Knicks’ future relies on RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin reaching potential

Aside from being one of the NBA’s youngest teams, the Magic clearly are one of its worst. So the Knicks blew them out of their own building Friday night, proving that they are good enough and deep enough to embarrass bad opponents the way good opponents used to embarrass them.

The Knicks were up 20 after one quarter, up 30 at the half and up 25 at the final horn. Nothing much gets accomplished in this kind of mismatch, not when the Magic would have a tough time winning the ACC. But two games into this promising season, we are starting to see that Evan Fournier is better than many of us thought he was on arrival, and that the Knicks have a roster chock-full of really solid players.

“We have a lot of weapons,” was the way head coach Tom Thibodeau put it. And that was before his team drained a franchise-record 24 3-pointers and finished with seven players in double figures.

“They’re playing for each other,” the winning coach said afterward.

So bored Knicks fans can busy themselves on nights like these by carefully studying the two young players who will be vital in the team’s drive to become a true championship contender. On opening night, RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin heard their names chanted by the Garden crowd, quite an honor for ballplayers in their early 20s who have not done any significant winning. They were impactful, high-flying catalysts in the second half Wednesday, rising above the Celtics to the fans’ delight.

Knicks’ future relies on RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin reaching potential
RJ Barrett drives to the basket against the Magic.

Everyone went home happy with the short-term gain — a double-overtime victory over the rival franchise (with 17 championships) that has been everything the Knicks (with two championships) haven’t been for so, so long.

But the signs of potential long-term gain remained more important to New Yorkers interested in turning Boston’s 17-2 lead in titles into Boston’s 17-3 lead in titles. The 21-year-old Barrett and the 23-year-old Toppin are those living, breathing signs. The Knicks need them to grow into serious NBA players and either become key pieces on a championship team or, perhaps more likely, valuable assets in the not-too-distant future to help acquire the superstar (or two) who can help the Knicks win it all for the first time since 1973.

Friday night, Barrett didn’t contribute anything, not that anything was needed. Toppin followed up his 14 points in 28 minutes against Boston with 13 points in 23 minutes against Orlando, and again inspired the many Knicks fans in the house to loudly chant his name. After Thibodeau screamed in Toppin’s face for some transgression or another, the second-year forward immediately responded by sinking a corner 3 in the first minute of the fourth quarter. He followed up another 3 a few minutes later with an open-court steal and a dunk, his energy and athleticism compensating for his 1-for-5 effort from the foul line.

With Toppin and Julius Randle as legitimate perimeter threats from the power forward and center positions, the floor opens up and driving gaps look as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. If Toppin keeps improving and keeps forcing his coach to play him, the possibilities for this team will open up as much as the floor.

“We don’t know where this can go,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve just got to keep working at it.”

Thibs is 63 years old. He doesn’t want to wait any longer than he already has to win his first ring as a head coach, a point he made clear last season when he said the Knicks had to constantly pursue moves to acquire elite talent.

Knicks’ future relies on RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin reaching potential
Obi Toppin
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“They don’t just happen by accident,” Thibodeau said then. “You have to make them happen.”

For now, asset development is everything. Barrett becoming a star, and Toppin becoming a productive starter — or a sixth man good enough to be one — gives the Knicks a greater chance to make those moves happen.

Barrett was the third-overall pick in his draft, and Toppin was the eighth-overall pick in his. The Knicks had swung and missed on their previous top-10 picks, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, and failed to keep happy a fourth-overall pick, Kristaps Porzingis, so they can’t afford Barrett and Toppin to end up as relative disappointments.

On his end, Barrett has to remind people why he was once ranked ahead of Zion Williamson as a Duke-bound high-school recruit. Toppin? As Fournier said the other night, “Obi is really learning how to become an NBA player.” He still has a long way to go.

So do the Knicks, Friday night’s score notwithstanding. They are better now with Fournier and Kemba Walker, and deep enough to make a little postseason noise. But if they ever want to make a lot of postseason noise, Barrett and Toppin will allow them to make it happen. One way or the other.