Nikola Jokic is still plagued by the thought of OG Anunoby stealing things from him. Every night he lies in torment, trying to count sheep that Anunoby, in wolf form, keeps snatching. This fear was, of course, initiated and compounded by Anunoby’s 7-steal game against Jokic, while the former operated as the nominal center for a game in the Mile High City. That game represented the most streamlined and efficient version of Anunoby’s ‘3 and D’ future and present. He was strong, switchable, extremely disruptive on the defensive end, and offensively he spaced the floor with remarkable efficiency on the way to a robust stat-line (32 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 7 steals.) However (comma) Anunoby, and many who support him, expect him to add other facets to his game. Anunoby is inching closer to 750 career 3-point attempts (the unofficial mark where some people suggest 3-point shooting stabilizes) and has made significant strides as a shooter since his time as a ‘Hoosier’, propelling himself to above league average shooting with a shot at improving further. Provided that he doesn’t unleash a barrage of pull-up triples in his future (which is a possibility), we probably have a decent idea of who he is as a shooter. His off-the-dribble game is still very much up in the air, though.
Most players develop the ability to create their own shot off the dribble before progressing to playmaking, so I watched every single shot Anunoby took this year to see what his next step is. I was looking specifically for what was happening when he was putting the ball on the floor, and this is what I found.
These numbers do not reflect transition, they are strictly half-court. Every single attempt came after at least one dribble. 18 of the makes and 24 of the attempts came after simplistic gather dribbles – Putting the ball down on a wide-open baseline cut, wide-open roll to the rim etc.
As far as in season trends, the Raptors put Anunoby in far more pick n’ roll and dribble hand-off actions earlier on in the season. There was a clear effort to give him reps that would move him closer to the “swingman” archetype offensively, but ultimately they were put on the back-burner due to multiple injuries in the front-court that necessitated a move away from that role, at least for awhile. So, while Anunoby cut his teeth as a screen-setter and spot-up shooter, the ascending Norman Powell started to siphon away pindown, DHO, and pick n’ roll possessions that might have otherwise been reserved for Anunoby. It certainly hasn’t been a problem for the Raptors. Powell has been sublime, and he’s now a major factor in the Raptors corner offense and split-action sets. For Anunoby, it’s dictated some changes offensively, and with that change came growth.
Since taking on a larger role as a screener, Anunoby has made major strides as a post-up option. Playing next to the always knowing and ever-present Kyle Lowry means that when Anunoby seals a smaller guard in the post, he usually gets the ball. Whether he gets the seal after a defensive switch in a screen play, or a new post-entry wrinkle that the Raptors have been running for him, Anunoby has flashed a talent for finding deep post position. Even if he doesn’t initially entrench himself on the low block, he’s one of the strongest players at his position and consistently bullies players under the basket and sometimes all the way to the stanchion. The touch is still lacking around the rim at times, and his extremely rigid upper body mixed with his sometimes linguine-like lower extremities make him simultaneously floppy and wooden. Regardless, he’s putting himself in great spots and his strength continues to move him closer to the rim. It’s conceivable to imagine the Raptors working in more post touches for Anunoby if defenses are reluctant to double him.
His handle is still lacking far behind a lot of his contemporaries, but as long as he can keep the ball under control, he can get to the bucket with regularity. It’s also meaningful to point out that Anunoby is a quality finisher with either hand at the hoop, and oddly favours getting to his left hand far more often than his right. And he’s taken a page out of Pascal Siakam’s playbook by adding a spin move to his arsenal. While it’s not as elegant as Siakam’s, and quite frankly he can look like bulldozer when he does it sometimes, it’s pretty effective. He can’t shake guards for the life of him, but he only needs a sliver of room to get his momentum going downhill, where he can continue to push his defender off of his line to the rim. With that said, Anunoby still has trouble navigating a dropping big man in the paint if his primary defender is pressuring him downhill. When Anunoby gets a straight up switch against big men his 3-point shot is good enough to make them pay if they play way off of him, but maybe more importantly, he’s been able to regularly shed big men who try and keep up with him on the perimeter. From slower players like Kevin Love, to rapid defenders like Bam Adebayo – I can confidently say that beating bigs off the dribble is firmly in Anunoby’s bag.
This bounce on Bembry is brutal.
Anunoby is far more comfortable shooting off the catch than he is attacking. You’ll see him take well contested 3-pointers often rather than putting the ball on the floor and trying to create from a standstill. If he catches on the move however, he’s very likely to transfer that momentum into something downhill. You can see this in his straight up iso’s as they usually come after a handoff creating some momentum or the odd possession where he’s bringing the ball up the floor. That dependence on motion to spur on motion makes him more dependent on the flow of the game to create opportunities for himself or teammates, but he is growing as a reactionary creator. He understands that it’s his strength and size that transports him to the rim, not his handle, so kinetic energy and momentum are part of his decision making hierarchy rather than a 5-dribble combo. It’s good that he knows what makes his game work.
Believe it or not, the next big step isn’t adding flash to his handle, but his awareness while making his way toward the bucket. Anunoby overwhelms his primary defenders physically, but he rarely ever changes speeds. Playing at that one speed makes him really tough to handle in 1-on-1 situations, only he’s extremely easy to track for help-side defenders and he gets blocked a lot. He has to radically change his shoulder slot and release point all the time and throws up a lot of airballs as a result.
Additional reps in the in-between game might make him more comfortable slowing it down and operating in the thick of things. He loves to work the baseline inside the arc (and he’s great at it), but he’s usually reluctant anywhere else in the 2-point area. The middle of the floor is still tough for him to navigate, although that is an improving aspect of his game, evidenced by his growth with flash cuts and post ups. He’s a rare combination of strength and length, and only 23 years old. If he adds an element of control to his game, it could make him a 3-level scorer (though that’s currently a long ways off) and would no doubt pave the way towards more free throws – a necessary feature of any All-Star level player and one of the weak points of Anunoby’s game currently.
Anunoby is still trying to find the right mix of spot-up shooting and rumbling to the rim when he’s facing a closeout, but he’s shown a really high ceiling in both areas. On the one hand, Anunoby is an established 3-point shooter as I alluded to at the top of the piece. On the other hand, he’s an extremely intimidating figure when he enters the lane with speed. If you let him get to his steps and take off comfortably, he’ll sky straight to the rim, and his arms get to the hoop faster than most defenders expect. The 21-39 mark from the floor after attacking a closeout is a particularly encouraging number. It’s worthwhile for the Raptors and Anunoby to know that he’s providing steady offense when he’s motivated to get downhill against a defense. Especially late in games where the Raptors typically offer up a more egalitarian look in their offense – posing a threat from every spot on the floor is extremely important.
After looking at every shot Anunoby has put up this year and seeing all the bumps and bruises his game endured, I’ve come away extremely optimistic. Unless Anunoby is one of the worst finishers in NBA history (he isn’t), there’s a heap of blown layups and bunnies that will correct course in the future. On top of that, his game isn’t reliant on burst or handle, so he’ll continue to grow more comfortable with his balance and body control, and in doing so likely continue to improve as a finisher, which is impressive for someone who shoots 68-percent at the rim already. He can have immobile stretches if the opposing team has a particularly long and strong defender placed on him, but those types of players are usually reserved for Pascal Siakam. And while Anunoby can still be neutralized as an on-ball threat, he’s active and intelligent finding opportunities for himself off-ball. OG is closer to breaking free of the ‘3 and D’ mold than I had initially thought.
An All-NBA level defender who’s learning to do a lot on the offensive end. Where have we seen that before?
Have a blessed day.