Does OG Anunoby have cause to complain about his role with the Raptors?

At the end of May, a bomb detonated on Bleacher Report, and it was small but powerful enough to shake the core of any Raptors fan: OG Anunoby’s name was picking up steam in the trade circuit. The reporter, Jake Fischer, is an insider with proven connects. Later in the summer, he said in a podcast that “[Anunoby] wants more opportunity.” That’s a far cry from dissatisfaction with an NBA franchise, and it was Fischer’s own assumption that there’s little path to more opportunity for Anunoby with the Toronto Raptors. Furthermore, you could say the same about virtually every player in the league who doesn’t command 80 touches a game. But the result was a long summer of Anunoby’s name being dragged through every ESPN trade machine across the continents. I’m not here to relitigate Fischer’s reporting, and neither am I here with inside information on Anunoby’s mindset. Instead, let’s approach this from the perspective of the on-court relationship between player and team:

Would any player with Anunoby’s history and abilities be dissatisfied with Anunoby’s opportunity with the Raptors? And furthermore, should Raptors fans be worried?

Let’s start with what type of player Anunoby is. It turns out, there are few comparable players across the league. Really, none. Here’s the list of players who reached or surpassed Anunoby’s physical dimensions (232 pounds with a wingspan of 7-foot-2) and Anunoby’s 3-point profile (6.6 attempts per game with an accuracy of 36.3 percent) last season:

OG Anunoby

If you take out weight from the equation, still nobody reached Anunoby’s 3-point accuracy and frequency combined with his wingspan. If you take out wingspan, only Kevin Love reached Anunoby’s 3-point accuracy and frequency combined with his weight. This of course doesn’t get into his efficiency at the rim, exceptional steal rate, or other possible qualifiers we could use to separate Anunoby from other players across the league. He is unique based on very few variables.

But if you zoom out and just look at physical profile in order to find comparable players, Anunoby is built suspiciously like a star. Here’s the list of non-centers who played rotation minutes (including one player who didn’t due to injury) in 2021-22 with his wingspan or longer:

Kevin Durant

Pascal Siakam

Kawhi Leonard*

Brandon Ingram

Rudy Gay

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Jerami Grant

Scottie Barnes

Kelly Oubre jr.

That’s a list of a former star, a future star, a few outlying solid players, and a whole bunch of the league’s royalty. Anunoby looks the part. His scoring average has increased every season of his career, as have his minutes and field goal attempts. He’s 25 years old and has never stopped improving.

And yet, Anunoby averaged 51.0 touches per game last season, 102nd among players with at least 10 games under their belts. It was ahead of Gay and Oubre but behind everyone else on the above list (except of course for Leonard, who didn’t play due to injury). His usage rate was 144th among players who appeared in at least 10 games. Anunoby was a unique player with the physical profiled of a star, yet he saw usage comparable to the average’s teams fourth or fifth offensive option. And that checks out: he finished fourth on the Raptors in shots per game.

But at the same time, Anunoby has done less with the self-creation touches he has received than almost anyone in the league. Star wings need to dominate in isolation and in the pick and roll, and both abilities require pullup shooting. And among players at or above Anunoby’s frequency in isolation, he was dead last in efficiency. Among the 166 players who used the same or more pick-and-roll possessions as a handler, Anunoby was 150th in efficiency. Among players at or above his number of attempted pullup jumpers per game, Anunoby was fifth least efficient in the league. While 2021-22 was a down year for Anunoby in all three aspects, it was also the first time he’d even had real opportunity in any of the three areas. And his newfound opportunity went poorly. If you want to toss in driving — at which the Raptors are very poor — Anunoby was the third-least efficient shooter in such scenarios in the league.

That sounds overly critical, so let’s also take a moment to discuss Anunoby’s abilities. It turns out he’s enormously productive — with Toronto’s fourth-best on/off differential per 100 possessions — despite those weaknesses. He is one of the best defenders in the league, extraordinary at every component of the game on that end. He is a positional mastermind, physical monster, turnover creator, rebounder, shot blocker, switcher, and more. He is one of perhaps five or 10 players who can legitimately defend anyone from point guards to centers. For my money, he’s the best wing defender in the league.

Offensively, he’s above average as a 3-point shooter and finisher at the rim. While 2021-22 was a down year in terms of efficiency from the field, he had been in the 80th percentile or higher in that regard in three of his first four seasons. He’s not the best offensive role player in the league, but he’s still very effective. He is fantastic at finishing the shots from the most efficient areas on the floor that teammates create for him. That’s crucial for any offense. For even very good defenders, that’s an exquisite skillset — and Anunoby is more than very good on the defensive end.

So all told, Anunoby is unique in the combination of his abilities both in the positive and the negative. It’s not unreasonable for the team to want him to be a better pullup shooter before funneling him more isolation and pick-and-roll touches. But neither is it unreasonable for Anunoby, who has done nothing but improve throughout his entire career and whose lookalikes in the NBA are almost all stars, to want to be treated like a star. He has had some seasons with promising results in isolation, pick and roll, and pullup shooting, albeit in limited samples.

Does that mean there is conflict on the horizon? Without knowing Anunoby’s actual mindset, it’s hard to say — but it seems likely that a player with his context and abilities would want to be more than a team’s fourth option. But that’s only if all else stays the same, and that is perhaps the least likely component of all. Context changes. Anunoby may well improve enough as a shooter, dribbler, passer, or self-creator to render his current role moot. And so too might the context of the team change so that it asks more of him whether or not he improves. Things change quickly in the NBA, and there are plenty of solutions out there. Pascal Siakam, for example, seems to be perfectly happy now with the Raptors after some rough patches in the relationship in 2020-21. But for now, it’s not hard to see why Anunoby and the Raptors might not see eye to eye on his role with the team and whether or not is should change.

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