This is part of a series of player review from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.
Wow. Doesn’t it seem like that season ended ages ago? I mean, seriously. It’s only been three weeks but if you said that we’re five years removed from that catastrophic campaign I wouldn’t question you. Part of me still wishes the Raps were in this thing but then there’s the other half of me that’s actually beyond thankful they aren’t. Considering they probably wouldn’t be back from Tampa and that the fans from down south booed them, it’s all for the better. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself before I go to sleep every night. Sorry, do I sound waaayyy too pessimistic? Yeah, I know I do. Well, I’m about to change my tune thanks to Canada’s newest darling…
OG Anunoby. It feels like he had a completely different season than the Toronto Raptors and that’s because of how well he played. While the Raptors struggles were on full display for everybody to see, Anunoby’s season consisted of the complete opposite. He had a breakout year (detailed here by Louis Zatzman) that would’ve been even more delightful if it had lasted longer. He played in only 43 of 72 games which was a shame since he really emerged as a legitimate offensive creator. Some people went as far as to label him Kawhi 2.0 and while I’m not capping his ceiling in anyway since he’s only beginning to scratch the surface, it’s quite the overreaction to have for a guy who’s only beginning to showcase offensive capability. What wouldn’t be an overreaction is if Nick Nurse begins to run plays for him next season. First and foremost, let’s hope for good health and then we’ll evaluate how his ever-expanding offensive game will factor in. For now, let’s talk about what we saw from the coolest Raptor we know.
First off, Anunoby was the most consistent Raptor throughout the year. Make of it what you will, but considering that he missed 29 games, he still brought a lot to the table when he wasn’t out. We’ll get to his numbers in just a second but when you think about the tools he has at his disposal, like his length (seven-two reach) and his youth (24 years-old), it’s hard not to expect more and more from him. As a result, it also becomes harder to put a cap on his ceiling. If there was anything left to wonder after last season, my thoughts were on what role is best suited for him. Throughout the year, he played the role of defensive dynamo, but then also made strides as a-more-than-capable scorer, registering double-digit points in all but four games while also scoring 20 points or more in 13 games.
Last season he hit a level of offensive excellence not seen from him before, with career-highs across the board. Particularly in scoring (15.9 points), field goal attempts (12.1), three-point shooting percentage (39.8) and true-shooting percentage (60.5). It wasn’t a huge surprise, given that he’s improved every year since coming into the league. But, this season was the first that he’d averaged more than 10 shots per game, which is a direct result of Toronto dealing Norman Powell, as well as Anunoby’s confidence increasing with every touch. Although he’s often showed flashes of it, Anunoby had his most consistent season yet and came through as a highly-effective scoring option for Toronto. That could be attributed to more touches, more time, and opponents’ foolishly forgetting about him and his opportunities.
A lot of it had to with his efficiency, which I referenced in a piece about the Raptors offensive potential for the 2022 season: “Anunoby’s scoring has been a common bright spot throughout a murky season. The best part about his expanding offensive game is that it hasn’t disrupted the team’s chemistry – it’s actually strengthened it because of his low usage, meaning he gives Toronto efficient points without taking touches away from the initiators. Anunoby is among the league’s elite in catch-and-shoot situations (max. 43 games played), ranking eighth in catch-and-shoot threes made.”
Essentially, Anunoby becoming an off-ball creator is a great thing for the Raptors and especially when you consider his usage rate of 19.3 (another career-high) ranked ninth for Toronto last season (when including Norman Powell and Terrence Davis), while he ranked sixth in points per game (considering Powell and Gary Trent Jr.). The potential to score more and draw defenders is there but it really depends on how his improvement, in relation to his teammates, comes along. Furthermore, when you factor in that his usage is equal to guys like Trey Burke and Dwayne Bacon, or that he averaged more points per game than Derrick Rose and Terrence Ross, you start to see a certain maturity and understanding in his game. Based on his shot chart from last season, he’s become one of the Toronto’s knock-down three-point shooters:
There are two very obvious takeaways from this shot chart. The first is that of the shots he’s taking, most of Anunoby’s percentages are higher than the league average which is a product of opposing teams underestimating his improved stroke from deep, along with a misunderstanding of just how strong he can finish once he’s at the basket. The second takeaway is so painfully obvious: the midrange. I know that today’s game is played at a much faster pace where three-pointers are prioritized, but can you imagine the totality that Anunoby would have if he were to reach into his bag and pull up for a midrange jumper? Overall, he only attempted 42 shots between the paint and the three-point line, connecting on 40 per cent of his attempts. Over the years, we’ve been blessed to see him continually improve and add to his game. This might be the next step for him to take if the Raptors are to slide right back into contention with him as a pillar. Not only would that help him and expand the ways in which he can be effective, but it would also help Toronto’s midrange game immensely, considering that the Dinos ranked 28th in percentage of points from two-pointers last season.
Dishing the ball is another facet of Anunoby’s game that started to show last season. His career-high of six (twice) means that he’s picking things up from Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, along with hinting that he’s morphing into a modern day all-around, two-way, wing player. Sorry, I know that’s a lot to take in, but it’s the title that he’s earned and will likely continue to. The two times he passed out six helpers came against the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls. There’s one play that I felt which truly exemplified the progression he experienced during 2020-21.
