When OG Anunoby was taken by the Toronto Raptors with the 23rd pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, he was known as an astute defender with an NBA-ready frame, tree trunk legs, top-tier intangibles, and of course, an ardent love for cheesecake. Coming off of a recent ACL tear that was supposed to hold him out of the first few months of his rookie season, his athleticism was widely expected to be limited when he came back. His leaping ability wouldn’t be the same, and his ability to play through contact would be lacking, but he was a steal with where he was picked regardless.
His floor was Dorell-Wright esque, while the most optimistic among us aspired for him to achieve Kawhi Leonard’s stature – another player who entered the league known for his defense and a minimal arsenal on offense, but developed into a superstar under a great head coach and a strong team system. The parallels only continued as the focus turned towards their timid, leave-it-all-on-the-floor type of personalities, and the expectation for OG elevated once the two of them became teammates.
Regardless of his freaky setback, he managed to step on the floor for the first game of his rookie season, and thirteen games in, he stole Norman Powell’s starting spot. From there, the rookie wouldn’t concede his role for the remainder of the year. Despite only averaging 5.9 points and 2.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per contest, he was one of the best defensive players on the team all year, and he managed to go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the 2018 Conference Semi-Finals, despite getting swept in heartbreaking fashion.
In his following year, OG’s expectations were through the roof. He was destined to fill the starting small forward role, and fans hoped he would develop his offensive game beyond spot-up three point shooting. Unfortunately, the bad luck that curtained his sophomore year was well-documented, despite him making an appearance in the Rising Stars Game at All-Star Weekend.
Finally, this season Anunoby has been having the breakout that Torontonians have been longed for. The London-native’s skillset was on full display on March 1st in the mile-high city, when he managed to drop 32 points over the Denver Nuggets’ 13th ranked defense, coupled with his career-high seven steals.
Whether OG was fronting Nikola Jokic in the post, guarding Jamal Murray or Gary Harris on the perimeter, or even just swooping into passing lanes as Mike Malone’s team attempted to throw cross-court passes, Anunoby looked like his arms could reach across the court. His impressive defense was only eclipsed by his efficiency on the other end of the floor, shooting 12/16, and 3/6 from beyond the arc. While a statistical anomaly – as he dropped back to his typical productivity in the following games before the NBA’s eventual shutdown – it may have been a glimpse of what we can expect to see from OG in the future.
Last night in the Raptors’ return to meaningful action against the Los Angeles Lakers in Orlando, fans found themselves watching another instant classic, and potentially, a Finals preview. Kyle Lowry led the way with 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists, outplaying LeBron and Anthony Davis in every major stat category. Beyond the superstars, OG looked like he wanted to earn the “budding star” title for himself too. Reading into the box score wouldn’t even suffice to summarize his efforts, on both sides of the ball.
While the Raptors ran Nick Nurse’s defensive schemes to perfection to stop LeBron James as a team – packing it in every time he beat his defender on the perimeter, and recovering to shooters quickly – Anunoby did an incredible job as the primary defender on James. OG’s 6’8 frame and 7’3 wingspan matches up almost perfectly with LeBron’s, and he leveraged his size and quickness to his advantage to keep King James out of the paint.
OG forced the subpar shooter into attempting five contested shots from three-point range, and within the arc, James only made good on five of his ten looks. Beyond that, arguably the best passer in the league was trapped into turning the ball over four times, and was only able to rack up five assists. Overall, it was an incredible defensive effort by the third year Raptor, and is one of the first times since Kawhi Leonard in the 2014 NBA Finals that we’ve seen someone as young as OG Anunoby shut down The King.
On the other end of the court, OG showed off the new skills that he’s been honing over the quarantine. Through his first two and a half seasons in the NBA, Anunoby had a very limited ability to put the ball on the floor, or create for teammates. All of his looks at the rim would come off of slashes, cuts, or the occasional drive off a swing pass where he found himself wide open on the baseline. All of this is transparent through his assist-to-turnover ratio that has hovered between the 0.8 and the 1.2 mark throughout his entire career.
Yesterday was a far different story. OG was able to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, regardless of who was defending him. While we saw a peek of his ability to do so in the preseason, it was against weaker defenses, putting in far less effort to try and stop him. Yesterday, OG was able to do it against two of the best defenders in the NBA – Anthony Davis, and LeBron James – and it looked like a monumental improvement to say the least. His dribble is lower, his handle is quicker, and his confidence is through the roof.
When asked about his improved ball-handling ability, Anunoby responded that he’s been working on his guard skills “relentlessly,” and that the improvements we’re seeing now are “a buildup of all the hard work.”
While he only drove the ball to the hoop with a defender hung on him a couple of times last night, his mere ability to do so without having the ball poked free after two dribbles is intriguing. Unlocking a completely new aspect to his game, and allowing him to get downhill to the rim for himself where he’s a very good finisher, he becomes exponentially more of an offensive threat, and is beginning to imitate the trajectory of Pascal Siakam.
By the end of the game, OG finished with 23 points on remarkable 8/9 shooting, and 3/3 from deep. Not only did he lock up King James on one end, but he scored more points than any Laker player on the other side.
Apart from his statline, defense, and ball-handling, Anunoby was the hero during one of the most moments of the game during the third quarter. LeBron James – the Toronto Raptors killer – hit back-to-back three’s with a hand in his face to bring Los Angeles back into the game, dejecting Raptors fans to their pre-Kawhi Leonard era nightmares when LeBronto ruled over the Raptors. This year’s team, however, is different. They are fearless, and the 23-year-old OG Anunoby won’t back down from anyone, even when going head to head with LeBron James. OG came back up the court on each possession after James hit his dramatically deflating shots, and Anunoby calmly knocked down a couple of massive three pointers to respond. One of the leading candidates for the NBA’s MVP award, and Toronto’s third-year defensive juggernaut were going shot for shot with each other, and Anunoby’s team came out on top.
In spite of the two shots being wide open looks that were created by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, the trait of being willing to shoot those shots as a role player, and actually make good those attempts, then get back down to the other end of the floor and play inspired defense on LeBron is something that Toronto was missing for the majority of the 2010’s. Last year, Kawhi Leonard showed the Raptors how to play with confidence. This year, they have the heart of a champion, and won’t let anybody stand in their way of repeating.
Already being one of the best defenders in the NBA, with a decent chance of making an All-Defensive team this year, fans could be looking at a potential future All-Star in Anunoby, maybe even as soon as next year if he’s able to keep up his stellar play. The Raptors next matchup is tomorrow afternoon at 1:30 PM against the Miami Heat, and with Duncan Robinson hopefully guarding OG, we’ll hope for a blow-by and tomahawk posterization.