass and Toppin (along with other transfers like Johnny Juzang) could play immediately.

Whether the rule passes or it doesn’t, Toppin’s early outlook is that he may need a year regardless to let his body and the college game catch up with him, time to acclimate to a bigger campus and program, while practicing with better athletes on a bigger stage. John Calipari hasn’t landed a traditional sit-a-year transfer since Ryan Harrow transferred in from North Carolina State during the 2011-12 title season during his time in Lexington.

That doesn’t mean Toppin doesn’t or won’t have value. He certainly does already with a 6-foot-8 frame and long strides running in the open floor with a soft shooting touch.

If you put any value into Kentucky’s ‘hey, we’ve got a surprise for you, but you probably know what it is already’ videos where a kid in a Kentucky jersey is watching a former Cat from the past on a television, the potential hint could be that Calipari’s staff believes Toppin can become a similar version of former lottery pick and current New York Knicks wing Kevin Knox.

The Knox comparisons are there for the BBN, but personally and particularly looking at Toppin and his body type now, the more I see a bouncier Rui Hachimura before his rise to stardom at Gonzaga.

When you sit down and examine Toppin’s freshman season at Rhode Island, it’s not hard to see the similarities between him and the former Kentucky commit. The potential’s there. It’ll be up to Calipari’s staff to bring it out of Toppin.

Toppin’s not as polished as Knox was, but you can see the potential plus as a shooter

Knox was one of the prized recruits of Kentucky’s class back in 2017 and it was because of his ability to score at all three levels. He shot a respectable 34.1 percent from 3 on 167 total attempts during his one season in Lexington.

Knox was able to shoot in a variety of ways even at a young age from 3. Whether it was contested, off the bounce or in catch-and-shoot opportunities, he was capable.

Toppin wasn’t a featured piece of Rhode Island’s rotation like Knox was for the Cats, so his sample size is much smaller. He shot just 24.5 percent from 3 on 53 total attempts, but when you watch him shoot, it’s possible to see some similarities.

The notable things for me with their shots is neither one of them need that much lift to get their shots off and in that 6-foot-8ish height range, those long arms come in handy against potential closeout opportunities from defenders.

Whether it’s set, off the dribble or off the hop like you see here, Knox didn’t use his legs to shoot as much.

There was a calming presence about Knox’s shooting motion, which certainly helped his draft stock as an 18-year-old prospect. Everything about his shot felt smooth and quiet. There wasn’t extra movements slowing down his shot, especially when he’s getting practice-like passes into his shooting pocket from a long-haired Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in transition like this one.

Toppin has those types of qualities with his shot, too. On this possession, he delivers a quick bounce pass, ‘fakes’ a handoff take and then runs to the corner. Toppin’s man was the weakside help and paid no attention to him, leading to Toppin being able to move more towards the center of the floor and catch a cross-court feed with all kinds of space for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.

He didn’t shoot it well percentage-wise last season from 3, but as you can see in this particular example, he’s got good arc and shooting a soft ball can be beneficial.

Knox’s big frame allowed him to shoot over a lot of defenders even without much lift or when a screen didn’t free him from his defender.

The more I re-watched of Knox, the more I was starting to see more of what the staff potentially sees with Toppin. Even when a simple pick-and-roll look doesn’t work with the high screen, Knox was able to get to the spot he felt comfortable shooting from and used his size to shoot over a smaller defender and can a contested deuce here off a pair of dribbles.

This play could bring out the “3 > 2” debate surrounding every level of basketball in the last decade, but I liked the confidence Toppin showed on this possession. I think if the kickout pass was more in Toppin’s pocket, he would’ve shot the corner 3. Instead, he sees the closeout coming, goes right around it and shoots the 2 over the top of a soft contest. The body movement and the form aren’t completely identical, but they’re similar.

Even for a freshman, there’s little things Toppin can do that help his potential stand out

Atlantic 10 basketball expert Chris DiSano described Toppin as an “opportunistic rebounder” among a few other things to CatsPause.com’s Chris Fisher.

“He’s very good in transition. He’s an opportunistic rebounder. He’s a fantastic athlete and a quick leaper and it’s that blend of length and athleticism as he settles in and matures that has fans so excited and why Kentucky is interested in him.”

That’s something that’s noticeable when watching games from Toppin’s freshman campaign. When shots are going up, he’s moving.

Toppin wasn’t a focal point for the Rams offensively, but he found ways to stay on the floor using his athleticism and quick reactions. His 7.8 ORB% and 11.1 TRB% were both second on URI’s roster behind Cyril Langevine (who played almost 400 minutes more than Toppin) a season ago among qualified players.

Obi got the major headlines for his highlights, but Jacob had a few of his own, too

When you watch Rhode Island’s offense operate either in semi-transition chances or in the half-court, Toppin was mostly used on the perimeter, specifically in the corners. He didn’t get to always flash his bounce off the floor, but there were a few glimpses that got you to say, “OK, there’s something here.”

You could definitely see it here, too.

Although teams didn’t really go at him defensively because he wasn’t guarding prominent scorers in most of the 556 total minutes he played last season, he was able to display some of his natural gifts off a few times.

This was a play that stood out throughout his season and one that I rewound a few times just to make sure it was him because ... wow.

This one kinda made me laugh because it was all over his older brother’s highlight reels this past season, but notice who tried to track Obi down on this switch-handed windmill in transition.

He couldn’t quite get there, but Jacob tried to catch Obi in transition and almost did.

Jacob got called for the foul (and it was one he shouldn’t have committed), but this type of effort is what stands out for me. He didn’t give up on the play, even though his older brother probably had a 10-foot headstart to the rim. You don’t want to commit silly fouls like this one, but it shows the younger Toppin’s has some long strides in the open floor and gives an extra effort when it calls for one.

Patience will be the key with Toppin, whether he’s eligible right away or not

Although Toppin already has a year of college basketball experience under his belt, there’s a massive difference between playing in a solid Atlantic 10 Conference for a 21-win team and playing in the Southeastern Conference for one of the most prestigious programs and passionate fan bases in all of college basketball.

It’s going to be a big transition for Toppin. He’ll be competing against athletes of his caliber or better every day and playing on a much bigger stage with brighter lights. He played in 30 games for the Rams last season, but started just three of them and played 18.5 minutes per game. Out of those 30 games, Toppin played 25+ minutes in just four of them and only once did he play 30+ minutes. He’s still learning and the game’s still coming to him.

Whether he’s eligible to play right away, forced to sit a season or if the staff decided sitting a season would be best for his future, patience and development will be important. This is somewhat uncharted waters for Kentucky, but Toppin could become a diamond in the rough similarly to his older brother if they take their time.