Alternate title: The development of OG Anunoby will dictate the Raptors’ ceiling
Feelings of bitterness and disappointment continue to cloud the minds of Toronto Raptors fans following another crippling sweep out of the postseason nearly one month ago. That’s understandable, as losing to the same opponent in convincing fashion for a third consecutive playoff run can have that impact on even the most resilient of fan bases. However, even during a prolonged stretch of misery, it’s important for Raptors fans to remember that their team’s future isn’t as bleak as it may seem in this very instant.
The 2017 rookie draft class featured numerous franchise-altering talents that had NBA teams, media members and fans salivating all season long. Future all-stars like Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum may have garnered most of the headlines, but given the depth of this class, it’s no surprise plenty of other promising prospects flashed glimpses of greatness.
One of those rookies was OG Anunoby.
Initially projected to be a top-10 pick, Anunoby fell into the laps of Toronto at 23rd overall because of durability concerns following a torn ACL in college. The former Indiana Hoosier was expected to be out for at least the first few months of the 2017-18 season, yet miraculously completed his rehab in time to make his NBA debut during the Raptors regular season opener.
From the moment he checked into an NBA game, the 20-year-old showed off the much-advertised defensive prowess that had scouts salivating during the leadup to draft night. Often times, former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey – that will take some time to get used to – tasked the rookie with guarding an opponent’s best offensive player. Whether it was checking James Harden one night, or Al Horford the next, Anunoby regularly utilized his 7-foot-2 wingspan and 9-foot standing reach to force all-star calibre players into contested, challenging shot attempts.
Among rookies that averaged at least 20 minutes in 60 or more regular season games, Anunoby ranked fourth in defensive rating at 102.2. It’s no surprise given the 20-year-old’s suffocating defence, then, that when the first-year forward was on the floor, his team thrived. Among rookies that fulfilled the same criteria above, Anunoby led the 2017 draft class with a 10.2 net rating (2.2 points higher than second-ranked Ben Simmons’ 8.0).
Casey quickly recognized the impact his prized rookie’s defence had on the team as a whole and adjusted accordingly. By Game 13, Anunoby was inserted into the starting lineup, where he would remain for the rest of the campaign. The new starting five featuring the London-native outscored opponents by an average of 11.4 points during the regular season and significantly contributed to the Raptors finishing with a top-five defence for the first time in franchise history.
Aside from his defensive ability, Anunoby’s veteran-like poise really stood out in his debut season at the professional level, particularly in the postseason.
As Blake Murphy delved into, Anunoby put forth an encouraging performance guarding LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. While James did finish the series with ridiculous averages of 34 points, 8.3 assists, and 11.3 rebounds, it was the rookie’s resiliency when faced with moments of adversity that was encouraging.
Instead of following in his teammates’ footsteps by seemingly losing confidence as the series progressed, Anunoby continued to try and limit James’ airspace any way he could. Rather than let the weight of a playoff upset limit him, the rookie persevered and used his court time as a learning experience. (And why wouldn’t he take full advantage when matched up against the best player in the world?) It didn’t matter James was taking and making some of the most absurdly challenging shots he’s hit in his career. It didn’t matter the series may have been out of reach at that point. The stoic rookie’s sole focus was executing the task at hand, to the best of his ability, results be damned. And that determination, in itself, is rare for a player of Anunoby’s age and experience to possess.
Anunoby’s tremendous work ethic, physical gifts, and defensive instincts bolster his case for a lengthy career at the NBA level. If the youngster is to take the next step in his development and make a bid for all-star berths down the road, though, he’ll have to take massive strides as an offensive creator.
56.6 percent of Anunoby’s field goal attempts were launched in catch-and-shoot scenarios during his rookie season, while just 26.6 percent of his overall attempts were taken after at least one dribble was made. To further grasp the Raptor forward’s minimal involvement on the offensive end, consider that 82 percent of Anunoby’s touches this season spanned longer than two seconds in duration. That data indicates Anunoby’s offensive impact was directly determined by his team’s ability to create clean looks for him, rather than the other way around; the team’s ball movement would often result in OG being left wide-open on the perimeter for high percentage shot attempts.
Going forward, Anunoby and the Raptors’ revamped coaching staff must prioritize how to increase the forward’s touches in a way that encourages more assertiveness from him offensively. Whether that’s done by periodically running a play or two through him starting from one of the elbows, running action to get him two or three more long-range looks, or through feeding him on the block earlier in select possessions, there are plenty of tactics Toronto can explore that hopefully help the team unlock the next level of Anunoby’s potential.
To end off, I have to include this snapshot of Kawhi Leonard’s numbers from his rookie season:
And here are OG’s:
A man can dream, right?