In 2019 after James Harden finished second place in MVP voting to his arch rival, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden clamored that his loss was attributable to media generated narratives that favoured Giannis. While his helpless cry to convince the world that he was in fact the best player during the 2018-2019 campaign may not have resonated with fans, he certainly had a point which has become resoundingly clear in recent years: the media is biased.
This concept has been evident to Raptors fans for a long time. Every year, regardless of roster changes in Toronto and the shakeups that occur around the league, it seems that some of the most underappreciated players in the NBA reside north of the border. Their highlights don’t get re-posted on Twitter and Instagram multiple times every night like LaMelo Ball or Zion Williamson, but basketball’s brightest minds are very familiar with the Raptors sublime.
The latest to fall victim to this lack of media coverage in Toronto has been OG Anunoby. Last season, the third year forward averaged career highs across the board and was the lynchpin to Toronto’s top ranked defense. Night after night, he would welcome the task of defending the opponent’s best player, and do as formidable of a job as anyone could fathom. In a three game stretch where the Raptors squared off against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Portland Trail Blazers, Anunoby limited LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard to a combined 34 points – about a third of what they would go on to average that season.
Upon keeping up that level of defensive excellence throughout the entire season, finishing sixth in the league in defensive win shares, and twelfth in defensive box plus-minus, OG finally began to turn some heads.
Nate Duncan of the Dunc’d On Podcast was the first to become enamored with the London native’s defensive prowess, saying that he believes OG Anunoby is the best isolation defender in the entire NBA. Duncan would soon after propose his thesis to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, and sure enough, Bontemps concurred.
“He’s a mountain of a human being,” Bontemps said about OG. “He’s 6’9 and just a block of granite, I agree with your sentiment… I would say the same thing, he is both big enough and fast enough to guard any wing player in the league. That goes for guys like Kawhi, who are super strong, or LeBron, and he can also guard guys like Jason Tatum, who are quicker. He has just really become a terrific player for them this year. … To go back to your original (question), if I’m picking one guy to guard in an isolation in the league, I think I’m with you, I’d pick OG because he’s so big and strong and quick that I think he can handle just about anything that’s thrown his way.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t many others who felt the same way… in the media at least. Around the NBA however, everybody knows what Anunoby is capable of. After seeing him in action for just one season, Masai Ujiri infamously refused to include OG in a trade for the great Kawhi Leonard. Bobby Webster echoed similar praise after Anunoby’s recent extension when he said, “OG is the epitome of the skilled, powerful, determined player we want in our organization long-term… We’re really pleased that OG will be with us for seasons to come.”
It’s puzzling then, with some of the smartest executives in the NBA, and select members of the media cementing Anunoby as such an elite defender – not just because of his athletic skills – but because of his versatility, his intangibles, and his feel for the game, that he only received two points in last year’s voting for the All-Defensive teams. Evidently, there was a discrepancy between his on-court production, and the value attached to his production by the general media.
This year, OG hopes things may be a little bit different. Despite a lot of things changing with the Raptors – including the country that they call home this season – one thing has not, and that is Nick Nurse reliance on OG in his defensive schemes. It is easy to see that Toronto’s defensive game plan commits to putting the opponent’s best scorer in a doghouse, and forces secondary scorers to beat them. The key cog in this scheme for Nick Nurse is OG, and once again, he’s flourishing in his role.
Against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, Anunoby limited the Slovenian MVP candidate to just 15 points and 7 assists on 4/11 shooting. As a benchmark for how impressive that is, Doncic is averaging 26.8 points and 10.0 assists this season. Just a couple of nights later, OG showed off his versatility, this time matching up with Bam Adebayo at the five. Adebayo would end the game with an inefficient 14 points on 14 shots, and despite the Miami Heat coming up with a win, none of the Raptors issues stemmed from Anunoby’s defense.
Through 14 games this season, OG ranks third in the league in steals per game, at 2.0. When being defended by him this season, opponents are shooting a measly 42.9% from the field. He’s also posting an above average defensive rating of 107.1, which is sure to improve as the Raptors begin to figure out some of their defensive woes, which they seem to be doing right now.
Once again, OG’s on court production is there. He is one of the best defenders in the league, and anybody who watches him knows it. While he’s certainly not a leading candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year, he could come around as a dark horse. Regardless, he should be a lock to make one of the All-Defensive teams. This time around, he just needs the media narratives to go his way.