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.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6
With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.
With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.
1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)
Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.
On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.
Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.
In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.
Anthony Edwards tonight:
42 PTS (franchise record)
8 3PT (franchise record)
He is the first rookie in NBA history with 40+ points, 8+ threes on 75%+ shooting in a game. pic.twitter.com/NidZhAppNo
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 6, 2021
2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)
Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.
LaMelo Ball, friends. pic.twitter.com/OqNtaxwus6
— Nuh-KY-us Duncan (@NekiasNBA) May 1, 2021
Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.
Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players.
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.
While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.
In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)
Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.
The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.
5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.
Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.
Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.
6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)
Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.
While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.
Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.