O.G. Anunoby is having the greatest defensive season of any Raptor ever

O.G. Anunoby is trying to make history.

In the Raptors 28 seasons, one player has made an All-Defensive team. In his single season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard nabbed a championship, a Finals MVP, an All-NBA selection, and an All-Defense nod. It’s hard to become a legend in one season, but he managed. He didn’t, however, manage to make first team All-Defense. Despite already being a 2x DPOY and playing on one of the NBA’s best defenses, the reputation paired with very good defense couldn’t carry him to first team. O.G. Anunoby doesn’t have the same reputation or cache that Leonard did, but he’s also not playing very good defense. Anunoby is playing, arguably, the best defense in the NBA. He’s going to challenge for Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s going to be the first Raptor to ever make All-Defense first team.

Anunoby is a rarity on the defensive side of the floor. Uncommon strength girders every movement of his as he closes distance on drivers and pushes them legally off of their lines. He flips his hips, keeps his hands active, his strides wide, and eats up space on the floor. He is phenomenal both as a proactive defender who baits ill-advised passes for steals, and a reactive defender who mirrors the myriad dances of the league’s many stars. He operates as the apex predator ball hawk for the Raptors and the weighted blanket they toss on other stars to suppress shot attempts and shift game plans. Of course, that’s always been his role — only this year he’s been even better, and he’s talking about it for the first time in his career.

“I mean defensively, I’ve always wanted to be Defensive Player of the Year. I’ve always thought I was the best defender in the league. I’ve thought that for the last, I don’t know how many years.”

Old friend Kyle Lowry championed his cause as well: “I think O.G.’s always been a great defender. He’s been one of the best defenders in the league since he’s been in the league. Now, I just think he’s taking more pride in doing it because he’s getting the attention, which he should have been getting before.”

That all-encompassing defensive value only grows larger because of the era he plays in. Offensive players are too good. You can’t stop them over the course of a whole game because they’ll find something on the court. So, great versatility — not just the regular kind — is what drives NBA defenses closer to bridging the gap. Change the looks the offense is getting, and change the reads.

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Anunoby can lineup across from Luka Doncic and push him into all the uncomfortable spots on the floor. Among the NBA’s high-volume isolation defenders, he knows no statistical equal. He can play rover off of weak defenders to play goalie in driving lanes, jump all sorts of passes, and rotate to the rim where he continues to block shots and force misses at an elite level for his size and position (but also above-average overall). Double as the low-man, dissuade a drive with an x-out or a next rotation. Whatever you want, he’ll do. NBA defenses are complicated, and Anunoby phases from one look to the next with no drop off. It’s more likely that you’d win the lottery than it is that Anunoby doesn’t fit a single scheme across the NBA.

Do you like numbers? Want them? Sure, let’s do that. He is in the 96th percentile for both block-percentage and steal-percentage among wings in the NBA. That steal-percentage has translated into him leading the NBA in steals per game and total steals. He’s in the upper-quarter of wings as far as defensive rebounding rate, for those who like closing out possessions. The en vogue catch-all statistic EPM (Estimated Plus-Minus) that does what most catch-all statistics do: cook up numbers based on box-score statistics and tracking data and rank accordingly; EPM ranks Anunoby in the 99th-percentile in defensive impact currently, but he’s been oscillating between the 99th and 100th slot all season.

“His IQ on defense, his reads, when he’s locked in you can see it. Every deflection, he always feels like he can get the ball. The ball just finds him. I try to just tell him like: ‘man, you’re special, in that sense. And if you really apply yourself every single night’ he can definitely be a nightmare on opposite players in the league.”

Pascal Siakam on O.G. Anunoby

There’s usually a cost to defensive playmaking. A risk/reward paradigm that proves itself over and over. Anunoby exists outside of this paradigm in the sense that his reads are elite, his athleticism is elite, and his measurements are elite. This means his gambles are less the gambling type, and more the certainty type. It’s not uncommon for Anunoby to reach double-digits in points scored off of his own steals, blocks, and deflections in a game. That dominance is exactly what led Fred VanVleet to say: “He can probably steal the ball whenever he feels like it.” of Anunoby, adding later in the same post-game presser: “He’s playing like the defensive player of the year.”

