More money, more possessions, more expectations. The early returns of OG Anunoby’s steps toward stardom.
First things first: The defense is there, it’s always been there. The moment Anunoby returned from injury the Raptors used him as a means to cripple the Khris Middleton & Giannis Antetokounmpo two-man game. He remains one of the NBA’s most impressive shot-suppressors, and dominant isolation defenders. He continues to progress as a help-side defender, and his court coverage is improving. There’s typically 20 players in the NBA at a time who are deserving of an All-Defense team selection, and Anunoby sleepwalks to one of those 20 spots. He’s elite.
In addition to his defense, Anunoby also profiles as very good catch-and-shoot operator. His numbers are borderline elite. However, his extension clearly spells out that he and the Raptors organization believe he was overqualified for his low-usage role, and there’s expected growth from both camps. Great news as far as I’m concerned, because the sooner Anunoby figures out he’s an absolute bulldozer going downhill the better. And I think he’s starting to realize it. Modest bumps to his usage-rate haven’t tanked his efficiency in the slightest – in fact he’s bumped up his points-per-shot-attempt while increasing his free throw-rate. The steps are slow, and methodical – but the foundation appears to be rock-steady.
What have we learned in the past?
Last year’s deep-dive revealed 3 major things:
- Anunoby needs to be utilized as a screener more often.
- The post is a part of the court that he could eventually end up dominating, because guards and slim wings can’t handle him.
- He can take basically any big man off-the-dribble in isolation.
The pick n’ pop was a legitimate weapon as the Raptors slugged back and forth with the Celtics in their 7-game series. It still rings true that Anunoby’s strength is overwhelming for most who try and stonewall him in the post – he’s only been lacking the balance and coordination to dominate those playtypes with it. And yes, his handle is tight enough and he has enough burst to beat bigs off the bounce. However, Anunoby’s ceiling isn’t just meant as an antidote for small-ball woes, he should continue to develop typical ‘wing’ skills. Not just beating bigs off the bounce, but his wing counterparts. Using screens to shake loose and create 4-3, 3-2, 2-1 advantages.
Let’s get into it
So, I’ve sorted every shot Anunoby has taken this year – excluding putbacks and heaves – into one of eight categories. Closeout is obviously the most voluminous because Anunoby takes over half his shots from three-point-land and he shoots over a lot of closeouts. Transition finishes – after jumping a pass, or running the lane – were lumped into cuts. DHO = Dribble Hand-Off, PNR = Pick n’ Roll. Everything else should be fairly straightforward.
The spacing Anunoby provides (and shot-making quite frankly) is very, very important. In a lot of the Raptors key actions they’ll have him spacing out to the weak-side corner to open up as much room as possible for the primary action. With Fred VanVleet on-ball for a lot of the Raptors possessions (VanVleet passes out of more drives than any other player in the league) Anunoby’s ability to float or form up off of VanVleet’s drives remains one of the concrete ways the Raptors have been able to turn downhill momentum into points. He’s averaging nearly two 3-point attempts per game off of passes from VanVleet and shooting 40-percent on them. It’s also been the case that VanVleet has been mediocre at leading teammates to buckets inside the arc, and Anunoby isn’t excluded from that.
In relation to his shooting the film is saying one thing very clearly: Anunoby is shooting much, much better against close contests. The pick-up point on his jumper is higher, the transfer from his legs to his upper body is much smoother, and he’s comfortable slinging it with a hand in his face. He’s shooting 46-percent on contests from 4-6 feet out, but NBA.com/stats measures where the defender leaves their feet to contest, not how close they get to the shooter. I assure you, he’s hitting over good contests consistently. Of course, the NBA has collectively gotten very good at contesting 3-point shots (hello, Chris Boucher, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby), and this development from Anunoby is really important. Lots of makes, against lots of contests. The aforementioned floating and forming up off of drives also helps him hunt for his potent 3-point shot a little bit more.
An overreliance on Anunoby’s spacing at the start of the season (Norman Powell, Aron Baynes, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam were all shooting poorly to start the year) left Anunoby off-ball more often than not. Obviously, you’d like to see the Raptors feeding Anunoby more on-ball reps, but with the lack of rim pressure and poor shooting, plus the obvious goal of winning games – it went to the wayside a little bit. With the resurgence of Powell’s offense and VanVleet and Siakam’s 3-point shooting in particular, the Raptors have been able to put Anunoby in more on-ball actions as of late. It’s resulted in 15-straight double-digit scoring performances.
The pull-up three has been virtually non-existent this year, but I don’t think that’s something to read into yet. There’s no evidence that, that skill has degraded – just some tough luck.
Off the dribble
It’s still very much the case that Anunoby has a proclivity for taking big men off the bounce. His 30-point jewel against Domantas Sabonis & the Pacers was evidence of that, as he hunted him over multiple possessions. He’s very comfortable sizing up before driving to the bucket as he’s a brutish finisher there, and he’s improved at drawing fouls – especially on bigs.
OG Anunoby event creation to the tune of ‘When it Rain’
— Samson Folk (@samfolkk) February 21, 2021
It’s tough to discern whether Anunoby is only deployed in situations where he can attack bigs or guards, or if he’s reluctant to take wings off the bounce. As it currently stands, it’s a rare sight to see him size up against players of a similar stature. Something to keep an eye on, because the Raptors have been giving him more possessions lately, but is that just because of how often he’s cross-matched on? Guess we’ll see.
