The Raptors' defence begins and ends with O.G. Anunoby

Anunoby is primed to make his first NBA All-Defensive team, leading the league in steals per game.

It didn’t take long for Will Barton to understand what makes his new Toronto Raptors teammate O.G. Anunoby such a special defender.

“He's so versatile,” Barton told Yahoo Sports Canada after Anunoby spent a string of games guarding everyone from Bradley Beal to Kawhi Leonard to Anthony Davis to Nikola Jokic. “He can goddamn guard your point guard, and he can goddamn guard your center. He’s special when it comes to that, so it feels good to have a guy like that.”

By now, Raptors fans know how good and how versatile of a defender Anunoby is. They know that he is one of the few players in the NBA who can legitimately guard every position on the floor, showcasing a rare combination of size, speed and strength that allows him to hold his own both in the paint and on the perimeter. And they know that he is capable of keeping the opponent’s best player in check no matter the circumstances.

This is far and away Anunoby’s best defensive season, as he leads the league in steals with 2.0 per game, on pace to become the first player in franchise history to capture a steals title. Anunoby also ranks second in deflections per game with 3.6 and fifth in loose balls recovered at 0.9. Plus, opponents are shooting just 31 percent on drives when Anunoby is the primary defender, 37.2 percent on post-ups, and 33.0 as the pick-and-roll roller, all elite numbers. It’s why the Raptors are 3.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Anunoby is on the floor, the best number among non-centers on the team.

“I’m not sure who’s as versatile, period. And who’s as effective, even on the winning teams,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said about Anunoby. “He’s certainly an all-defensive team player in my mind, for sure, if not the winner of the [Defensive Player of the Year] award.”

But what has flown under the radar is how Anunoby’s evolution as a defender has changed the way the team around him guards — how Anunoby has become so good at defence that he is no longer one piece of a five-man unit, but the piece that the entire system is built around.

Draymond Green, who is largely considered the best defender of his generation, said recently that “I don’t play defence within the team concept. I know most people think I do. But I don’t. When you’re good enough, the team concepts adapt around you.”

That is exactly what has happened with Anunoby and the Raptors this season. Whereas the Raptors used to be one of the most aggressive teams in the league when it came to getting the ball out of opposing superstars hands through double teams, traps, and aggressive help even if Anunoby was in front of the ball, they have scaled that back this season in order to let everyone — but especially Anunoby — guard the ball one-on-one.

After all, they have one of the best isolation defenders in the world on their team, and they are finally starting to take advantage of it.

“I think in general we just focus on guarding the ball probably over the last few months a little bit more and let the adjustments be adjustments and not make the adjustments the whole entire game plan,” Fred VanVleet said about the Raptors’ defensive scheme changing recently. “And obviously having a player like [Anunoby] is a great luxury because you know that you don't have to help as much when he's on a guy… So yes, to answer your question, [it’s largely due to Anunoby].”

“It’s amazing to have somebody of his caliber on our team that can play both sides of the basketball that relieves a lot of worries on our end, because we know he's gonna be able to guard,” Thad Young added about Anunoby. “He's gonna be able to contain them and keep us within a structure that we need.”

If you don’t believe the Raptors, who might be biased because Anunoby is one of the most beloved figures in the organization, just ask back-to-back NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, who Anunoby guarded twice in the past month. ”They are playing really good team defence,” Jokic said. “They are long, they are athletic, they can switch one-through-five. And I think [Anunoby] gives them the options to do all those things.”

DENVER, CO - MARCH 6:  Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets is defended by O.G. Anunoby #3 of the Toronto Raptors in a game at Ball Arena on March 6, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Given that Nick Nurse is known for his creative and aggressive defensive schemes, Anunoby didn’t earn this level of trust to adjust the scheme around him overnight. But you cannot argue with the results: over their last 13 games, the Raptors have the sixth-best defence in the league. Part of that is Jakob Poeltl’s added rim protection — which is part of the reason Anunoby has been entrusted to guard more one-on-one — but a lot of it is Anunoby’s dedication to the craft.

After all, Anunoby entered the league in 2017 and immediately started games at the small forward position for a Raptors team who had been searching to fill that 3-and-D hole for years. He got to defend Bradley Beal and LeBron James in the first two playoff series of his career that same season, getting reps on the league's best offensive players.

Those experiences were crucial when it came to teach Anunoby what it takes to succeed defensively in the league, including the preparation of watching film and learning opponents tendencies, how to take care of his body to be able to take on that challenge every night, and the underrated mental side of playing defence, which includes the will to guard the opposing team’s best player on every possession. When I asked Anunoby if he asks the coaching staff to guard the opponent’s No. 1 option, he says he doesn’t have to anymore because “it's just a known thing now.”

“All great defenders have a common characteristic no matter how they’re built: mindset,” Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “[Anunoby] has a mindset to go out there and shut down whoever he’s guarding. That’s why everyone up there in Toronto loves him.”

O.G. Anunoby is finally being recognized as one of the NBA's premier defenders, and is playing a large part in the Raptors' defensive turnaround late in the season. (Associated Press)
O.G. Anunoby is finally being recognized as one of the NBA's premier defenders, and is playing a large part in the Raptors' defensive turnaround late in the season. (Associated Press)

Thad Young saw that hunger in Anunoby from a young age. Like Raptors president Masai Ujiri, only a couple of years earlier, Young was looking to create a defensive identity for his AAU team in Memphis, Tennessee, and he needed a stopper who was willing to do the dirty work and set a defensive tone, which is how he met Anunoby. Now, Anunoby’s name hangs in the rafters of his high performance center in Memphis.

“I think what makes him probably one of the better defensive players in the league is because of his tenacity to stop his opponent,” Young said. “You can study a lot of guys but if you don't have that willpower to get you through, the ability to fight through adversity, the ability to battle through tough times, then you're not gonna get anywhere.”

Defense is becoming somewhat of a lost art in the modern NBA as offences soar through increased skill, faster possessions and more three-pointers. But it is still as important as ever when it comes to winning a championship. And it helps to have veterans like Anunoby on the team to set a tone and prove to his young teammates that defence isn’t just necessary, but can be fun and get you paid, too.

“He leads in a different way,” Barton said about Anunoby. “He leads by example, by his actions. He doesn't really talk a lot when it comes to that, but he's one of those guys that lets his actions show for him.”

“I just really see the way he’s able to use his strength and his body to not allow (players) to get separation on him,” second-year Raptors forward Scottie Barnes said about what he has learned from Anunoby’s defence. “So he takes away those strengths from other players.”

“I think it goes with preparation,” Barnes added. “Being able to go into every game scouting each and every player that he's about to guard, going through the game plan, just trying to stick with it.”

Anunoby has never been short on confidence, saying earlier this season, “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 felt that for the last I don't know how many years.”

Finally, the Raptors have adjusted their defence to show faith that they agree.