FILM BREAK

There are some defensive stats, yes. But, it’s the side of the floor where you need to really focus on what’s happening in the film. I would like to skirt the hack allegations by showing my work, and O.G.’s. If you’d like to just watch what’s happening, feel free, but the written stuff around this will be my explanations of what’s happening – which I hope (?) is a value add. Behold, virtually every type of impact play on defense:

League leader in steals, let’s see some.

Blow up the DHO, take it down to the other end, euro, dunk. The classic backcourt steal. Flash in to take away Dean Wade’s basket cut, then filter into the weak-side as the play develops and jump the cross-court skip. Backtrack in transition, while always being mindful of the line between the man running his lane and the man with the ball, then steal it. Just take the ball from Harden. Try to beat your man around the screen, react to the back-cut, close the space and steal the ball. Blow up a screening action with an inexperienced on-ball handler, then poke the ball loose, then pursue him, then poke it loose for a steal. Get tight, steal the wing-to-point pass. Cheat the staggered action, because Maxey is dangerous as hell, then realize Harris has slipped his screen just in time for another steal. Swipe Trae’s hit-ahead pass. Recognize the screen coming in the BLOB, shoot the gap, steal the ball. Find your space to cover in the zone, then pursue just outside of it for a steal. Deny the closest pass and force someone to come up to help the blitz, then pursue them and steal their laydown. Once again, steal the ball at the point of attack.

Blocks, they rock.

Deny defense against Zion into a switch onto Daniels, who you promptly swat at the bucket. Deny defense on Mitchell, leave to get the chase-down block. Late clock, follow Luka’s drive until you can block the unsuspecting MVP candidate. And the oh-so-classic blocked 3-pointer.

Let’s cover some ground with O.G.

Stalk Trae Young for a possession, as if that’s easy, then block his jumper (which you did twice in clutch time last season). Navigate the blind pig action the Mavericks run, stick on Luka, then force the airball. Cover for Trent Jr. floating off-ball by taking the one-pass-away option off the board, and forcing the skip, which you can recover to for a contest – and a miss. And finally, in an unspectacular play, quietly provide a perfect weak-side zone against the Heat.

FILM DONE

Hope you enjoyed that. I sure did.

“He’s an amazing player on both sides of the floor.”

Luka Doncic on O.G. Anunoby

There is a team element to this thing as well. In the last 4 years, no player with a team defense outside of the top ten has ended up on an All-Defense team. Rudy Gobert, first team 2022 (10th ranked defense) and the Heat’s Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, 2nd team 2021 (10th ranked defense) are the lowest ranked that have ended up on there. It’s also been the case that if you have a top-5 defense over the last 4 years, you’ll more than likely have someone representing you. Although, there have been exceptions, with the Raptors (2nd in 19-20), the Lakers (1st 20-21), the Knicks (4th in 20-21), and the Cavaliers (5th in 21-22) – all four of which had no representation on the All-Defense teams. With the Lakers and Cavaliers, their defensive anchors (Anthony Davis, Jarrett Allen) missed a lot of games and the remaining players like Alex Caruso and Evan Mobley didn’t have the aforementioned cache to make it. With the Raptors and Knicks, their best defenders were healthy, just left off.

The king of steals in Raptors history has to be Doug Christie, but when he was setting the Raptors season records — that still stand tall — the team was the 18th, 26th, and 21st ranked defense. You win less games and it’s a lot easier for people to forget to focus in on that aspect of your game. Once Christie found his way to the Kings, he made 4 All-Defense teams in a row. The good news? The Raptors are currently the 7th best defense in the NBA. If things hold steady (for the most part) for the Raptors defense this year, the narrative groundwork has been laid for Anunoby to be the clear leader of their success on that end. None of this “oh, everyone is good on defense we couldn’t possibly choose one guy” attitude that kept Anunoby off an All-Defensive team in 19-20.

Whatever defensive measuring stick you hold up to Anunoby, he towers over it. Put your coach’s cap on and look for him to blow-up actions and move teams onto their secondary and tertiary options. Scour the analytics with Bayesian priors, those without, any catch-all you’d like and despite the wide array of formulas that are cooked up each one will find his value. Appeal to the authority of players and coaches, it’ll be there too. Hopefully all of that was conveyed in this piece.

Come check back in once Anunoby has been showered with his well deserved accolades. See you at the end of the season.

Have a blessed day.

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