Going bulldozer mode vs. Khris Middleton & Victor Oladipo (in the gif below) is a very good progression, and something we should see more of.
Similar to his teammate Siakam, Anunoby enjoys a good spin move. The difference? Siakam’s is an elegant play to slice into space, Anunoby’s is some hellish Tasmanian Devil move that’s meant to smash people out of the way – both are good. There’s one catch with Anunoby’s spin though: he basically only ever spins right to left, and whether it’s fast or slow, sometimes he can step way out of his cylinder and finish wildly while falling away. Control and balance will always be a big thing to watch with him, but the transfer of all his weight to his outside foot leaves him in trouble at times. He’s objectively at his best when he stays within himself and uses his strength to move players, rather than fading away.
Bully-ball is the most complimentary style for him, and it’s pretty satisfying to watch him throw his weight around. It’s on low-usage, but nearly 70th-percentile in isolation is a nice spot for him.
He’s also been attempting to work the mid-range pull up into his repertoire, and there’s been mixed results so far. Unless you’re operating in an absurd amount of space, mid-range shooters always have to be aware because contests can come from the front and the back. Anunoby doesn’t have the feel for the middle of the floor just yet.
Screening, rolling, popping
I would say this is Anunoby’s most underutilized playtype. He’s really dangerous rolling (his footwork gets better everyday) and popping, but the lack of heavy-usage in these playtypes is definitely related to how necessary he is spacing out to the weak-side. Anunoby’s craft as a screener has gotten much better, though. He’s planting them more accurately, and his timing on the slip – plus his subtle push off the hedge man to explode into space – makes him a viable option early or late game. Anyone + Anunoby pick n’ pop late in the game is something I’d be really happy to see.
He doesn’t have a lot of possessions rolling against strong help-side defense, but the footwork and patience on the play where Embiid slides over is really nice. He’s also shown flashes as a short-roll passer. But, he obviously shines brightest when he’s able to roll into space and let his athleticism breathe as he flies to the bucket for a dunk. There’s a future where Anunoby is catching these things, gathering, and putting guys in the rim with the ball. There’s just a lot of power there. Find the space, attack it.
I really like the hit-ahead pass in transition where Anunoby can feast on a smaller player if they get stuck on him. He’s even taken some big men to the glass with it. As ever, get your athletic guys out on the break.
The numbers aren’t at all friendly to Anunoby’s post-ups this year. He’s sitting below the 10th-percentile. It’s just hard to move away from his natural advantages in that playtype, even if he’s not returning good numbers (and some people think the post-up is quite antiquated). There is a reason for the low numbers at least, and it’s due to Anunoby workshopping some new moves. We’ve already laid out that he’s brutishly strong, but he’s attempted to work finesse into his post game. The Raptors will run cutters off of him on occasion in an attempt to let him see the floor from that position, and he’s incorporated a bastardized version of the ‘Dirk fade’.
If the Raptors were just letting Anunoby squeeze guards under the bucket on the weak-side and duck-in for layups, then yes, the numbers would be much better. I credit the team for recognizing that there’s more to mine from his post-game though, and they’ve given him some possessions to work through progressions in-game. There’s a future where Anunoby plays small-ball center, and brutalizes smaller players in the post off of switches in pick n’ roll actions. As I said at the top though, the steps are slow and methodical.
All purpose + foul drawing
Anunoby remains one of the best cutters in the NBA. He walks the baseline like a shadow cat, he’s clever sneaking in from the ’45’, and believe it or not, he might be the Raptors best player at moving as the middle man against a zone defense. All this stuff, in addition to his shooting, makes Anunoby a really valuable player offensively, because yes, everyone is waiting for heavy-usage and dominant on-ball possessions, but Anunoby will have value off-ball for his whole career.
All the advantages of Anunoby’s off-ball game: forming up off of a drive, cutting all the way through a baseline for a triple, showing to the passer in the weak spots of the zone, attacking the zone as a rebounder, ’45’ cuts against sleepy defenders, and spacing out to the weakside in a horns set. Beautiful.
There’s been a small uptick in his driving as well, and hopefully a big uptick as the season keeps going. He’s been able to draw twice as many fouls on drives this year compared to last. He’s much more comfortable using his first step to establish contact this year, where in years past he was very eager to get in the air. He’s a player who can and will establish a lot of contact with his defender, and as his notoriety and touches increase he should put a lot of pressure on referees to grant him free throws. Basically, he’s a little bit more in control of all of his extremities and when you control that much strength and explosion it’s really bad for your opponents.
So, where are we?
We’ll need another one of these after this season if the current trends stick. But, my takeaway seems to be that Anunoby has been enhancing already existing skills for the most part. With his extension came expectations of big on-ball numbers, and dreams of dribble packages, but Anunoby is still very much playing a role for the Raptors. And it seems quite clear that, that’s what’s being asked of him. Very few players pack enough punch and efficiency to dictate the offense be handed to them for many different stretches over the season, and Anunoby hasn’t displayed that level of offensive acumen. Anunoby is still on his rookie deal (under 4M a year) and he hasn’t transcended the ‘3 and D’ archetype yet. That’s okay.
What the Raptors currently have is an All-NBA level defender who is consistently improving on offense, and does so while playing a near picture-perfect complimentary role for those around him. The floor is extremely high, and the ceiling is almost unfathomable.
OG also has one of the most unique and fun fandoms of any NBA player. If you’re a twitter user, and a big fan of OG, follow Emma Brown to enhance your fandom – she’s a blast.
Have a blessed day.