In 2013, New York skills trainer David Zenon had five dollars on his name. Instead of giving up on his dream of working in basketball and helping others improve on the floor, he used those five dollars to fuel his car and train a player. It was a training session that resulted in a job with the Westchester Knicks – the NBA G League subsidiary of the New York Knicks – as a Shot Clock Operator, an appearance that introduced him to various agents and players on a professional level and opened the door to others Training opportunities to not only keep your dream alive, but to turn it into a reality.
A workout with Thanasis Antetokounmpo – brother of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – led to a training opportunity with NBA veteran Serge Ibaka, alongside countless other workouts with NBA, WNBA, NCAA and grassroots standouts. Now, Zenon’s status as one of New York’s best-kept secrets is no longer among coaches. The word is out, and it just keeps spreading from here.
That spring, that craze soon reached Roni Toppin – the mother of Jacob Toppin – with Zenon “highly recommended” as a coach for the Kentucky striker while he was on his third year of college basketball and his sophomore year at Lexington Wildcat prepared.
“His mother reached out to me and said she heard that I was a really good coach,” Zenon told KSR. â€œâ€¦ I didn’t come up with the whole ‘Oh, this is Obi Toppin’s brother’ or whatever, it was just a mother who beat me up to help her child get better. That’s what I did. “
The process began with Zenon breaking down Toppin’s feature film from his debut season in Kentucky, namely his outstanding performances against Vanderbilt and Florida, among others. After getting a feel for his shot developments in specific areas, the veteran coach asked Toppin questions about areas for improvement and his goals as a basketball player before writing a one-of-a-kind workout for the Wildcat striker.
Almost immediately, the two clicked.
â€œWe worked together for a whole month, pretty much every day,â€ Zenon told KSR. â€œWe might have taken a few days off, but this guy was in the gym for two hours every day. He’s a workhorse, man. This kid loves to work, it was refreshing. You have two really competitive guys who love to work. We just vibrated, man. “
Toppin was meticulous in his training and soaked up the coaching and training like a “sponge,” says Zenon. The attention to detail and work ethic were evident in every session.
â€œI think Kentucky fans should be thrilled that he’s very technical and that he takes what he does seriously, just wants to get better every day. And that’s what he did, â€said Zeno. â€œHe added a few moves, a few dribble stuff, his catch-and-shoot got so much better. I’m really looking forward to him. “
That attention to detail was returned to campus this off-season. Toppin told reporters that he was prepared for a “breakout year” at Lexington after working on three key aspects of his game at the end of the 2020-21 season: shooting, ball handling and lower play.
“I like challenges. There’s no pressure because I feel like I’m going to have a breakout year, â€Toppin said in June. â€œI’ve been working, working, building confidence, shooting the ball, dribbling and playing deeper so I’m definitely excited to see what’s going to happen (next season).
For Zenon, that statement was music to his ears that encouraged the belief that Toppin took his off-season growth seriously and not just talked, but launched a breakout campaign.
“Those are literally the three things we focused on,” Zenon told KSR. â€œCatch and shoot will give him so many opportunities to attack the basket and show his athleticism, but to do that you have to be confident with the ball and stay low and attacking. It’s all progress, man. He is a Swiss Army Knife.
â€œYou will have the opportunity to see a player who takes pride in defense, that defense is turned into attack with the energy he brings. The jump throw, it is confident, it looks confident that it will go in. He worked really hard on this jumper, he was handling and stayed low and aggressive. Every day for two hours was uninterrupted pure work, and he does this even during his school days. “
For the past month @ Jtoppin0 work two hours every day we trained. Footwork, away from dribbling, catch & shoot. They call it. We made it. One of the hardest working guys I’ve worked with and a great person. thanks to @roni_toppin that you entrusted me with your boy! pic.twitter.com/Nuf1irSzMB
– David Zenon (@DaveZenon) May 28, 2021
In his first year as a Wildcat, Toppin averaged 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per competition while shooting 44.4% out of the field and 30.8% out of three. Given the amount of work he has put in this off-season and a full season in the UK, production growth is inevitable, but not the only priority for the aspiring junior.
Instead, Toppin focuses on winning basketball games and becoming a leader in the locker room.
â€œHis mentality for this year is just to win, he wants to win,â€ said Zenon. â€œThere was no talk of ‘Oh, I want the average (that)’ or individual things. Jacob is a team first guy and you can tell the other guys love him. He’s a great guy in the locker room, but he’ll hold people accountable; he has taken on this leadership role. He’s talked a lot about winning, he really wants to win in Kentucky. “
Check these boxes and production will follow.
â€œPersonally, he just wants to get better and show his skills, that’s what every player wants. We didn’t talk about numbers, we just went out and did your job. Once you’ve done your job, everything else will work out by itself. Victories will come and the numbers will increase. “
The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Kentucky fans from meeting and interacting with the 2020-21 team in person. There were no summer camps, no Big Blue Madness campouts, no preseason events and no pictures on campus, autographs or handshakes. Outside of the socially distant 3,000 fans – only 15% capacity – in the Rupp Arena there was no personal interaction.
With these opportunities returning in 2021-22 – Kentucky held satellite camps, father-and-son camps, father-and-daughter camps, and three-day Camp Cal events back in June – along with Toppin’s growth in the field, Zenon is confident that Toppin will turn out to be quickly emerge as a fan favorite in the next season.
â€œJakob is a dog. He will embrace all the energy that gets in his way. He’s a guy who will be a fan favorite, â€Zenon told KSR. â€œNot just because he’s a good guy, but because he’ll show everyone how hard he’s worked. He will hold not only himself accountable but also those around him, that’s just the guy he is.
â€œHe’s a competitive boy and you will have 24,000 fans who will see that he is no joke. My husband is a dog so I’m not worried about that. He will thrive and I think the fans should be delighted with him this year. “
Thanks to a great guy who got Jacob right this month. He took the time to study his game, help him improve and learn some new moves. Patience and knowledge of the game on many levels prove his expertise. Motivation and hard work create greatness. @ Jtoppin0 @DaveZenon pic.twitter.com/wHYmkJYtlQ
– R Toppin (@roni_toppin) May 27, 2021
In his first year as a Wildcat, Toppin could play with its endless motor and unmatched athleticism. Now, however, the focus is on honing his skills to suit these other aspects of his game, and he works tirelessly on the training floor and in the movie room – Zenon sends toppin tapes with the most “technically solid” NBA and international players – to make that possible.
“He’s a very special player,” he told KSR. â€œHe and his brother are late bloomers, but the Jacob thing was the last time I saw him before we started working together when he was in Rhode Island. He was like 6-7. Now he’s pressing like 6-9 with watch skills so I told him, ‘Let’s tweak a few things to take advantage of this. We talk almost every other day, I send him different clips from different players in the league or some of the things we worked on like, ‘Hey, we worked on it. Let’s go over some more film. ‘ He is with us. This kid is a tire junkie. Whether in the gym or in the movie room, it’s there. ”
As a marksman, Toppin’s skills are in place and his confidence is growing and he is ready to show it off on the national stage in Lexington this fall.
“He’s confident, his shot looks really good,” said Zenon. â€œTo show self-confidence in the catch-and-shoot is the most important thing for him. I think he’ll show that, he’ll show that ability. He put a lot of work into it and he will show it. … He will increase his number and demonstrate his skills and the work that he has done. ”