One of the benchmarks of a great organization is patience through and through with talented young players. A cradle of excellence to usher in waves and eras of new and dominant players, organically. As Kyle Lowry creeps toward the end of his career, the Raptors have assured their future with contracts to lock down Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Anunoby – none of them above market value. It’s not bad for a player to make above market money, hell make as much as you can, but it skews fandom and front offices towards pessimism when the highest highs aren’t met.
Anunoby’s perceived market seemed to approach north of 20M a year, with John Hollinger, Bobby Marks, and numerous other salary cap observers marching to that beat. The reason? Anunoby’s flash as a ball handler, his en vogue, dark horse case for DPOY candidacy, and a rock-steady 3-point shot. Those attributes aren’t easy to come by, let alone packaged together. In an NBA environment where franchise icons are jettisoned away because of their exorbitant contracts (John Wall, Washington – Russell Westbrook, OKC) and plateauing wings are given up on (Otto Porter Jr.), Anunoby’s modest, team-friendly extension (4yrs $72M, PO 24-25) assures optimism from the Raptors front office and fans alike.
Look no further than the dialogue around Siakam. A player who restructured how some people understand progression is now being chided for his perceived lack of it – and due to a short bubble stint. The collective excitement that was expressed in thousands of homes when Anunoby deftly slid the ball behind his back while evading LaMelo Ball in the open court, is muted somewhat for handsomely paid players because it’s expected. Once again, look no further than Siakam’s dazzling spin move (a kickass signature move), which has become a punchline to describe his perceived lack of skillset. Does any of this matter to Anunoby? Perhaps not. There’s few players who seem to be as immovable in their resolve as Anunoby, and he’s equally as tough for opposing players to jostle around the court. It does matter, though.
Truthfully, Anunoby could progress to a level where the Raptors would be happy to hand him any available contract they could. It’s generally a good thing to give great players heaps of money. I find this particular topic fascinating though, so I wanted to walk it out a bit. Now, let’s talk about the on-court stuff.
The Road to a Steal of a Deal
There was genuine dialogue after the first preseason game about who represented a higher ceiling, Siakam or Anunoby? Is that because fans are naturally quite reactionary? Yes. Is it also because even a modest uptick in Anunoby’s event creation (basically shot creation, but a more all-encompassing term via Robel) makes him a remarkably valuable player? Yes. Adding that on top of an already burgeoning game is exceptional.
I don’t think Anunoby will be better than Siakam anytime soon, if ever, but they’re very interesting to bounce off of each other in conversation. Siakam successfully made the leap that Anunoby’s ceiling – and growth out of the ‘3 and D’ role – dictates he make. It’s one of the most difficult leaps to make in basketball, coming short only of the leap from All-NBA to MVP candidate. What Siakam did was no small thing, and neither is the work ahead for Anunoby.
Don’t Worry About the Defense
If I had a vote for All-NBA defensive teams last year, rest assured Anunoby would have been on mine. It’s possible there isn’t a better wing defender in the NBA, and Anunoby should be closer to DPOY consideration than he is to a fringe All-Defense candidate. As the Raptors scrambled to make an interesting series against the Boston Celtics, not only did Anunoby hit the buzzer beating game-winner in Game 3, but he operated as the nominal center in the Raptors closing lineup for the series (Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Siakam, Anunoby) that allowed 87-points-per-possession to a star studded Celtics squad. He can legibly scare players as a help-side rim defender – with the highest block percentage of any wing player in the playoffs – and could switch out onto iso stars, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum for a possession of lockdown defense. Not to mention he was 90th percentile in steal percentage in the regular season.
If he’s on the perimeter he’s a lockdown iso defender and an absolute hawk, capable of tracking down point-to-wing, wing-to-point, or any manner of skip pass and taking it down to the other end for a dunk. In the Raptors scrambling defense where any player can become the backline at anytime, Anunoby is an increasingly impressive rim-deterrent and disrupts plays as well as many other teams big men.
He might also be the league’s best shot suppressor. Players, including stars, don’t like to shoot when he’s guarding them. From the 19-20 season:
|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|
Anunoby is a DPOY level defender, even if the notoriety might lag a couple years behind.