In this shot, Malachi Flynn (check out his player review done by Oren Weisfeld) dumps the ball into Anunoby, who’s being guarded by an outmatched (defensively speaking) Kyrie Irving. Upon recognizing this, Blake Griffin immediately leaves Khem Birch to provide the help for Irving. In all honesty, I’d be concerned if Anunoby couldn’t back down Irving by himself but that’s not the main takeaway from this play.
Griffins has successfully come across to help Irving with the double team. Notice how Anunoby doesn’t panic. He surveys the court and tries to find who’s open and he has a few options: Lowry is at the top of the key instructing him to throw it inside to Birch. If that’s the move he makes, you can’t fault him for it, considering it would be the highest-percentage shot that Toronto would get. Birch would also be met by the six-foot-three Tyler Johnson which could very well be BBQ chicken for him. If he steers clear of Birch, Pascal Siakam is also within his line of sight, but Jeff Green is no slouch and would likely read the pass before the ball got to Siakam. The third option, would be sending it right back to Flynn, who just became the open man. Sure, Joe Harris is there. But he faces a huge dilemma. I mean, put yourself in his shoes: if you’re guarding a rookie or Lowry at the top of the key, and your teammates leave you on lonely island, who would you leave open? Flynn, of course.
Anunoby, realizing his point guard is wide open after assessing all of his options, dishes it back to Flynn who connects for the trey ball and gives him his fourth assist of the game. Here’s the play in it’s entirety.
Now, you might see this play and think the play was a logical one – make the right pass to the open man. But, that’s besides the point. When Anunoby got the ball down low, it was against a weaker defender. He got doubled and surveyed the court before passing it. However, this particular play also shows that the Nets took notice of his scoring and began to show him respect. Of course, there are so many arguments that can be made about why he needs to go up strong every time he’s put in that position. But in doing so, you’re missing the out on the main points here, which is: 1) his court vision improved over last season and 2) teams began to take him seriously on offense.
All that rhetoric and only one mention of Anunoby’s defense? I’m truly ashamed. When we talk about defending different positions and who has the tools to be the most effective defender in the NBA, there is no way that conversation takes place without OG Anunoby being mentioned. It’d be incomprehensible (I’m looking at whoever decides the All-Defensive teams at this exact moment). The difference in scoring opportunities for Toronto’s opponents decreased by four points with Anunoby’s presence. When you take that into account and also consider how the Raptors had a -0.5 net rating, it makes sense that having Anunoby available for more than just 43 games could’ve ultimately determined whether or not I’m writing this review today, or if I would’ve been writing it in a week from today.
If I haven’t persuaded you otherwise, let’s talk about defensive versatility. It’s a value that’s been processed by BBall Index and it analyzes the percentage of different positions a player has guarded throughout the season. According to BBall Index, Anunoby is the most versatile defender in the NBA, guarding multiple different positions more than any other player in the league (min. 1,000 minutes played).
Based on BBall Index, positional versatility is characterized as “how versatile players are (scaled from 0-100) in terms of defending different positions defensively.” Anunoby ranked comfortably at the top with a score of 90.7. It’s interesting to note that Anunoby didn’t make an all-defensive team, nor did he lead the league in steals or blocks. However, his ability to switch onto any defender is absolutely astounding.
In the analysis above, he goes from guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, and then switches onto Khris Middleton. Those are Milwaukee’s two superstars and he manages to effectively stop them both from getting to their spots, with the first play ending as Middleton is forced into a turnover by travelling. On the next play in that same video, he switches from the six-eleven Antetokounmpo off of the inbound pass, to the six-four Donte DiVincenzo. That can happen a lot with other teams, but the difference is that this switch doesn’t hinder anything Toronto does. Obviously, the Raptors as a unit is not the subject here. However, the trust in Anunoby to switch onto any defender and not need help is one of the positive takeaways from last seasons.
The graphic above represents the distribution of time that Anunoby has spent guarding each position. Very few players in the league spend almost equal amounts of time guarding a point guard and center, especially based on how the game is played at a much faster pace these days. What that being said, would it be crazy to say Anunoby spends most of his time trying to stop the hardest position to defend? Some of the heaviest hitters like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and all qualify as power forwards. There’s just no ends to how important Anunoby is to the Raptors defense. Positional versatility isn’t easy to find and the fact that Anunoby has yet to reach his prime should be a warning sign to the rest of the league.
The physical tools Anunoby possesses are a huge part of how he’s able to guard multiple positions. He’s constantly getting better and you can tell that he’s a natural defender. It’s insane how he didn’t make an all-defensive (second or third mention now?) team but I can understand that playing 43 games might have hurt his case. Regardless, there’s no denying that Anunoby continued his development during the 2020-21 campaign and based on his effectiveness, it stands to reason that the trend will continue.
Overall, last season may have been a lost one for the Raptors. But, it gave us more insight into the capabilities of OG Anunoby. Does he need the ball to be effective? No. However, his efficiency and ever-improving offense demand that he be given more playing time. I’m still apprehensive to say he’s someone who can go and get a bucket when a team needs it the most. I’m also not saying that won’t happen. For now though, his improvement was definitely necessary in figuring out the identity of the Toronto Raptors going forward and in my opinion, he showed us it’s still way too early to know where his true ceiling is.