Toppin reunited with Lanier at Georgia State

04/09/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Rob Lanier speaks during a presser to introduce himself as the new men's basketball head coach at the Georgia State University Stadium in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
04/09/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Rob Lanier speaks during a presser to introduce himself as the new men's basketball head coach at the Georgia State University Stadium in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

JoJo Toppin first met Georgia State coach Rob Lanier at a Tennessee basketball recruiting camp during the summer of 2016. At the time, Lanier was the associate head coach for the Volunteers. Toppin was a rising junior in high school looking to make his first impression on a college team.

As the camp ended, Toppin and Lanier shared a moment that gave the young ballplayer confidence about his future.

“I had a good camp, it was great. It was honestly some of the best basketball I’d ever played in my life…” Toppin said. “After that camp, Coach Lanier was the first college coach to ever tell me that I was special. He was the first coach that really just opened my eyes and told me to do what I do best and that it would take me a long way. I still live on those words.”

Toppin transferred to Georgia State for the start of last season, after a lackluster freshman year at Georgia. He sat out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer regulations. This year, the Panthers went 19-13 and finished fourth in the Sun Belt.

When Toppin entered the transfer portal, Lanier jumped at the opportunity to bring in an athletic wing that reminded him of the type of player that him and Rick Barnes looked for at Texas and Tennessee. Three days after Toppin declared his intention to transfer, he announced that he’d return to Atlanta to play for Georgia State.

“In JoJo’s case, he’s a guy who loves the game, he’s passionate and competitive. His skill level is enough to really get better,” Lanier said. “Sometimes when you’re young and you’re really athletic, you can really get by, just by being athletic. You can have a level of production and success at the high school level that can carry you through without ever really being polished. It’s a good starting point, because his athletic ability is elite. If he can improve in some other areas over time, which he’s got a strong desire to do, then he can really be a complete player over time and that’s our vision.”

Toppin was born in Brooklyn and spent most of his early life in and around Manhattan. He remembers the days spent playing with one-on-one with his brother in Rucker Park in Harlem and his first ever recreation league game where he scored 20 points.

But he moved to Atlanta his sophomore year of high school and enrolled at Norcross High to play for Jesse McMillan. Toppin flourished in McMillan’s system, averaging 10.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game his senior year on the way to a second consecutive state championship appearance. He played alongside Georgia big man Rayshaun Hammonds and formed a unique bond with his teammates at the high school powerhouse.

“Being around those guys (at Norcross) really sharpened the iron,” Toppin said. “One thing about us is that we were always in the gym together. We liked to play pick-up, we liked to play one-on-one. It put us in those situations where it was a thinking game and it was competitive always. At the same time, we competed with each other so much and listened to each other so much that it made the games we played much easier.”

Toppin committed to Georgia and to former head coach Mark Fox in November of his senior year at Norcross. He felt that Fox and the rest of the coaching staff made their desire known and offered a system of play that allowed athletic guards and wings, like Toppin, to get out in transition.

The Bulldogs fired Fox in March of 2018, less than five months after Toppin signed. Even still, he remained set on going to Georgia after conversations with new hire Tom Crean.

“(Tom Crean) told me he did want me to stay. He talked to my past coaches, he looked at my film and he was intrigued by my playing style,” Toppin said. “So, I wanted to stick it out too. Honestly it was a mental thing, because I felt like if I could make it through this I could conquer anything.”

But Toppin struggled in his lone year in Athens. With eight upperclassmen on the Bulldogs roster, he found it difficult to carve out a spot on the experienced squad. He played in just 18 games, averaging 5.5 minutes and 1.4 points per contest.

Toppin was given a chance to reset this past season, as he worked on Georgia State’s scout team, pushing transfers Justin Roberts and Corey Allen as they played in their first season for the Panthers. Toppin loved watching two former transfers thrive in Lanier’s system, while he tried to make his presence felt in practice.

“When it comes to the things, like the basketball IQ, the feel, the ball handling, the decision-making, he has been a very good objective learner,” Lanier said. “It’s easier to learn when you’re not competing for playing time. It’s easier to listen, it’s easier to see thing when you don’t feel like you’re being screwed by the coaches because you’re on the bench. You hear things differently. I think in those ways, he’s really grown as a player. I think he’s itching to go.”

Lanier and Toppin plan to work on fixing the wing’s shot, aiming to develop a consistent release point and a steadier guide hand. Lanier wanted to wait until the offseason to “cleanse” Toppin’s shot habits, needing him to still push other players in practices.

Although its early, the Panthers seem to be in a good position for next year. Lanier sees Toppin fitting in well with the rest of his team, especially on defense. He expects Toppin to guard all over the floor and to use his athletic ability to be one of Georgia State’s best finishers at the rim.

Toppin echoed his own commitment to defense, setting his sights on winning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year next season. Back at home in Atlanta, there’s no doubt that friends and family will pack into the Georgia State Sports Arena to see Toppin make his hometown debut.

“I just want to keep getting better every day and not be the same player as when I walked into the gym yesterday,” Toppin said. “I want to take something from every practice and every game. I want to be a defensive player of the year and I want to be the best player in the conference.”

“I want to make my specialty known every time I step on the court.”