Indulging in the drive with OG Anunoby

We're in the midst of a transformative year for OG Anunoby.

9 mins read

In what is now OG Anunoby’s 5th NBA season, the way in which he operates offensively has radically changed. Now, more self determining than ever, the burden of his own creation sits firmly on his strong shoulders. The result so far has been a mixed bag that’s included some shots that are stolen directly from the bag of Kawhi Leonard, and a fair share of overdribbled possessions that end with overextended step backs and shots that have no chance. That’s all part of the experience, though.

It took Anunoby 3 seasons to trim his unassisted scoring rate from 82-percent down to 70-percent. This year he’s taken the jump from 70 to 56-percent. And one thing remains true in the NBA: creating consistently against NBA defenses is the single hardest thing a player can be tasked with. Defenses are good, there’s more than one level to them, and they game plan for you. Players learn how to shoot all the time, but it’s incredibly rare for them to enter the domain of primary creators and succeed. Anunoby is trying to make this leap.

Anunoby is a known quantity as a spot-up shooter, screener, defender, and finisher at the bucket. In fact he’s above average to elite in all of them. Hell of a player, one of the best contracts in the NBA etc. etc. What we’re seeing now is Anunoby stretching his legs, mostly, as a pull-up shooter and someone who can get downhill off the bounce. When teams are able to roadblock his access to the rim, Anunoby’s counter is usually a pull-up from mid-range. Relative to last year, he’s commandeering twice as many possessions in that fashion, and unfortunately, hitting at a pretty low clip.

Part of these struggles has something to do with what I call “workout ball”. Where you can see Anunoby isn’t performing dribble moves to get his defender leaning one way or another, not even to create space really, but because this is what his reps looked like in practice. He’s going to the comfortable place of repetition. This is something all accomplished shot-makers do, and they’re usually more potent pull-up artists than Anunoby. Anunoby has the right to pursue that type of skill progression, he’s just leaning on it a little too often right now, and that means that the ball in his hands is somewhat less dynamic than it should be. These are growing pains though, and Anunoby has earned the right to work through them.

In the first play, Anunoby is so wrapped up in his moveset, that he doesn’t recognize how vulnerable he is to Lillard’s contest. In the second, he has both low helpers on the weak-side and Lillard in a poor position to help. If Anunoby drives to his right he’s almost guaranteed to have a finish with his right hand or a simple pass to a wide open VanVleet if Lillard digs in. No player is free of these decision making gaffes, but Anunoby’s have come a little more often this season. 

The reason that the Raptors got away with Anunoby at center in playoff games, and the reason they give him a hefty helping of post-ups is the same reason Anunoby should be extending more drives instead of cutting them short at the mid-range – he is pound for pound one of the strongest players in the league. Far too often the bump he lays on his primary defender precedes a step back into a more difficult shot. It has it’s place, but Anunoby would be more effective gathering that ball with the downhill momentum, turning his shoulder in and going up at the rim. He’s always been an above average finisher there.

Strength creation is a term often used by scouts to quickly sum up that x player’s strength and how they use it is an outlier stylistically and grants them the ability to push to more hotly contested spots on the floor and dislodge players while doing it. Raptors fans could think back to Kyle Lowry ramming big men off their spot before throwing up an uncontested layup. Very few point guards can do that – Ja Morant may never, but he succeeds in a different way – and so this was a unique wrinkle to the ‘GROAT’. Anunoby, if his balance improves enough, will be one of the few players league wide who can combine explosive athleticism with brute strength. That, mixed with his incredibly long stride length, could create a player who can burst through the lines of defense with the strength to not get bumped off his line. I’m sure you can think of a few other players league wide who do this, and you probably recognize them as stars of the game.

Three terrific looks for Anunoby. The first being something he doesn’t do often, and that’s push as a ballhandler when he’s not on a breakaway. Taj Gibson is expecting to meet Scottie Barnes high for whatever play he thinks the Raptors will initiate, and Anunoby bullies his way to a rim without a protector. The second drive is just bully-ball, and an unwillingness to bail out into the fadeaway that he loves. He turns the shoulder in and pushes further. And thirdly, a quick decision and you can see those long legs and strength allow him to punch the gap and finish with relative ease. For less athletic or smaller players, that gap isn’t there. 

The most underrated aspect of driving, is passing. When you get deep into the paint and threaten the rim, teams are going to freak out and send help from many places. You’ll have a bevy of options, and you choose your favourite. Anunoby has a terrific sense for who to pass to out of drives, and he’s particularly good at finding people at the bucket. One of the curious developments of Siakam and Anunoby’s time together is that Anunoby is probably a better passer out of drives than Siakam is, despite Siakam being one of the NBA’s premier frontcourt facilitators. Anunoby drives slightly less, dishes an equal amount of dimes, and turns it over less. His assist-percentage on drives has actually been better for 4 straight years, even when Siakam made 2nd team All-NBA. It’s not a dig at Siakam either. Anunoby is just damn good at passing on the move – and Siakam is also significantly better at scoring on drives.

Simply put, these are just great reads against rotating defenses with a live dribble. When Anunoby gets two feet in the paint his reads as a passer are terrific. 

Outside of a dramatic improvement as a pull-up shooter (which could happen, who knows), the most efficient way forward for Anunoby appears to be, erm, forward. It compliments his ability to finish, his brand of playmaking, and even with Siakam back in the fold, the Raptors can always use more rim pressure. All that being said, Anunoby and the Raptors will carve out the path they see fit.

Have a blessed day.



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