In the summer of 2019, Dayton’s Obi Toppin was coming off a big redshirt freshman year in which he started nearly half the team’s games, averaged a team-high 14.4 points per game and became the first rookie in two decades to earn First Team All-Atlantic 10 honors. Then something spectacular happened: the highest-flying player in the sport just kept ascending.
Toppin’s stock soared to new highs later that summer, where he drew positive reviews during six workouts with NBA teams during the draft process, busted out in front of NBA decision-makers at the Nike Skills Academy and starred while sharing the court with the likes of Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum in pick-up hoops in NYC. An already-promising redshirt sophomore season reached hype of epic proportions, and as it turns out, it was warranted. The following season, he went on to win Player of the Year while leading Dayton to a magical 29-2 season that was cut short because of the Covid-19 pandemic. (A SportsLine simulation, for the record, dubbed Dayton the champs that year. I think that’s enough to hang a banner somewhere.)
So today we pay tribute to Toppin’s gargantuan 2019 summer leap with a new post featuring my “Obi Toppin All-Stars.” The players below follow a similar path as Toppin — they each had big summers either at various events or behind the scenes have caused whispers of an imminent breakout. They also project as potential soon-to-be stars of the sport in 2023-24.
The list could go on and on and on and on and …. Well, you get it. I hear optimism in the offseason on the No. 4 option for a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team just as much I hear on the No. 1 option for a top-five team. It can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise. But for this exercise I’ve limited my submission to just five players. To keep the timeline as close to Toppin as possible, I tried including only returning players. But one freshman snuck into my top five after a big summer and warranted — no no, demanded — inclusion.
Let’s dive in.
1. Donovan Clingan, UConn
The unassuming, yet undeniable unsung star for the defending champion UConn Huskies, Clingan was recently dealt a tough blow after suffering a foot strain that could hamper his start to the season. But as a card-carrying member of the Clingan fan club, I’m not selling off my stock yet, and I strongly advise you follow suit.
He may not come out of the gates playing like an All-American, but his consistency as a weapon as a freshman combined with the offseason buzz surrounding him has people in the UConn universe believing UConn — with him as a top-15 player in college hoops when it matters most — can repeat as title winners. (Hi, it’s me; I’m people.)
No one had a stronger summer circuit in 2023 than did UK’s top-rated freshman. Edwards went bananas in Canada for the Wildcats in leading them to a gold medal at the GLOBL JAM and displayed alpha abilities as a facilitator, creator and outside scorer. I tried my darndest to keep freshman off this list. Edwards made it impossible to do so. He could walk into a massive role right away for a Kentucky team that has a real shot at being the best in the SEC — and possibly beyond.
I’ll share with anyone and everyone willing to listen about how impressed I was by Jones at the NBA Draft Combine and why I think he’s a clear top-50 player in college hoops this season and I don’t care.
He was fabulous this summer in Chicago at the combine and looked like a first-round talent, though he opted to return to school for another season at Weber State. After averaging 16.7 points and 10.9 rebounds last season, I’m betting he guns for 20 and 10 averages while playing his way onto the first-round radar.
4. Tyrese Proctor, Duke
Proctor played his entire freshman season at Duke last year as an 18-year-old after reclassifying up from the 2023 class to the 2022 class. That means, as one of the youngest players in college basketball last season on a Duke team that won 27 games, he made 34 starts and averaged 9.4 points, 3.3 assists and shot 32% from 3-point land.
He’ll enter 2023-24 as a sophomore with a year of experience in the same season he would have originally been just a freshman had he not reclassified. If he continues his ascension, as those around Duke believe he can, there’s a real chance Duke has not one, but two, All-Americans on its roster this season with he and Kyle Filipowski leading the way.
5. Kobe Johnson, USC
We know the lofty expectations surrounding USC this season are based primarily on the return of Boogie Ellis and the addition of five-star guard Isaiah Collier, the 2023-24 CBS Sports Preseason Freshman of the Year. But don’t sleep on Johnson taking on an even bigger, and more important, role for USC this season.
The savvy veteran established himself as one of the best defenders in college hoops last season and looked tremendous for the Trojans on their offseason trip to Greece and Croatia as a glue guy who can score, rebound and facilitate. He may not push his way into the All-American conversation but he could be the most critical piece to USC’s success this season.