— Book (@DevinBook) January 12, 2022
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— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) January 12, 2022
The 2021-22 season has been one of growth for Anunoby, even if he doesn’t end up being an All-Star or Most Improved Player candidate, partly because he has already missed 23 games due to a hip pointer and COVID protocols.
But Anunoby is very quietly averaging 19/5/2 on 44/36/80 shooting splits this season, along with his stellar multi-positional defence. And like much of his development since he entered the league in 2017, this year’s growth has been subtle and has taken place around the edges.
But that doesn’t make it unimportant.
Perhaps the biggest development this season is that Anunoby is getting more comfortable leveraging his overwhelming strength to create and finish advantages on the offensive end of the floor. And even though he isn’t getting a high amount of reps to do that since everyone has been back and healthy — when he falls to a distant third option in the pecking order behind Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — that kind of improvement can pay huge dividends in a playoff setting when mismatch-hunting and half-court creation become that much more important.
“I think the biggest improvement of his game since he’s maybe joined us is his starting and ending drives,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said about Anunoby’s development this season. “He’s getting by people and then he’s getting to the end where he’s getting on balance and using his balance, strength and athleticism.”
Case in point: The percentage of Anunoby’s shots that are self created has taken a massive leap this season, from just 30 percent of his shots coming unassisted last season to 43 percent this season, along the same lines of players like Jaylen Brown. Plus, a career-high 25 percent of Anunoby’s shots this season are coming from the midrange — the territory of stars — up from 17 percent last season, with 79 percent of those shots coming unassisted. He’s also shooting a career-high number of free-throws at 3.2 per game, up from 2.4 last season, and hitting them at a career-high 80.8 percent.
Safe to say that when Anunoby uses his strength to get downhill, good things happen.
Without an elite handle or pull-up jumper, Anunoby is smartly leveraging his strength to create the type of separation necessary to attempt more self-created shots in the first place. And he is doing so without nearly the same degree of balance issues or foul trouble he has had in the past. In fact, Anunoby has only six offensive fouls in 23 games this season, and he explained the adjustment he has made in order to create separation without getting called for those cheap fouls.
“I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want them to start calling charges. But I try to not extend too much, not run people over. Slower, more pace, just be more aware and knowing how they’re reffing, too. Like knowing the bonus. Just knowing when not to be so aggressive,” Anunoby says.
“Just knowing who’s guarding you, who is going to flop and who probably won’t flop.”
While his last point about flopping is funny, it also shows a maturity and understanding of the league he has now had four-and-a-half seasons to learn, because a big part of succeeding as a primary option in the NBA is understanding the defensive habits of the players guarding you, and Anunoby is clearly getting better at that with more offensive reps.
It is easy to say the Raptors’ biggest weakness is a lack of true big man. However, at this point, the front office clearly feels as if that is a feature, not a bug, of the roster. Unless a top-level difference-maker comes along, the Raptors aren’t going to give up anything significant for a big body.
However, another shooter on the wing, particularly if that skill is attached to an athletic body with a shorter contract, is another matter. The Raptors have looked good enough (when they have been healthy enough) to make a dip into the trade waters intriguing. As it stands now, the Raptors’ three top players off the bench when they are fully healthy are Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch and Boucher. That does not give them a lot of positional variety and provides very little offensive punch. If the Raptors want a short-term upgrade, they should be looking at that Watanabe/Mykhailiuk/Champagnie trio.
Watanabe was just returning from four games in the league’s health and safety protocols, so his off night is more than forgivable. He has been good enough during his time with the Raptors that he deserves a shot at securing those minutes, but he is hardly a sure thing to do that. Mykhailiuk is wildly unreliable — his defining characteristic at this point. Champagnie is fun and will get you a few extra possessions per game. He is another potential gem from the undrafted free-agent pile. He also will be ignored by good teams in the playoffs when the Raptors have the ball.
Looking around the league, there are only a few teams guaranteed to be in seller mode. Perhaps the Raptors could wrangle Terrence Ross away from the Magic for Boucher, Malachi Flynn and goodies? Oklahoma City’s Kenrich Williams is both underrated and underpaid, which might mean the Thunder could fetch a first-rounder for him. Eric Gordon would be a meaningful upgrade but is smaller, older and locked in for more years than necessarily makes sense for the Raptors.
Surely, more names will enter the fray as the deadline approaches. Like the Raptors last year, some teams will decide that chasing a spot in the Play-In Tournament is not worth it and put some of their players on the market. The Raptors should kick the tires if and when that happens.
The smart play will probably involve something minor. Perhaps it won’t materialize at all. At this stage of Barnes’ development, the Raptors have a hard ceiling as a pesky first-round out or, if given many breaks, a conference semifinalist. It only makes sense, then, to hold on to your first-round picks, try to develop cap-friendly contributors alongside the growing and locked-in core, and let this team go as far as it can on its own.
There is a temptation, though. The Raptors are getting spicy enough that wondering about a bolder path isn’t altogether foolish.
