Unshaken like D’Angelo, OG Anunoby’s immovable and unrelenting “cool” has primed him for a long career filled with accolades and playoff moments.
In a season where Kyle Lowry strengthened his hall of fame case, Pascal Siakam was 2nd team All-NBA, Fred VanVleet became a pseudo All-Star guard, and Norman Powell gave us a 6th man year to rival (perhaps even best) Lou Williams in 2015 – OG Anunoby might have left as the number one point for optimism.
The Lakers just won playing huge at the right times and small at the right times. The Raptors mashed teams with their Gasol-Ibaka-Leonard lineup on the way to a chip. The NBA changes, of course, but it was perhaps oversold on who can play “small”. You can’t just play small because it’s in vogue, you have to employ one of the few players in the whole league that can actually legibly allow for that style. This season, Anunoby showed that he is one of the few players that can operate as a lynchpin on the wing or the frontcourt. As Siakam continues to creep towards the NBA’s best coverage defender, Anunoby’s unnatural paint presence for his size will pay off in a big way. It’s hard to overstate how important he is to the future of the Raptors.
The combination of his growing off-the-dribble game, very real 3-point shot, immense force finishing at the bucket, rock-steady disposition and his oft-discussed defensive acumen make him a nightmare of a player for teams to deal with.
Punching up at Jokic and what it meant
Coaches and players alike learn things when put into tough positions, and there are few of those in the NBA that are tougher than trying to guard Nikola Jokic. The Raptors were staring down a Nuggets matchup with both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol out. That’s bad. So, they asked Anunoby to put on his hard hat and go to work against him.
In these types of matchups you rarely want the diminutive player to emulate the same style of play as a beat ’em up big man, but rather for them to flex their inherent speed and dexterity advantages. All the better if you employ a PJ Tucker, or Anunoby type player who’s brute strength can allow them to hang a bit longer in the traditional sense. However (comma) in that game against Denver, Anunoby showcased all the trappings of an idealized small-ball star. I can only assume Daryl Morey started having fever dreams after seeing Anunoby’s performance, because it’s exactly what Houston wants all the time.
The Nuggets offense thrives on giving Jokic the ball in a lot of different places in order to carve new passing lanes to cutters and shooters. In their attempts to initiate Jokic above the break, Anunoby broke them. The quirks and rhythms of the Nuggets offense were thrown for a loop when Anunoby started to feast on wing-to-point passes to the tune of 7 steals and a handful of breakaway dunks. Not to mention, he made it rain on Jokic, and took proper advantage of what is maybe the thing to do when you play small – stretch the floor against dropping bigs.
Did the Raptors win the game? No. Did Anunoby dominate his defensive post possessions vs. Jokic? No, it was a rough outing for him in that space. Did it provide optimism for how Anunoby might do against other bigs, particularly big men that aren’t maybe the best passing big man of all time? Yes.
And naturally, this came around in a meaningful way. In the bubble games, we saw Nurse utilize Anunoby in a lot of intriguing ways. Perhaps, most successfully against Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson’s two-man game. Protecting against another 40-point combination from the aforementioned twosome, Anunoby was sent out to disrupt every DHO action that they run and gain so many advantages from. The result? A pillar of Miami’s offense gone in a flash, and a victorious Anunoby who quite frankly, put the clamps on a player that would later show out as the top dog in an ECF.
If you’ve seen how rapid, intelligent, and dominating Adebayo has been during these playoffs you know that it was no small job for Anunoby to lock down the actions he was involved in. The grace and strength that Anunoby moved with in the defense was incredible. No one thought that he was going to lineup against Adebayo, and he calmly changed the very fabric of the matchup between the two teams.
In the heat of the Celtics series, as Gasol’s offense continued to fall to the wayside and Ibaka’s defense was identified as a weakness, the Raptors turned to Anunoby at center. It didn’t fix everything, the Raptors were still susceptible to weak-side lobs to Theis (we saw them rain down at the end of Game 6), and with so many of the Raptors top creators struggling, the offense sputtered. With that said, the court coverage the Raptors had defensively was a sight to behold. It was a monstrous defensive unit that allowed a staggering 87-points per-100 possessions. They held on defense and waited for someone to provide a smidge of offensive punch and that came in the form of Powell, who was able to enter the lineup because Anunoby made the leap to center. Not perfect, but when the Raptors had so many players underperforming, Anunoby (among others) allowed them to scramble into new looks and fight for their playoff lives.
