Certain elements of the game of basketball, at first glance, are unsolvable mysteries. Kyle Lowry’s endless success. Andrea Bargnani’s very existence. Included in that list can be the contextual aggression of OG Anunoby.
Anunoby was a revelation to begin the season for the Raptors. In the first eight games, when Toronto was practically fully healthy, Anunoby averaged 13.8 points per game on a ridiculous 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He took 9.6 shots per game, which is small, but a substantial enough share of the offense. His usage rate of 13.7 was the lowest among the starters, but he seemed to grow into his 3-D wing potential, offering lockdown defense while hitting practically everything he threw at the rim on the other end.
Then Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry were forced out of the lineup with injuries, and Anunoby’s shot attempts, minutes, and points dwindled. He was certainly still effective, but he no longer was the howitzer that shattered opponents to start the year. He took only 7.2 shots per game, scoring 9.2, over the remainder of November before Lowry and Ibaka returned to the lineup. That trend of his offensive output dipping when Toronto faces injury has repeated itself as the year has progressed.
When high-usage offensive players exit the lineup, the dream would be that Anunoby would offer more on the offensive end. He’d shift into more of an initiating role. He would be force-fed reps, and though perhaps his efficiency wouldn’t remain sky-high, his scoring would at least have to rise. That didn’t happen.
In fact, over the approximate month when some of Toronto’s most involved offensive players were injured, including Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Marc Gasol, and at times Fred VanVleet, Anunoby took fewer than nine shots per game. His scoring dipped to 10.5 points per contest.
When Toronto needed Anunoby’s offense the most, and seemingly would give him the most offensive responsibility of his career, Anunoby’s offensive game failed to rise to the occasion. The stats over the course of the entire season support that hypothesis; per pbpstats, Anunoby’s average points per 100 possessions is higher with each of the players on the floor rather than off: Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, and Gasol. During the extended absences of Toronto’s starters, Anunoby wasn’t horrible by any means, but he simply didn’t add anything with his newfound opportunity.
It took the Raptors all the way to mid-January to finally return to health, but now the Raptors are almost back to the excellent health with which they began the season. And funny enough, Anunoby returned to his dominant offensive ways as Toronto returned to health. On January 15 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he scored 21, three points off of his season high. In Toronto’s lopsided 140-111 win over the Washington Wizards, he finished with 18 points on 13 shots.
Against Washington, Anunoby found open jumpers lurking around the perimeter. He had a variety of steals on the perimeter, creating uncontested dunks and layups going the other way. He skulked along the baseline, cutting behind teammates’ drives and post-ups for open dunks. He even recorded a ponderous little drive from the corner, taking a few dribbles, spinning slowly, before lofting the ball towards the other side of the glass with his outstretched left hand. Anunoby’s driving game is a work-in-progress, but he is much better when Toronto’s best offensive players are on the floor alongside Anunoby, spreading the floor for him, putting the defense into rotation, and creating advantages that Anunoby can exploit.
Anunoby is more aggressive offensively when his team, by virtue of having more scorers available, requires less aggression from Anunoby. It’s a strange one.
“I think there’s always a couple of ways to look at it and I think different players react differently,” said Nick Nurse after the game. “Sometimes you look over there and you know that you’re gonna not come out, I had those discussions with Norm a few times, Norm would be like 2-for-8 and I’d be like, ‘Norm, I can’t take you out so could you make a couple here in the fourth quarter,’ and he would. And some guys, maybe when they know they’ve got to play well or there’s gonna someone else over there that’s healthy to come in and play, some guys react to that a little better. I can’t explain it.”
Perhaps Nurse is right that Anunoby feels the pressure of competition, the heat of teammates gunning for his rotation spot, and that drives him to attack the rim, to play with more urgency, and to get up more shots.
Other players experience the same paradoxical boost in usage and efficiency when they play alongside better players. Norman Powell, for example, has always been a better and more consistent player as a starter. This is perhaps burying a different lede for a different piece here, but Powell exploded for 28 points against the Wizards. His offensive game has become one of Toronto’s most threatening weapons. He has been unbelievably consistent over the last few months. He, too, benefits from the presence of Toronto’s stars.
When asked why Anunoby paradoxically finds more shots when Toronto’s higher-usage offensive players are in the lineup, Nick Nurse found a more organic solution.
“I think some nights the ball finds you, and some nights it doesn’t,” said Nurse. “I think tonight, to our players’ credit, I think they were just playing and taking what was there. There wasn’t a whole lot of trying to direct it. We were just coming down and running sets and let it free flow from there. It just so happened Pascal would drive, three guys would converge on him, OG would cut and there’s a dunk. Or Serge would cut, they’d converge on him, and OG was on the other side knocking in the 3.”
“I think it just found him tonight because we were cognizant of just making the right play.”
In other words, there’s nothing really to it; Anunoby and the rest of the Raptors played good, smart offensive basketball, and Anunoby happened to be the recipient of more shots than usual. The better the players are, the more natural will be the offense. And so a good cutter and spot-up shooter like Anunoby will naturally find himself finishing more plays when the team plays smart offense. It’s not a mystery when you dive deep into the source of Anunoby’s contextual offensive involvement.
But Anunoby and the Raptors won’t always face the Washington Wizards, and they won’t always have a full complement of talent available. On those nights, Anunoby will need to shoulder more responsibility and add to his offensive repertoire. For now, though, his offensive game fits perfectly with greater talent on the floor. Good thing the Raptors are finally returning to full health.