The length, athleticism and dogged defense the Toronto Raptors rode to their first ever championship made it easy to forget that O.G. Anunoby watched his team’s title run in street clothes.
With Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Toronto had as much or more defensive talent on the wing than any team in basketball, and it’s not as if Anunoby proved dynamic enough offensively during the regular season to make his absence look obvious. In fact, when he was added to the active roster for Game 2 of the NBA Finals and beyond, Anunoby seemed much more like a luxury for the Raptors, an emergency option if injury or foul trouble befell Leonard and Siakam. It came as no surprise when Nick Nurse opted to leave him on the bench for good.
But a few months later, on the night a championship banner was hung at Scotiabank Arena, Anunoby provided a forceful reminder when Toronto needed it most of just how much he was missed last spring and early summer.
Jrue Holiday isn’t James Harden, and Marc Gasol deserves credit for a perfect hard hedge at the initial point of attack. But if there was any doubt Anunoby would need time re-acclimating to the speed of the NBA after playing his last game in early April, his stellar individual defense late in the Raptors’ season-opening victory put those concerns to rest.
Less than two weeks into the regular season, Toronto has already answered questions about its viability without Leonard, too. The defending champions are 4-1, with a top-five net rating and a smothering defense that’s forced opponents into a 45.9 effective field goal percentage, second stingiest in the league.
Even without Leonard and Green, the Raptors’ borderline dominant play on defense shouldn’t be all that surprising. There’s not a single negative defender among their top eight players, and most of them can capably guard multiple positions. But, like last season, it’s the unparalleled versatility of Toronto’s wings that has truly stood apart.
Siakam spent most of the opener starting possessions on Holiday, only to cede that responsibility to Anunoby in crunch time. The value of interchangeable wings on defense is massive, and the ability of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka to switch onto players bigger and smaller only furthers Siakam’s and Anunoby’s influence.
Anunoby has always had the physical tools necessary to be an All-NBA defender, with natural strength, a crazy wingspan and quick feet for a player who looks far heavier than his listed weight of 232 pounds. Like his teammates, he’s fully bought into defense as his calling card, playing with a sense of controlled opportunism as both a primary and help defender.
And, while that aggression has sometimes allowed for blow-bys from more dynamic ball handlers, it’s also led to the type of “wow” plays reserved for defensive stars.
More importantly, his confidence and comfort has helped Anunoby – whose steal and block rates were surprisingly low in each of his first two seasons – emerge as a disruptive force on defense extends to the other side of the ball.
Early hopes of Anunoby developing into a high-usage star, despite the fact that he’s just 22-years-old, have almost vanished entirely. He lacks innate wiggle or suddenness with the ball and has shown little in the way of knocking down jumpers off the dribble from varied angles. But Toronto probably never forecasted his growth in that manner anyway, instead viewing Anunoby as a potential prototype three-and-D forward for the modern era.
And, just five games into 2019-20, he’s already begun living up to that lofty expectation.
Anunoby is using just 13.3 percent of the Raptors’ possessions and averaging 12.2 points per game, putting him squarely in the “role player” category offensively. But it’s his shooting splits, and where those shots have come from, that has prompted so much optimism about his immediate and long-term future. Anunoby is making 55.1 percent of his field goals and 44.4 percent of his three-pointers while attempting nearly four triples per game.
Those numbers are surely unsustainable; they’ve never been reached in tandem over a full season before.
But watching Anunboy, nevertheless, confirms that he’s on the verge of becoming one of the league’s most efficient offensive players if his jumper stays true. All but three of his 49 field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc or in the restricted area, with just one of those shot outside the paint.
A middling and occasionally reluctant shooter during his first two years in the league, Anunoby is letting fly from deep with no hesitation whatsoever in the season’s early going. While most of his triples have come from the corners, where he’s a tidy 5-of-9 so far, it’s still extremely encouraging to see Anunoby launch above-the-break threes without thinking twice.
The physical profile that makes him such an impactful defender has also helped Anunoby leverage his threat from three-point range.
He hasn’t only been decisive as a spot-up shooter, but also as a penetrator of hard close-outs and general ball pressure, frequently getting all the way to the rim to finish. He doesn’t have an extra explosive first step and mostly subsists on straight-line drives, but Anunoby’s long arms and leaping ability compensate for those relative deficiencies when fending off defenders at the basket.
Disclaimer: The sample size here is extremely small, due as much to Anunoby’s low usage as the date on the calendar. If two of his made triples had rimmed out, he’d be shooting a below-average 33.3 percent from beyond the arc, sparking more concern about his chops as a long-range shooter. In the playoffs, smart teams will probably make Anunoby prove he can knock down open looks before refusing to cheat off him, too.
But even those realities don’t do much to change the encouraging early-season takeaways of his performance. Anunoby is quickly earning the reputation as an elite defender, both on and off the ball, and his blend of three-point shooting, two-to-three dribble attacking and rim-running in transition has made him an abject plus on offense through Toronto’s first five games.
Anunoby’s ceiling remains a matter of debate, but the better he plays in a more confined role, the more likely it is he’ll be misidentified as a surefire future All-Star. It would be remiss to rule out that possibility entirely. He certainly possesses the size and athleticism of a star, and the game’s increasing emphasis on pace and space allows less natural playmakers the chance to thrive – a dynamic that’s contributed to Siakam’s meteoric rise.
But, odds are that Anunoby won’t quite get there. That said, he’s primed to further stake himself as two-way impact player regardless. Every team in the NBA could use a wing that can check four positions, ignite the fast break with deflections and play within himself offensively, looking for his shot when the opportunity presents itself but otherwise keeps the ball moving.
And, already, Anunoby is checking those boxes with ease. Any major additional growth would be a luxury for Toronto.
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