From my point of view, the Raptors should have had two players on the All-Defensive teams for this year: Anunoby and Siakam. Siakam for his, I would say, unparalleled ability to cover the court defensively that had him (in my mind) as a top-3 defender in all of the playoffs. Anunoby for his overwhelming and nearly mistake free on-ball defense + his burgeoning presence as a weak-side defender.
Anunoby is one of the few defenders in the league who can make plays on the defensive end while rarely gambling, and the Raptors ask him to do that all over the court. For example, when Anunoby would get switched onto Kemba Walker in the Celtics series – and Walker was 84th percentile in iso this year – not only did he lock him down consistently, he poked and prodded at Walker’s dribble without opening the gate for a drive, or shifting his weight the wrong way. The danger was not coming from the offensive side of the ball (which is typically the norm) but from Anunoby who pressured Walker with every dribble. Walker’s escape dribbles did not allow him to escape. His step-backs were matched by the stepping forward Anunoby. Anunoby is special.
Some players have a wide range of how effective their defense can be, especially by the numbers, simply based on how well players are hitting shots against them. Anunoby is one of the best in the league at suppressing shots from stars, primary initiators, and heliocentric forces. Comfortably above the 90th percentile in 1-on-1 defense, Anunoby is one of the most affecting defenders in the league.
NBA.com’s matchup data assigns credit based on who spent the most time guarding the player on said possession, so keep that in mind. Also, a barrage of 3-pointers can really throw these things out of whack. But, the data is the data. It’ll get better as we move into the future, hopefully.
|Player||Poss./FGA||Points/FGM||Team points||PPP-guarded for team + player|
|Ben Simmons||46.5/7||13/4||52||T:1.11 P:.279|
|LeBron James||50/11||11/4||39||T:.78 P:.22|
|Bam Adebayo||33.8/7||8/4||36||T:1.06 P:.236|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||30.6/4||8/3||36||T:1.17 P:.26|
|James Harden||21.3/1||2/1||35||T:1.64 P:.094|
|Kawhi Leonard||30.3/7||6/3||44||T:1.5 P:.19|
The NBA has trended away from the idea of “this guy defends the star every night” to more of a defense by committee thing, at least in the regular season. You can see it in the numbers trending from the start of the 2010’s. The Raptors love their fast moving, versatile, and blitzing defense, so Anunoby doesn’t have overwhelming usage as a defender vs. top options compared to years past, but it’s still where he’s most often deployed, and at a rate that puts him near the top of the league.
As far as court coverage and help-side defense, Anunoby continues to make huge steps. From the 2018-19 regular season to these playoffs he nearly doubled the amount of shots he’s contesting overall (6.8-12.6), at the rim (1.8-3.7), and from 3 (2.8-5.7). He’s at his best extending those long arms out towards 3-point shooters, but he’s made great strides to get to league average numbers defending the rim while being very undersized. His block percentage made a huge jump this year, and boasted the highest number among wings in the postseason (1.7%). Timing is everything on the defensive end. Anunoby has seen countless players break through the first line of defense and go on to the bucket, now he has a sense of the speed and timing. He’s matching steps with offensive players and consistently meeting them at the summit – a battle he typically wins.
Basically, OG Anunoby All-Defense should be booked for the next 6 years, and should have been this year.
Very Sexy Offensive Progression + Clutch Shooting
Anunoby hit a shot (yes, that shot) that will be remembered by Raptors fans for the rest of their lives. The odds couldn’t have been slimmer quite frankly and Anunoby delivered, as he so often does, when the moment calls for it.
From Laura Armstrong of the Toronto Star, all the way back in 2018.
Nick Nurse is no stranger to receiving random, out-of-the-blue text messages from OG Anunoby.
This past summer, for example, something to the effect of “Hey coach, how do I get on the floor in the fourth quarter?” popped up on Nurse’s screen from the 21-year-old’s number.
“I’ll say, ‘You need to defend and make shots,’ ” Nurse remember. “He’ll be like, ‘I do that already.’ So that’s funny. But there are other topics as well.”
In January, the world’s most notable OG Anunoby Stan, Emma Brown tuned us into what was transpiring with Anunoby and his shot-clock heroics.
