The Toronto Raptors have made what Fran Fraschilla has conveniently coined the “sexy blogger pick,”selecting small forward OG Anunoby with the No. 23 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Anunoby spent most of the draft process figuring to be off the board by the time the Raptors selected, but his stock seemed to tumble a bit closer to draft night. Fraschilla’s comments are rooted in the fact that rankings on the internet appeared to be more optimistic about Anunoby than the feeling from teams, but the real reason may be that internet rankings are more risk-seeking than NBA teams to be. That’s because the big concern with Anunoby is that he may contribute little in 2017-18, and it’s unclear when he may be healthy enough to play. Anunoby missed the final 15 games of his sophomore season with Indiana after undergoing surgery on his right ACL, and reports vary on when he may be able to get back onto the floor.
“I think it effected my draft, but everything happens for a reason,” Anunoby said on the broadcast after being picked. Asked what he tried to show teams in the interim, he said, “My personality, my character, how hard a worker I am, and how much I care about the team.” (Anunoby also revealed he’ll continue to wear his trademark short-shorts at the NBA level.)
The injury kept Anunoby from working out with teams during the pre-draft process, though the Raptors did meet with Anunoby last week (a meeting likely made possible by his stock starting to slide a bit). That conspired to make him one of the higher-risk, higher-reward players, and in rolling the dice here, the Raptors are swinging for the fences on a talent level that’s clearly much higher than this pick slot. Of the primary draft rankers we use here at Raptors Republic, Anunoby ranked as high as 11th and didn’t rank lower than 18th (averaging 14th), and Kevin Pelton’s analytic model at ESPN graded him as the No. 7 prospect in the class. (Shout out to DraftExpress for nailing him mocked to the Raptors.) It’s exactly the type of upside play that can help a team in the Raptors’ position whether they stay the course and try to remain competitive or whether they take a few steps back and push things down the line – Anunoby should be able to help by the second half of the season, and failing that, he has some serious long-term potential.
Anunoby said on draft media day that he believes he can get back on the court by November (about two months ahead of schedule), but the Raptors are in a position to bring him along slowly. They could use a player at the forward positions, to be sure, but they figure to be deep enough to give him time to get back to 100 percent and shake off any rust while he learns the system with Raptors 905. He was also able to measure up at the combine, where he posted an encouraging 7-foot-2.25-inch wingspan, an 8-foot-11.5-inch standing reach, speaking to his immense defensive potential.
In fact, Anunoby may be the best defensive prospect in the draft, depending on how you feel about Jordan Bell. The exceptional length translates into terrific perimeter defense, and several scouts have referred to him as the best on-ball defender in the draft. He’s not quite as good in help situations, where he tends to over-commit a bit, but he’s a terrific athlete who should develop his help-and-recover skills (he has exceptional burst to cover swaths of space quickly) and should ultimately have the length to be a presence at the rim playing the four in smaller lineups. Really, he could be able to defend as many as four positions, with a body that should fill out enough to play power forward comfortably and the length, quickness, and defensive instincts to corral even smaller, faster wings on the outside. The term “NBA-ready body” is thrown around too loosely, but given the strength in his lower half, he’s somewhere close. The hope will have to be that it materializes in better rebounding in time, because he wasn’t particularly strong in that regard.
There is just so much to like about his defensive potential.
The questions come on the offensive side of the floor, where Anunoby is still fairly limited despite decent college production. As a 19-year-old sophomore, he averaged 11.1 points on 55.7-percent shooting, which is nice, but he hasn’t shown much semblance of range (he was 27-of-74 on college threes over two seasons), and his free-throw shooting, a strong predictor of future 3-point shooting, is fairly weak (56.3 percent this year). As Cole Zwicker has pointed out, he releases the ball really flat with a low release point, which could make it tough to extend his mechanics to the NBA 3-point line. It’s worth noting that the Raptors have taken chances on non-shooters in recent years, believing they can improve that skill through player development, specifically if they can identify a mechanical flaw that can be ironed out with repetition. (Nick Nurse is probably pulling his hair out, though.)
Elsewhere, Anunoby is a better passer than he maybe gets credit for, averaging 1.4 assists and making quality reads when he has a beat to process. He can also put the ball on the floor a little in space, which will be huge, because teams are going to completely abandon him when he’s spotting up and then close out late, so continuing to develop those skills in space will be an important early priority. It should help that he’s an explosive athlete, with a decent first step that will become more effective if teams eventually have to respect his jumper. There probably won’t be much point running plays for him early on, because he’s not really a threat on the move, hasn’t initiated in the pick-and-roll much, and will mostly just be a finisher to start (he’s incredibly strong and a fast rim-runner, making him an obvious transition threat and a potential option as a screener in some Raptors pet sets). He has a bit of a post-game, too, something the Raptors will probably only see in the G-League to start.
All told, Anunoby has a ways to go on the offensive end, and that’s probably why the mileage of NBA teams varied (along with the injury issues). The Raptors aren’t shy about developing offense, and given what their needs have been for years now – versatile, multi-position defenders – he can help fill a consistent hole. His downside is probably that of a quality one-way bench defender, but if the Raptors think they can turn a fairly raw offensive profile into a useful player on that end, the ceiling becomes pretty high. There are a wide range of outcomes, but it’s important for prospects to have something they can hang their hat on and do well out of the gate to buy them minutes and the requisite rope to develop, and Anunoby has that in spades at the defensive end of the floor.
“Luckily, he fell to us,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “There was a lot of teams behind us that were salivating to get him…He can guard one-through-five, easily. He’s a P.J. Tucker clone, practically.”
Whether you like the pick or not will depend on your individual risk preference and whether another non-shooter is a problem for you. He’s not a great short-term fit on offense, but the No. 23 pick didn’t figure to play a major role out of the gate anyway. There were a lot of likable names still on the board, like Semi Ojeleye or Ike Anigbogu, or a handful of others. In Anunoby, the Raptors took a potentially undervalued asset with top-10 upside, betting on his health, the character at play, and their own ability to turn him into a two-way piece. And in terms of the character, he’s almost surely someone the Raptors were attracted to, given how much they value maturity (watching interviews, he comes off as straight-forward and sincere, if a little unentertaining).
If nothing else, he’s another defender to throw out at a number of positions in a number of lineup types, and that’s a pretty useful piece to have and a pretty decent floor. There are a range of ceiling outcomes, most of which are worth being excited about with the No. 23 pick. Patience will be key with yet another prospect.