Back in 2013, New York skills trainer David Zenon had five dollars to his name. Rather than giving up on his dream of working in basketball and helping others better themselves on the floor, he used those five dollars to put gas in his car and train a player. It was a training session that led to a job with the Westchester Knicks – the New York Knicks’ NBA G League affiliate – as a shot clock operator, a gig that introduced him to various agents and players at the professional level and opened the door for other training opportunities to not only keep his dream alive, but push it to reality.
A workout with Thanasis Antetokounmpo – brother of NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – led to a training opportunity with NBA veteran Serge Ibaka, among countless other workouts with NBA, WNBA, NCAA and grassroots standouts. Now, Zenon’s status as one of New York’s best-kept secrets among trainers is no more. The word is out, and it’s only spreading further from here.
This spring, that buzz soon reached Roni Toppin – mother of Jacob Toppin – with Zenon being “highly recommended” as a go-to trainer for the Kentucky forward as he prepares for his third year in college basketball and second in Lexington as a Wildcat.
“His mom reached out to me and said she heard I was a really good trainer,” Zenon told KSR. “… I wasn’t walking in with the whole ‘Oh it’s Obi Toppin’s brother’ or whatever, it was just a mom hitting me up looking to get her child better. That’s what I did.”
The process started with Zenon breaking down Toppin’s game film from his debut season at Kentucky, namely his standout performances against Vanderbilt and Florida, among others. After getting a feel for his shooting progressions on how he shot the ball in certain areas, the veteran trainer asked Toppin questions about areas of improvement and his goals as a basketball player before writing a unique workout for the Wildcat forward.
Almost immediately, the two clicked.
“We worked together for a whole month, pretty much every day,” Zenon told KSR. “We took maybe a few days off, but that dude was in the gym every day for two hours. He’s a workhorse, man. That kid loves to work, it was refreshing. You’ve got two really competitive dudes who like to work. We just vibed, man.”
Toppin was meticulous in his training, soaking in the coaching and training like a “sponge,” Zenon says. The attention to detail and work ethic was clear in every session.
“The thing I think Kentucky fans should be excited about is, he’s very technical and he takes what he does seriously, just wants to get better every day. And he did,” said Zenon. “He added a bunch of moves, a bunch of stuff off the dribble, his catch-and-shoot became so much better. I’m pretty excited for him.”
That attention to detail carried over to his return to campus this offseason, with Toppin telling reporters that he was prepared for a “breakout year” in Lexington after working on three key aspects of his game at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season: shooting, ball handling and playing lower.
“I like a challenge. There’s no pressure because to me, I feel like I’m going to have a breakout year,” Toppin said in June. “I’ve been working, putting in work, building confidence in shooting the ball, dribbling and playing lower, so I’m definitely excited to see what’s going to happen (next season).
For Zenon, that statement was music to his ears, furthering the belief that Toppin is taking his offseason growth seriously and is not only speaking, but working a breakout campaign into existence.
“Those are literally the three things we focused on,” Zenon told KSR. “Catch-and-shoot is going to open up so many opportunities for him to be able to attack the basket and show off that athleticism, but in order to do it, you’ve got to be confident with the ball-handling, staying low and attacking. It’s all progression, man. He’s a Swiss Army knife.
“You’re going to have the opportunity to see a player who takes pride on defense, that defense is going to turn into offense with the energy he’s bringing. The jump shot, it’s confident, it looks confident it’s going in. He worked really hard on that jumper, handling and staying low and aggressive. Every day for two hours was non-stop straight work, and he’s continued to do so while at school now.”
For the last month @Jtoppin0 put in work for two hours every day we worked out. Footwork, off the dribble, catch&shoot. You name it. We did it. One of the hardest working dudes I’ve gotten to work with and a great person. Thank you to @roni_toppin for trusting 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 contest while shooting 44.4% from the field and 30.8% from three. Considering the amount of work he has put in this offseason and one full season at UK under his belt, a growth in production is inevitable, but not the lone priority for the rising junior.
Instead, Toppin’s focus is on winning basketball games and becoming a leader in the locker room.
“His mindset for this year is just winning, he wants to win,” said Zenon. “There wasn’t any talk about ‘Oh, I want to average (this)’ or individual stuff. Jacob is a team-first guy and you can tell the other guys love him. He’s a great locker room guy, but he’s going to hold guys accountable; he’s taken over that leadership role. He talked a lot about winning, he really wants to win at Kentucky.”
Check those boxes and the production will follow.
“Personally, he just wants to get better and show off his skillset, every player wants to. We didn’t talk about numbers, just going out there and doing your job. Once you do your job, everything else will fall into place. Wins will come and numbers will increase.”
The COVID-19 pandemic limited Kentucky fans from meeting and interacting with the 2020-21 team in person. There were no summer camps, no Big Blue Madness campout, no preseason events and no on-campus pictures, autographs or handshakes. Outside of the socially-distanced 3,000 fans – just 15% capacity – at Rupp Arena, in-person interaction was non-existent.
With these opportunities set to return in 2021-22 – Kentucky already hosted Satellite Camps, Father-Son Camps, Father-Daughter Camps and Three-Day Camp Cal events throughout the month of June – along with Toppin’s on-court growth, Zenon is confident Toppin will quickly emerge as a fan favorite next season.
“Jacob is a dog. He’s going to embrace all of the energy that comes his way. That’s a guy who’s going to be a fan favorite,” Zenon told KSR. “Not just because he’s a good dude, but because he’s going to show everyone how hard he’s worked. He’s going to hold not only himself, but the others around him accountable, that’s just the kind of guy he is.
“He’s a competitive kid and you’re going to have 24,000 fans that are going to see he’s no joke. My man’s a dog, so I’m not worried about that. He’s going to thrive and I think fans should be excited about him this year.”
Thanks to a great guy for getting 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 at many levels proves his expertise. Motivation and hard work creates greatness. @Jtoppin0 @DaveZenon pic.twitter.com/wHYmkJYtlQ
— R Toppin (@roni_toppin) May 27, 2021
In his first year as a Wildcat, Toppin was able to make plays with his endless motor and second-to-none athleticism. Now, though, the focus is on building his skills to match those other aspects of his game, and he’s working tirelessly on the practice floor and in the film room – Zenon is sending Toppin tape of the most “technically sound” NBA and international players – to make that happen.
“He’s a very special player,” he told KSR. “He and his brother are late bloomers, but the thing about Jacob, the last time I saw him before we started working together when he was at Rhode Island. He was like 6-7. Now, he’s pushing like 6-9 with guard skills, so I told him, ‘let’s tweak some stuff to take advantage of it.’ We talk almost every other day, I’ll send him different clips from different players in the league or some of the things we’ve worked on, like ‘Hey, we worked on this. Let’s go over some more film.’ He’s about it. That kid is a hoops junkie. Whether he’s in the gym or in the film room, he’s there.”
As a shooter, Toppin’s abilities are there and his confidence is growing, and he’s prepared to show that on the national stage this fall in Lexington.
“He’s confident, his shot is looking really, really good,” said Zenon. “Showing confidence in the catch-and-shoot, that’s the most important thing with him. I think he’s going to show that, he’s going to show that ability. He’s put in a lot of work, and he’s going to show it. … He’s going to increase his numbers and showcase his skillset and the work he’s put in.”