Offense and Projecting the Un-Projectable
Much to the chagrin of many Raptors fans, Anunoby has been a really low-usage player his whole career. He seems objectively underutilized in the Raptors offense. And the team really does seem to operate at a higher clip when he’s involved. His usage was 14.3% last year, which was eclipsed by players like Donte DiVincenzo, Jerami Grant, Marcus Morris, and Kyle Kuzma – all of which played next to mega-creators. Just looking at the numbers, it’s nearly impossible to project low-usage guys. You need a lot of watch time invested to find the guys who can make the jump. Last year I looked at every shot Anunoby launched and sorted them prior to the bubble. I didn’t bother sorting the catch-and-shoot numbers because that’s already measured and accessible, and we already know Anunoby is a rock-steady set shooter (38-percent regular season, 37-percent playoffs.) Here’s a snippet from the piece I wrote on it.
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.
My biggest takeaways from the hundreds of shots I watched was that Anunoby had two legitimate shot-creation tools in his bag: breaking down big men off-the-dribble, and posting-up weaker wings and smaller guards. He expanded on his off-the-dribble game in the bubble, but the post-ups fell to the wayside when the Raptors were struggling immensely to create anything in the half-court. He took virtually no shots out of a post-up in the bubble, so the 16-34 number you see above is basically what we’re working with. With Anunoby’s improving balance and handle, I would be confident in his ability to score against guards in the post this season, provided there’s no double-team sent his way. I’d like to see some flex action run for him to receive post-entries every so often this year to help prepare him for when moving playoff defenses stick a small on him. He can do it.
Off-the-dribble stuff is more difficult because mentality is a huge part in what drives success. We’ve seen him burn Bam Adebayo at the 3-point line, but he can still hesitate against Cody Zeller. Does Anunoby recognize he has the handle and the athleticism to beat bigs regularly? And more importantly, does he have the court vision to make the right play when defenses rotate? He’s shown repeated acumen with the downhill dump-off, but when teams sink from the corners we’ll be expecting a brand new read from Anunoby, and it will have to come at game speed.
His transition offense is already really good, as he’s great at occupying high efficiency lanes. 81st-percentile last year, and with an improved handle this year we could see him climb even higher.
Can We Get a Lil’ Structure Over Here
The Raptors read and react offense puts a lot of pressure on the Raptors players to create big advantages out of little ones. In the regular season, Siakam was the player who gave opposing teams fits. In the playoffs, it was Lowry. Take the advantage, make the right pass, the defense breaks down etc. It sounds great because the defense has no recourse to prepare for the players in the moment ingenuity. In reality, it contributes to some of the bogged down stretches we see.
Last year, if Lowry wasn’t on-ball, Anunoby stood a far greater chance of becoming the man left out on offense. Is Anunoby a lame duck off-ball, or do his teammates need a little bit more order in the offense to make better use of one of the teams better shot-makers? I’ll take the latter. Anunoby is a dynamite baseline cutter, and rotates well around the arc as drives progress.
If you were an organization who wanted to force-feed decision making/shots on a player without asking them to repeatedly break down their primary defender, you would give them a lot of screen help. The Raptors did NOT do this for Siakam (poor Pascal), so who knows, but a healthy dose of DHO’s and pin-downs for Anunoby would definitely accelerate his progression as a player when it comes to screen navigation and reading the second level of defense. If Anunoby progresses quickly, ask him to transition into pick n’ roll possessions as the ball-handler and see what happens. If he isn’t able to create advantages he can flow into pitch plays/DHO’s/pick n’ rolls as the screen setter in secondary action – something he has a decent track record with.
There’s a lot of room for creativity. You can try a lot of things, and see what sticks. Anunoby is worth the investment.
His contract doesn’t cripple the Raptors ability to sign impact pieces to the roster. Progression could mean he begins outperforming his contract expeditiously, and in that case a max extension could come in 2024-25. Quite frankly, there’s few players I’ve ever enjoyed watching progress more than Anunoby, and we still have time to be surprised and optimistic when small steps are made. The greatest franchises seem to always create a harmonious bond with their best players, and that appears to be the case here.
Have a blessed day.