No one is suggesting that Champagnie, a six-foot-six New Yorker who went undrafted, should find himself in Toronto’s eight-man rotation, but his consistent impact on any game he’s in is going to make it hard for coach Nick Nurse not to play him at least a bit every night.
There are holes in Champagnie’s game. He’s got to become a better shooter, and no one knows what his ball-handling skills are like because he seldom has to dribble in traffic. But there is no doubt he’s always in the fray.
“He’s one of those guys you can plug in and play, I’m sure that if he keeps this up, he’ll be earning some more minutes down the line,” VanVleet said.
The rest of the end of Nurse’s rotation — Yuta Watanabe, Svi Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn — has not been nearly as consistent. If the coach is looking for a ninth or 10th guy he can count on, Champagnie would be it.
“I think he’s knocking at the door for a … small part of the rotation,” Nurse said. “I think he’s always probably at the front of the line for a night you need an energy boost or a wild card or an X-factor. And then on nights like (Tuesday) we probably should get him in the rotation.”
If he gets that shot — the Raptors return to action Friday in Detroit — Champagnie will welcome the support of the team’s veterans and use them as inspiration.
“As a young guy who’s undrafted and trying to make a way for himself in this league, and trying to provide for his family, those guys are the stepping stones,” he said. “Looking at their paths and how they came up, especially Fred being undrafted like myself. Just trying to follow behind the footsteps, just consistently work and wait your turn and, when it comes, be ready to shine.”
Then Nick Nurse gave him a shot and Boucher responded with some eye-opening performances. Fifteen and then 13 points in back-to-back games in Los Angeles here. Consecutive double-doubles there and then a 13-point, 12-rebound effort in a win over New York late in November.
Which led to this corner wondering at the time what had gotten into Boucher. In a chat, the Montreal-raised Boucher had told Postmedia he had started watching video of the dynastic Chicago Bulls and ace rebounder Dennis Rodman in particular. Whereas he had once tried to crib from similarly-sized ex-teammate Kevin Durant, Boucher had realized that would never be his professional destiny.
“I was watching a lot of Kevin Durant and all that stuff (then) … went on the role that I needed, honestly,” Boucher said at the time.
“(Rodman was) just an energy guy, want to get all the rebounds, help the team defensively. Those are the guys I’m going for right now.”
The role didn’t stick for Boucher though and neither did the production. He grabbed double figures only three more times in that bizarre season that ended in the bubble in Orlando and was barely used in the playoffs.
A career-year followed, with Boucher being one of the few Raptors highlights of a lost year in Tampa Bay. With most of his higher-profile teammates sidelined for a lot of that season, Boucher thrived and became a needed offensive weapon.
Things changed when the Raptors finally returned home. Scottie Barnes arrived. Pascal Siakam got healthy and OG Anunoby did too. Boucher struggled mightily, Nurse publicly demanded more from the free agent to be and it started to feel like his time in Toronto was running out.
“It’s such a learning experience. I went from not playing to getting a couple minutes to having my best offensive year, and then this year I came in and it was a little bit all over the place trying to figure out my role,” Boucher said.
“But I always learn something and this year it’s the defensive mindset, wanting to go get the ball and make those effort plays.”
Coincidentally or not, Boucher started revisiting Rodman, posting Instagram stories about the Hall of Famer and his production started ticking up. His first double-double came in a badly-needed win in Sacramento and he scored 21 points in Cleveland on Boxing Day. Two nights later Boucher erupted for 28 points and 19 rebounds against Philadelphia. He’s been a significant part of the rotation ever since and looked quite a bit like Rodman on Tuesday when he grabbed 16 rebounds, nine of them on the offensive glass, against Phoenix. Boucher played 37 minutes on his 29th birthday.
From a financial perspective, as Scotto notes, the deal would be tricky to pull off. Trent Jr. is due $16 million this season, meaning the only way the Lakers can get in the conversation for a trade is to include both Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn. From there, the Lakers would have to assess whether sending out two pieces of their rotation for Trent would make sense.
Statistically, though, Trent Jr. is the type of player that could have success alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. After that rookie season in which he shot just 23.8% from beyond the arc, Trent Jr. is shooting 39% from the 3-point line on five attempts per game. In Toronto this season, Trent Jr. ranks in the 87th percentile on unguarded catch and shoot opportunities, per Synergy.
Trent is also under contract moving forward as he’s set to make $17.2 million next season and has a player option for 2023-24 in which he would make $18.5 million. Even if he accepts his player option, he would be just 25 when he entered free agency again. In that sense, the Lakers wouldn’t be getting older by trading away Horton-Tucker.
However, what they may lose is the potential of Horton-Tucker for the immediate impact of Trent Jr. While he’s had a rough season, Horton-Tucker still possesses the load of potential that led to the team being so high on him. Trent Jr., though, would be able to step in and be productive right away in a way that Horton-Tucker can not be for this current version of the Lakers.
Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely the team targets Trent Jr. with a package of Nunn and Horton-Tucker, instead more likely to go after a Turner, Grant or perhaps someone else that might be able to have even more impact on the Lakers title chances. But it’s still an intriguing name to keep in mind for the Lakers as they continue to scour the market.