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Rookie Rising: Time for OG Anunoby to Start

With Norman Powell sidelined due to injury, it’s time for the rookie to take the next step.

Early in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Boston Celtics, Norman Powell collided with Aron Baynes and appeared to be in pain while sitting on the bench. After being taken back to the locker room by Alex McKechnie, it was announced that he sustained a right hip-pointer, and while there has been no declaration yet on how severe the injury is, it’s likely that Norm will be missing significant time.

This, then, leads us to the obvious question: Who will start in his absence?

A lot of people may advocate for C.J. Miles to take Norm’s spot, and I can’t blame them in the slightest. I myself wished for Miles to start instead of Powell in the first place—he provides spacing that Norm has mostly failed to produce, isn’t an enormous drop-off defensively, and is yet another veteran presence when it comes to crunch time.

I wouldn’t put it past Dwane Casey to slide him into the starting unit.

However, Miles has also found a nice flow with the bench unit, which has been one of the Raptors’ best lineups this season. When Miles plays alongside Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and OG Anunoby, they have a net rating of 11.8, and what they lack in offensive ability they make up for on the other end with a stifling defensive rating of 89.1. This group has saved Toronto’s bacon a number of times already this year.

But someone has to make the shift, and with Miles fitting in so comfortably with the young guns, why not make one of them a starter? Casey already did it once with Powell.

Enter Anunoby, who has been a major bright spot in his debut season. For a guy fans weren’t sure we’d get to see play that much (or at all) due to a knee injury suffered prior to the draft, he’s been magnificent in all the ways advertised. He’s long and athletic, with a springy second-jump and good off-ball instincts. He’s sticky on the defensive end, constantly disrupting opponents as well as passing lanes, and what’s more he can shoot the ball from deep, showing legitimate range (37.9 per cent) that makes him a 3&D threat.

He’s already been given crunch time minutes by Casey, and this move should only further his confidence and give him more reps to test himself as he continues to not only grow, but recover health-wise.

Let’s take a look at what he can provide the starting lineup, shall we?

First thing’s first: The corner three. Powell hasn’t shot the ball well in general, but especially from downtown, making only 30.8 per cent of his attempts. He also isn’t taking almost any of his threes from the corners, and is in fact shooting less from either corner than Anunoby already is. Norm has looked deflated lately, his confidence a puff of smoke in a hurricane, and so it couldn’t hurt the starters to have a player out there who not only can hit that shot, but who also feels good when taking it. There is a strong chance opposing defenses also ignore OG out there, which will give him wide-open looks when, say, DeMar DeRozan charges into the paint and looks for a kick-out.

Of course, when the defense finds out that Anunoby can burn them from beyond the arc, they’ll start to close out on him, and when they do he can use his superb athleticism to slip right past them and make his way to the hoop. Here he does it against Anthony Davis, not your average defender. The kid’s got jets.

As mentioned previously, OG is also a smart off-ball player. When he’s left alone he doesn’t just wait around for someone to pass it to him, opting instead for quick and often explosive cuts to the basket. He takes advantage of the defense forgetting about him and the help arriving to contain the efforts of his All-Star teammates. On this play he cuts in along the baseline, hands up and ready for a pinpoint pass from Kyle Lowry.

The best thing Anunoby can bless the starting group with is his defense. As things stand, the starters have an abysmal net rating of -3.9, due almost entirely to their horrid defensive rating of 113. When OG has been on the court, opponents have had an average offensive rating of 97.3, and when he’s been sitting that rating has skyrocketed to 109.9. His tendency to deflect the ball and the energy with which he plays should ideally spark the rest of the unit by getting them out on the fast break, which is exactly what he does on this play.

You may have noticed the pass as well. That’s another facet of OG’s game that has come as a pleasant surprise for, I think, the majority of fans. Anunoby doesn’t typically rush with the ball—he takes his time and, when he can, makes the right basketball play. He doesn’t have a one-track mind, and everything he does seems to be calculated, a rather rare trait in a rookie. As an example, here he is trying to make his way to the rim—when he finds he can’t, he makes a brilliant pass to Poeltl for the easy two.

So there it is—my case for OG Anunoby to start in place of Powell. The youngster has earned these minutes, and his style of play should fit in perhaps even better than Norm’s has. Starting Miles would work out fine, but giving Anunoby the chance is an experiment that, in my opinion, has greater potential to yield more success.

I guess we’ll find out.

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