In short shot clock scenarios this season (0-4 secs) OG has shot 90% from 2PT range & 43.8% from 3PT range. https://t.co/QGs9dCvVZb
— emmajbrown (@_emmajbrown) January 13, 2020
With the full regular season in the rearview, Anunoby ended up finishing at 50-percent (2PT) and 52-percent (3PT) shooting with 0-4 seconds on the clock. A true stage-setting season for what was to come in the form of a shocking Game 3 winner vs. the Boston Celtics.
To go from being described as a non-shooter or projected as a subpar shooter pre-draft, Anunoby’s progression into a real 3-point shooter should be commended. 39-percent from downtown in the regular season, and 41-percent in the playoffs. Perhaps most importantly, he can legitimately hit shots from 3 as we creep toward the end of games. Powered by his cool as hell disposition, Anunoby’s development into a player opposing teams can’t forget about on the floor late in games makes him one of the most attractive young players in the league. He can space to the corner and hit on the spot-up, or pop-out after setting a quality screen. Late game performers stick around in the league for a long, long time. Quite often on teams that employ superstars.
Another wrinkle of Anunoby’s minutes at center was his development off the dribble. He still doesn’t have the handle to regularly get the step on wing defenders or guards, but as I detailed in my huge piece on his ball handling (wherein I watched every possession and sorted them) it’s reasonable to expect that when he’s guarded by a big man he can take them off the bounce. This ranges from Adebayo, to Kevin Love.
As far as taking advantage of guards and wings, he can muscle them under the hoop with a post-up on occasion. It’s not a play type he actively seeks out, but if the paint is empty he’ll invest a couple seconds into a backdown. After flashing a bit of explosion in the post, Nick Nurse & co. started to run a bit of flex action for Anunoby to establish post position early in games. Prior to the bubble, of the shots he took in post-ups he was 16-34. Great efficiency for that play-type.
After watching the Miami Heat get to the Finals it should be clear to all of us how important it is to move off ball. Anunoby walks the baseline like a shadow cat and there’s few players better at it in the league. It utilizes one of his greatest strengths, the two-foot takeoff, and when he gets to gather comfortably no one can meet him at the summit. He’s too strong when he’s on balance.
His splits of 50/39/70 were a sight for sore eyes. Prior to Anunoby and Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors were in an endless search for a quality small forward and the floor of Anunoby’s game is immense. He’s an incredibly easy player to plug in to a myriad of situations, and represents (to me) one of the most intriguing young wings in the league.
Things to work on
As one of the NBA’s best thieves when it comes to point-to-wing or wing-to-point passes, Anunoby’s finishing in transition leaves a lot to be desired. It’s the lack of balance when jumping off of one foot, and the lack of experience when trying to make decisions when there’s a lot of options available. There’s a version of Anunoby that can make an All-Star game in the future, but it’s contingent on an improving handle and a much improved read and react game.
Ideally, Anunoby would be able to usurp some of the DHO possessions that we saw Norman Powell dominate this season. That requires more willingness to shoot on the move, the ability to read the screener/defender/backside of the defense, and a slight bump to his playmaking. Those aren’t easy progressions to make, but if they come the totality of what he provides on the floor will be truly All-Star level.
OG Anunoby was 100% an All-NBA level defender, and truthfully, underutilized on offense. There is a player on the Raptors named [REDACTED] who can really put on the blinders, and watching Anunoby – one of the most consistent shooters and finishers on the team – go 1 or 2 quarters at a time without attempting a shot is a shame. Anunoby was one of the lower usage starters in the NBA and outperformed his role. Hopefully the team puts a little more effort into incorporating him into the offense next year (and I think they will). I don’t think it’s a reach to say that Anunoby will be a foundational piece on the Raptors for the majority of his career.
Just because Anunoby flashes something, it doesn’t mean it’s going to become a consistent part of his game, but the consistent parts of his game are central to what makes a team successful in the NBA. There’s very little in the way of pull-up shooting in his game, but he’s trying to follow a blueprint laid out by Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George. Bring the defense, maybe the rest comes, and space the floor in the meantime.
OG Anunoby had an incredible year.
And a *Gold Star*
If you want more specific looks at what OG has done this year, you can read this stuff by me:
Have a blessed day.