Why Raptors have plenty of reason to believe in OG Anunoby

·NBA reporter
Anunoby had a tumultuous 2018-19 season for a variety of reasons
Anunoby had a tumultuous 2018-19 season for a variety of reasons. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When it was reported last July that the Toronto Raptors had traded for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, it was hailed as a minor miracle that Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster managed to retain OG Anunoby.

At the time, Anunoby was considered to be Toronto’s best prospect. He started for a 59-win team as a 20-year-old rookie, and Anunoby thrived in the playoffs including an 18-point performance in Game 3 against the Cleveland Cavaliers (let’s put aside the unfortunate ending). Anunoby was even valued above Pascal Siakam, who proceeded to win Most Improved Player.

Anunoby had the opposite trajectory. Leonard and Green soaked up all of the important minutes on the wing, while Siakam made the power forward position his own. Anunoby was left to toil away on a second unit that was in constant flux with Fred VanVleet being banged up, Delon Wright getting traded, Jeremy Lin never finding his footing, and with the center spot being shuffled on a nightly basis. Anunoby ended up posting similar numbers to his rookie campaign, but his effort was widely viewed as a disappointment.

It didn’t help that Anunoby had a nightmare year apart from basketball. He suffered a wrist injury early on that knocked him off his rhythm, a concussion later in the year, and an emergency appendectomy that sidelined him for the playoffs altogether. Amidst all of that, Anunoby was also dealing with a death in the family, so he knew no peace on or off the court.

Anunoby enters his third season with a clean slate. With Green and Leonard moving to Los Angeles, more shots and minutes are up for grabs, and Anunoby is prime for a return to the starting lineup. But while there are reasons for a breakout, it’s unclear just exactly what that looks like for the 21-year-old forward.

Why there’s plenty of reasons to believe

All the tools are there. At worst, Anunoby is a dependable 3-and-D player on a rookie-scale contract, which is not a bad place to start. Anunoby is a respectable 35 percent shooter from deep for his career, and he can comfortably guard all three perimeter positions while taking occasional shifts on smaller power forwards. Even if he tops out as such, that’s still a win for the 23rd pick.

Watch enough tape of Anunoby, and you’ll see the promise. There’s stuff in that bag — a drive out of the corner, a reverse dunk off a cut, a spin move that would make Siakam’s highlight reel — that leave you wondering if Anunoby could be the next Raptors player to make a leap. He needs to put it all together, but there are tangible pieces to work with.

He definitely doesn’t lack for tools. Anunoby jumps out of the gym and he stands 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan — roughly the same dimensions as Leonard — and those are his best assets around the basket. Anunoby has shot nearly 70 percent within the restricted area in his first two seasons, and with numbers like that, it just becomes a question of how to get him more looks down low.

There was a concerted effort by Anunoby to expand his game as a sophomore. He dabbled with a handful of pick-and-rolls and post-ups. The results were up and down and he looked awkward at times, but nobody becomes great without some growing pains. The odds of Anunoby blossoming into a proficient off-the-dribble creator are slim to none, but he did show enough growth to warrant a longer leash during a transition year for the Raptors.

Defensively, Anunoby is mostly complete. He has very quick feet relative to his size, and that allows him to defend most guards. Anunoby plays with great awareness as a younger player, especially in zone coverages, and he is back to being the Raptors’ best wing defender now that Green and Leonard are gone. For that reason alone, it’s almost a guarantee that Anunoby will return to the starting five.

Plenty of room for improvement

For all that he does well, Anunoby is still very raw. He shows flashes, but is mostly inconsistent. Anunoby will have the odd 20-point game, only to follow that with weeks of single-digit scoring, which makes him similar to most prospects.

The most pressing area of improvement is on shooting. There are too many moving parts in Anunoby’s shot, and it produces inconsistent results. He’s merely average on catch-and-shoot looks, he doesn’t have a reliable off-the-dribble jumper, and even freebies are a concern as he’s shooting a hair over 60 percent in his career at the charity stripe. Regardless of whether he remains a role player or if he eventually blossoms into a star, it’s imperative for Anunoby to convert a higher share of his jump shots. His regression in the corners — from 44 percent as a rookie down to 28 percent last season — is strange, but on the whole he is a capable shooter that should be able to keep the defense honest.

How OG Anunoby performed from various spots on the floor during the 2018-19 season.
How OG Anunoby performed from various spots on the floor during the 2018-19 season.

Of equal importance is the need to improve his ball handling. Anunoby has the size to be effective in the paint, but he has no means of getting to his spots. His handle is a major weakness, and his full potential won’t be unlocked until he’s comfortable with the ball in his hands. It might be a difficult ask since Anunoby has never been developed as a ball-handler, but it’s not unreasonable to expect improvement. Siakam and DeMar DeRozan are recent examples of players who took their games to another level with an expanded handle.

If at all possible, the Raptors should also look to improve Anunoby’s coordination. There’s just a certain awkwardness about the way Anunoby moves around on the court — he wobbles and fumbles like a teenager new to their growth spurt — and it cuts against his explosiveness. Improving his balance and his posture should be part of his regiment.

It’s also on the coaching staff to strike the right balance of flexibility and structure. Anunoby was pigeonholed into playing power forward in 74 percent of his minutes last season, and he was clearly uncomfortable in that role. Anunoby is not a good screener, and he doesn’t have an in-between game, and he’s not a proficient rebounder, so there’s no real advantage to him spending most of his time at the four other than to downsize for the sake of downsizing.

Role definition is also key. Do the Raptors want Anunoby to embrace the 3-and-D role, or are they looking to expand his game? That decision should be made ahead of time so that Anunoby can have a clear focus for the summer.

Reasonable expectations

Raptors fans remain cautiously optimistic about Anunoby’s progression. Only eight percent of 5,852 voters had Anunoby regressing next season, while 24 percent expect a breakout year similar to Siakam. The vast majority envision Anunoby in his current role as a 3-and-D wing.

Here’s the case for Anunoby as a breakout candidate. Last season’s injuries were unfortunate, but those same circumstances are unlikely to reoccur. Returning to the starting lineup means getting better service from Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, and playing alongside Siakam should keep Anunoby in his natural position. If Anunoby were to refine his ball handling and sharpen his jumpshooting, while also developing more of a scorer’s mentality, he has all the tools to take the next step in his development.

Having said that, the most realistic outcome is for Anunoby to make marginal improvements while serving in the same role. He will be the fifth option among the starters, and he will still disappear for stretches at a time while camping out in the corners waiting for a kickout pass. That might sound disappointing to some, but Siakam’s trajectory is the exception, not the norm. If Anunoby can stay healthy for a full season, hit roughly 40 percent from deep, and play lockdown defense against the best players in the game, that should be considered a win.

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