Life after Zion: How Obi Toppin has soared to stardom this college hoops season

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – Dayton supernova Obi Toppin blew past his defender on the deep wing with a hesitation dribble, viciously launched into the air and began soaring toward his latest viral gem.

Six-foot-6 Rhode Island wing Tyrese Martin turned around in the paint and unexpectedly found himself in the trajectory between the start of Toppin’s leap and infinite GIF infamy. Realizing the blunt force of taking a charge amid Toppin’s two-handed dunk could be lethal, he chose self-preservation. Martin tip-toed toward the baseline to get out of the way, living to see the next possession.

Such is the raw power of Toppin, Dayton’s 6-9 forward who has soared from relative obscurity to the runaway favorite for national player of the year. Toppin put on another vintage display of basketball violence on Wednesday night amid a hostile environment at Rhode Island, where a lubed-up crowd went from hurling expletives at tip-off to asking for pictures in the postgame.

Along with his sonic-boom dunk over the cowering Martin, Toppin celebrated his 22nd birthday with 20 points on just 11 shots to lead Dayton to a breezy 84-57 victory. He also ruined Rhode Island’s quest for an at-large NCAA bid, with the crushed dreams including those of his younger brother, Rams forward Jacob Toppin. Obi Toppin capped the night with a fastbreak windmill dunk, giving him 100 for the season.

“He’s a freak of nature,” George Washington coach Jamion Christian told Yahoo Sports by phone earlier in the day. “To me, he’s a transcendent player in the Atlantic 10. We haven’t had someone like him since Marcus Camby [at UMass in the mid-’90s].”

In a season that’s forced us to recalibrate our expectations of what a college basketball star will look like, Toppin’s emergence has been the most sublime kismet of the post-Zion era of the sport. Toppin came to Dayton as an unknown recruit out of prep school, took an academic redshirt and became a consummate late bloomer. “If you’d told me two years ago I’d been a national player of the year candidate,” Toppin said after the game. “I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Obi Toppin of the Dayton Flyers reacts during a game against the Davidson Wildcats on Feb. 28, 2020. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

In the future, especially if the NBA lowers the minimum-age rules as expected by the 2022 NBA draft, college basketball is going to continue to be defined by upperclassmen stars who take meandering roads to the top of the game. There are going to be players like Toppin, who blossomed on his own pace; Iowa junior Luka Garza, who looks like he can’t jump over an iPhone; Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, who had to shed pounds before he gained a rep; and Oregon’s Payton Pritchard, who has improved at an impressive slow burn.

It’s notable that nearly every prominent player in the national player of the year conversation has been in college for three years. You can lump Marquette’s Markus Howard, Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike and San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn in there, too. “That’s a great point,” said Richmond coach Chris Mooney. “[This season] is really going to be a window or a preview of how it’s going to look in the future.”

What’s been so fun about Toppin and this Dayton season is that he’s shined while accentuating the team construct, not at the expense of it. The Flyers improved to 28-2 on Wednesday, remained undefeated in the Atlantic 10 (17-0) and carried on with a season that’s doubled as a basketball joy ride. And there was Toppin in the waning minutes, skipping up the court to celebrate a Jalen Crutcher 3-pointer with all the giddiness of a third-grader on the playground. “It’s unbelievable how much joy he gets out of sharing the ball,” said Dayton coach Anthony Grant.

In terms of pure aesthetics, there’s no more enjoyable team to watch in college basketball than Dayton. The Flyers are paragons of efficiency – boasting KenPom’s No. 2 rank in offensive efficiency and No. 1 spot in both effective field-goal percentage and two-point percentage. Grant’s team is a humming ode to unselfishness, crisp in both intent and execution. In a season that’s held a first-to-50 chalkboard screech vibe, watching Dayton is college basketball’s version of smooth jazz.

Toppin has simply helped them hit the high notes.

“So much of what he does leads his team directly to winning,” Mooney said. “That’s what’s so impressive. His game leads directly to all that – they move the ball freely, are historically efficient on offense and he’s a winning passer. It doesn’t appear to me he needs a certain amount of touches or they force it to him.”

Mooney goes on to point out that nothing about Toppin or the Dayton scheme feels like they’re trying to burnish his statistics. He then pauses and laughs: “Except maybe dunks.”

Toppin dunked 83 times as a freshman, on his way to averaging 14.4 point per game. He wasn’t a complete unknown heading into this season, as Toppin went through the NBA predraft process, didn’t get invited to the NBA combine and worked out for five NBA teams. Credit Toppin and his advisers, who chose another year in college with a target on the lottery over the risky netherworld of being a potential second-round pick.

Instead, he has Dayton already locked in on the highest NCAA tournament seed in school history and the basketball-mad campus there buzzing about the school’s first Final Four since 1967. Toppin has plenty of help, as he’s surrounded by another true superstar (Crutcher), a gutty glue guy (Trey Landers) and a team that goes nine deep and didn’t flinch on Wednesday when Toppin got in foul trouble.

One of the perks of being around Dayton this season is that everything feels so fresh and authentic. The same joy on the court has carried over to this experience, as Dayton has tied a school record for wins, is on track for the school’s highest NCAA seed and could finish as the Atlantic 10’s first 18-0 team in league play. Toppin would also be the school’s first player of the year.

Just like Toppin has shared the ball, he also shared the credit.

“It would mean the world to me,” he said when asked about the award. “If I was the national player of the year, I’d give all the credit to my teammates. Without them, I wouldn’t be the player that I am today.”

It’s hard to think of what this season would be like without the adrenaline shot of pure joy that Toppin and Dayton have provided. With senior day looming Saturday – and “ESPN GameDay” coming – Toppin essentially acknowledged that it would be his last season for the Flyers. While Toppin said he wasn’t going to say out loud he’s headed off to the NBA, it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll be in the green room.

Toppin was focused on more immediate matters. His mother brought him a cake to celebrate his 22nd birthday. He hadn’t sampled it yet, but did make a promise: “On the bus, I’m going to tear it up.”

Hopefully someone warned the cake before it became this season’s latest Toppin victim.

More from Yahoo Sports: