Myles Powell and Obi Toppin both had dreams of going deep into March Madness to close out their college careers.
Powell’s Seton Hall team and Toppin’s Dayton club both had the potential to make the Final Four in Atlanta and it’s possible they could have met for a shot at the NCAA Championship.
But the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the NCAA Tournament, and to their college careers. Now, ironically, the two All-Americans will enter Knicks training camp beginning Tuesday after spending the last six months working out together in South Jersey.
“Hopefully they can help turn things around with the Knicks organization,” said Chad Hallett, a strength and conditioning coach and owner of Adrenaline Sports in Cherry Hill who also happens to be a Knicks fan. “We haven’t been real good for a while. It’s been a drought for a long time.”
DIFFERENT PATHS TO THE KNICKS
The Knicks haven’t won an NBA title since 1973 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2013. After failing to make any major free-agent acquisitions, they aren’t expected to challenge for the playoffs in 2021, either. Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is close to Knicks President and Cherry Hill native Leon Rose and executive vice president and Camden native William “World Wide” Wesley, recently said the Knicks are building toward the future and won’t sacrifice the present.
“Let me say this about the Knicks not signing anybody, the Knicks are not going to do anything now to try to win 10 more games now and screw up the next 15, they’re not gonna do it,” said Calipari, who owns a vacation home in Lavallette, N.J.
Toppin, 22, and Powell, 23, are coming to the Knicks via different paths, but both are winning players. Both are local. And they have built-in chemistry.
Toppin is a Brooklyn native who played two years at Ossining (N.Y.) High School but didn’t have a single Division I offer when he left there for a prep school. After signing with Dayton, he went on to win the Naismith and Wooden Awards this past season when he averaged 20 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 blocks, and one steal and led Division 1 with 107 dunks.
The high-flying Toppin got to feel the exhilaration of hearing his name called on draft night by his hometown Knicks when he fell to them at No. 8. He will earn $4,051,700 this season.
Powell, the pride of Trenton, weighed about 240 pounds coming into Seton Hall but worked hard to get his body into shape and is now a trim 194 pounds. He became one of the most successful and beloved players in program history. A first-team All-America selection and the Jerry West Award winner as the nation’s top shooting guard, he averaged 21.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists while dealing with a concussion and all manner of double- and triple-teams last season. He will eventually have his No. 13 retired at Seton Hall.
Still, perhaps because he’s only about 6-2 and is an older player, he went undrafted and didn’t get to hear his name called on draft night. The Knicks soon signed him to an Exhibit-10 deal where he could earn up to $50,000. NJ Advance Media first reported the deal Nov. 19 and the Knicks announced it Sunday.
“We knew he had a chance to go undrafted but he just has to get into camp and show them what he can do,” Hallett said. “The kid showed the scouts and GMs what he did all year in college. I mean, the kid’s phenomenal, so I think the Knicks got a steal with that one.”
TRAINING TOGETHER SINCE APRIL
From April until the draft this month, Powell and Toppin were living in Mount Laurel and working out at Peak Skills Gym in West Berlin five days a week for two hours every morning before lifting weights three times a week at Adrenaline Sports.
“Me and Obi have been training together since the beginning of April,” Powell told NJ Advance Media before the draft. “I’m lucky enough to be able to battle and go up against one of the top five [projected] picks every day.”
Rick Brunson, the head coach boys basketball coach at Camden High School, trained both players. Like Powell, Brunson went undrafted coming out of Temple in 1995, but went on to have a solid 11-year pro career, including two stints with the Knicks.
“I had the pleasure of working with both those guys for the last six months and they’re tremendous guys,” Brunson said of Powell and Toppin.
“In six months, they probably missed a combined six days. They’ve been there every day. They’re just workers.”
While Brunson worked Toppin and Powell out on the court, Hallett was responsible for strength and conditioning.
“Obi’s main thing with us when he came was his mobility,” said Hallet, adding that Toppin weighs about 220. “We kind of worked on that. His range of motion is a lot better than what he came into us [with]. We got him a lot stronger. He’s going to be a better athlete that the Knicks are getting.”
As for Powell, Hallett said: “With Myles, we just tried to make sure he came into camp weight-wise. He’s right where he needed to be at. He got stronger.”
THE KNICKS ARE GOING TO “LOVE HIS COMPETITIVENESS”
Toppin is a lock to make the Knicks opening day roster — their first preseason game is Dec. 11 against Detroit — but will face tough competition from several of Calipari’s guys at the power forward spot: Julius Randle, Kevin Knox and the recently signed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Somerdale native and former St. Patrick star.
Powell, meantime, will have to show Thibodeau and the staff that he can be a “bucket-getter” and “microwave-scorer” in limited minutes. If he doesn’t end up making the roster out of the 20-man training camp, he would be sent to the Westchester Knicks, the team’s G League affiliate. The G League is expected to begin sometime in mid-January and run to early March, with games possibly in a bubble outside Atlanta.
“Myles Powell is one of those guys on a 17-man roster that he may not ever be a great NBA player, or may not even be an NBA player,” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said on air, “but there’s something about playing with toughness and competitiveness and also his ability to get his own shot that I got a feeling he’s going to make that Knicks roster because I think Tom Thibodeau is going to love his competitiveness.”
KNICKS PRESEASON SCHEDULE
Dec. 11 – at Detroit
Dec. 13 – at Detroit
Dec. 16 – Cleveland
Dec. 18 – Cleveland
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter who covers Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media.