BY SCOTT HARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR
A former assistant for the RGV Vipers is quickly moving up the coaching ladder as Cody Toppert landed a similar job this season with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
“He’s one of the most gifted young coaches, I would say, that I know in this league,” former Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “He’s going to have a brilliant future. Brings it every day. He’s so dedicated and a professional who is a workaholic.”
Kokoskov said Toppert has a great basketball mind. And with the Suns being a young team, Kokoskov believes Toppert is a great asset to the staff.
Toppert’s role with the Suns involves serving in the capacity as director of player development. His duties include overseeing scouts, players development and tracking the players’ progress. His goal is
to eventually become an NBA head coach. For that to happen, he believes a lot will depend on the Suns’ record and their track record wins and losses plus his success in player development.
“Finding tangible ways to develop guys and finding tangible ways to show improvement on the floor is first and foremost,” Toppert said. “So if you are part of a winning organization, then the eyes start to turn towards you and that’s a big step. So getting into this organization, on the ground floor, and build a foundation with such great young players is as good of an opportunity you can have in this league.”
Last season, Toppert served as head of the Northern Arizona Suns and was named to that position just before the G League tipped off its regular season during November 2017. He walked off the Vipers practice floor one day and was told the Phoenix Suns wanted to interview him for that job.
“The way I look at it, the Vipers had an NBA staff in the G League from top to bottom,” Toppert said. “I was very much prepared for that interview and Phoenix liked what they heard from me.”
Despite finishing with a 23-27 record that season, Toppert’s club sent five players to the NBA, including three to the Suns, and initially thought he would be back coaching in the G League for another season.
“I got to lead workouts for a couple of weeks after the season ended and worked with Igor (Kokosov) during the pre-draft process and there was a synergy,” Toppert said. “I built a good relationship with the ownership group and front office. I never got a job I pursued and hopefully if you do great things, everything takes care of itself.”
Besides coaching teams, Toppert has worked at a sports institute in Florida, where he helped train players in the offseason for the NBA Pre-Draft and international competition. He also was involved as a coach with basketball camps and clinics nationwide that included the NBA Pre-Draft Combine in 2013 and 2014.
In October 2015, the Vipers announced that Toppert had been hired as an assistant coach. He spent two seasons in that role under Matt Brase, then the Vipers head coach and now an assistant with the Houston Rockets, the Vipers’ parent club.
“I felt good and prepared going into that interview,” Toppert said. “My background from an educational standpoint, majoring in economics in the Ivy League, was helpful because the Rockets are a forwardthinking, analytical organization, who are looking for people who can bring basketball but also evaluate the numbers and play more efficient basketball so it was a perfect storm.”
Some of the main things that Toppert learned under Brase was putting players in the best position to be successful, how to avoid micromanaging and allowing members of the team to play through mistakes.
“One of the things I respect about Matt is his progressive mindset,” Toppert said. “He wants ideas that might be counter to his own, he wants to evaluate all types of options and what I respect most is his ability to make a decision based on all the facts.”
Joseph Blair, the Vipers current head coach, was also an assistant during Toppert’s tenure in the RGV. Toppert said the list is plentiful on involving what he learned
from Blair including defensive strategy and the psychological side of the game.
“His ability to communicate and hold players accountable is off the charts,” Toppert. “The inflection of his voice just demands respect. I can’t say enough how he helped me view player development and one day maybe we’ll get to work together on the brightest stage.”
Toppert also, as a player, found success under other coaches including Steve Donahue, who last year led Penn to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, and Michael Cooper, who once played during for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, a former teammate of Magic Johnson.
Cornell had only won five games the previous season before Toppert’s arrival during which time he became a four-year starter (20012005) for Donahue and helped change the basketball culture at that school. The university eventually reached the NCAA Tournament in 2008 before Donahue departed the Big Red in 2010 for Boston College.
Following his graduation in 2005, Toppert played one year in the G League as he became the first player ever allocated to Albuquerque (Thunderbirds), which is the city of his birth. He helped the team earn its first league championship under Cooper, who had once earned NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The left-handed shooting guard finished his collegiate career at Cornell as the ninth all-time leading scorer with 1,232 points, placed second in 3-pointers made (237), behind Ryan Wittman, and also second in all-times games played (108), while Toppert ranks sixth for three-point field goals made in Ivy League history.
Toppert had extensive experience playing overseas including for teams in New Zealand, Portugal, England, Germany and Spain. The 36-year-old also played with the Great Falls Explorers of the CBA (2007-08) coached by former NBA All-Star Scott Wedman. He averaged over 16 points per game that season and three times was recognized as the CBA Player of the Week.
After failing to find a college job, Toppert briefly coached at the prep level in Phoenix (Scottsdale Christian Academy) and then trained players for the NBA Draft (including current Suns players Devin Booker and Tyler Johnson) before getting his break with the Vipers.
Toppert may have considered himself a marginal basketball player, but he stands a chance now to make a bigger impact from the sidelines.