Hitting the rookie wall is an oft-used expression with rarely-investigated principles. What does it mean? It appears from the outside that O.G. Anunoby has been slumping recently, or hitting the rookie wall, but how has that actually manifested in his play?
An obvious symptom is that his numbers have plummeted across the board. He is scoring less, and less efficiently, since the turn of the calendar year. His 3-point shooting percentage was an extraordinary 41.5% in 2017, but he has since only splashed in 23.6% of his shots. Even his free throw shooting percentage dropped more than 20%! Even though his usage rate is down, his turnover rate is up.
Fatigue would be a simple cause. Anunoby played only 16 games in university due to an ACL tear, but he was already raring to go by the start of the Raptors’ season. He has since played in all 56 contents in which the Raptors have taken part, which only DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl have also accomplished this season. Doubtlessly, that is strenuous, especially for a young body that is unused to the physical taxes of the NBA.
But Anunoby only plays in ~20 minutes per game, which is a relatively light load. According to Blake, Anunoby denies that fatigue is impacting his play. It’s quite possible that he’s just missing shots while in a cold streak. This is common for all players, not just rookies. However, his defence betrays something deeper.
Anunoby has always had a relatively high rate of mental errors while playing team defence. Rookies frequently get back-cut, or fail to box out, or make unnecessary switches. This happens to everyone, even to terrific rookie defenders like Anunoby. These errors have seemed to increase somewhat recently.
Against the Knicks, here’s an example of a horrid defensive sequence from Anunoby. Guarding Michael Beasley, Anunoby follows a hand-off much too far and runs himself out of position. He recovers (mostly because Beasley just… lets him) but then forces him the wrong way! Anunoby gives up middle needlessly and then proves unable to stay in front of the Knick.
Here against the Hornets he mangles an off-ball screen with Kyle Lowry. Anunoby thinks he’s switching, and he leaves Nick Batum as open as the layout of a Turkish bathhouse underneath the net. Lowry doesn’t think he’s switching, so both players chase Kemba Walker beyond the arc. Dwight Howard, as a rule, doesn’t make good passes, so the Hornets failed to capitalize on the mistake (although they did score later in the possession).
Anunoby has thus far in his young career displayed excellent perseverance at fighting through screens, making himself thin and low to the ground, and recovering quickly. Here he just dies on the screen, like a regular old Hedo Turkoglu:
Of course, Batum missed the shot. Batum finished 0/10 in the game, so it’s not like Anunoby had a putrid defensive outing in general. He’s still a very good defender! It’s just that his rate of thinking errors / effort lapses has increased. When engaged, he can still do this to people while defending the ball:
Similarly, he still often makes advanced, anticipatory reads on when to rotate with the length and athleticism to disrupt plays. Here he rotates from above the arc to pick up Hassan Whiteside during a Goran Dragic drive from the far corner. He runs without hesitation towards the rotation only a beat after Valanciunas steps over to stop Dragic’s drive; this shows a high-level sense of who is supposed to be doing what, when. It’s woth mentioning, he wasn’t even probably supposed to be doing this! DeRozan was already (half-heatedly) picking up Hassan Whiteside, though he was in no position to stop Dragic’s feed. Anunoby improvises here, and he prevents two easy points as a result of his quick thinking:
(This is a good place for an aside: it’s incredible that when writing an article about Anunoby’s struggles, I can’t help but come across plays in which he excels. This piece is decidedly not meant to gush about the Raptors’ prize rookie, but Anunoby makes it hard to keep from doing that.)
Anunoby’s advanced numbers reflect his recent (slight) struggles. His defensive rating, per nba.com, has inched from 100.6 in 2017 to 102.5 in 2018. That’s still a number comparable to Hassan Whiteside’s on the season – it’s just no longer equivalent to Rudy Gobert’s. The difference is, of course minimal, but so are the on-court mistakes.
Anunoby’s offensive rating has shifted far more, plummeting from 115.9 in 2017 to 107.6 since. His role on the offence is practically just to hit open shots without hesitation, or drive past close-outs and make plays. Failing to connect on open shots will sabotage his numbers because it represents so much of his role. This shift in his numbers could be entirely due to a cold streak and nothing more.
For a short stretch a month or so ago, Anunoby seemed to hesitate on his jumpers. Casey criticized him for second-guessing his own shooting ability, as hesitating creates a much more difficult shot. Anunoby had been missing his jumpers, so it’s logical that his tendency was to shoot less. He’s back to firing without pause these past few weeks.
So what do people mean when they say that Anunoby is hitting the rookie wall? He may be making a few more errors on the defensive end, but he still records breathtaking highlights (if watching a player stay in front of his man, or watching a player tip a pass out of bounds takes your breath away). He may be missing more shots on the court, but that could well be due to playing 56 NBA games, more than he’s ever played in a single season of basketball. Of course he’s tired, even if he insists he isn’t. The all-star break couldn’t come at a better time, and I am glad he won’t be on the court at all, even as a Rising Star.
Regardless, the Raptors have been winning despite Anunoby’s struggles. Their winning percentages are 70.6% in 2017 and 72.7% in 2018. Even if Anunoby is slumping, the Raptors aren’t. He may be an important piece for the team, but he’s still doing enough to contribute to wins. And for now, that’s more than enough.