On paper, Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin is a living, breathing mismatch that can take over games at will. Standing at 6ft 9in, a maximum vertical jump of 45in and a wingspan of 6ft 11in, he has all the physical tools you dream of in a foursome along with shooting skills to the brim. Because of this, the draft buzz was so great that he went into his senior campaign, ready to finally translate that potential into production, with the keys in hand at his position.
Again, on paper. However, the reality was very different for Toppin in nine games. He’s averaging a career-high 11.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while hitting career-lows in efficiency across the board (42.0% FG, 16.7% 3PT, 64.5% FT). Rather than using his skills as a supreme highlight waiting for it to happen, he continues to force the issue as a face-up specialist, firing premature shots from middle and third range.
His recent performance against Yale — four points (2-6 FG, 0-1 3PT), five rebounds, four assists in 31 minutes — led to a callout from John Calipari during his post-game presser.
“We need Jacob (Toppin) to improve his game,” the Kentucky head coach said. “Be more physical, chase more balls. If you jump 40 inches, how about you jump 40 inches every once in a while? Like fetching a ball, jumping 40 inches, go and fetch. How about if you block a ball? How about one-dribbling pull-ups he does?
Calipari spent the offseason raving about Toppin’s work ethic, with the senior forward leading the team in total shots at the Joe Craft Center — 2,800 in a three-week span leading up to SEC Media Day, to be precise. It was a fair amount of work that led the Kentucky head coach to believe a breakout season was on the horizon for Toppin at Lexington.
“He lives in the gym,” Calipari said at SEC Media Day. “Every player I’ve ever coached who lives in the gym has had breakthroughs.”
Toppin exuded confidence during Kentucky’s four-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas, where he averaged 16.8 points on 56.5% shooting and 53.3% from three. That confidence continued throughout preseason, with the junior forward lance goods experience up close during the training and training.
“Jacob is always in the gym, developing his jump shot but also just being more confident. Confidence is key in this game and the more confident you are, the better you’ll play,” Ware added at SEC Media Day. “I see him locked up but like everyone you have to have a balance. And I think Jacob found his perfect balance between being focused, shutting himself in and also not being too locked in where he can’t connect and bond with the team.
“He’s found his perfect balance and I think it’s working well for him right now.”
That solid confidence that Toppin exuded just wasn’t there to open the season, as the 6ft-9 forward never shot more than 50.0% from the field in any matchup. Given the pre-season expectations, that needs to change.
It’s all about consistency, says assistant coach Chin Coleman. Everyone has an on and off switch, and unfortunately Toppins isn’t always on. And it’s not just a week-to-week or even a day-to-day thing. Sometimes it will bounce on and off with possession, which overall just can’t happen for a player of his caliber and potential.
“It’s something I say to Jacob all the time, it’s about being an everyday guy,” Coleman said during John Caliparis’ call-in radio show Monday. “He has the ability, it’s just that he’s consistently an everyday guy and obviously not taking a break, resting and chilling. It’s about always being on. He flips the switch a bit, based on possession, based on practice, based on the game.
That comes with the realm of stepping into a starting position with immediate expectations after being a career role player. This goes hand in hand with an adjustment period.
In order for Kentucky to take that next step forward and fulfill their potential this season, Coleman believes this era must end for Toppin. The team needs him to be an effective member every day, not one who comes and goes.
“He’s in a different environment right now,” Coleman said. “He’s in a different room, a different position on our team. And in order for us to reach the heights that we can reach, we need a consistent everyday man from Jacob Toppin, so to speak.”