January 18, 2018

By Vivek Jacob

The Toronto Raptors made an unlikely shift this season. After years of catcalls for an offense that slowed to a crawl in the postseason were finally heard, they’ve come storming out of the gate with the sort of passing and three-point shooting that should be more conducive to winning when the games are of the highest consequence.

The most glaring changes are to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s game and the biggest beneficiaries of Toronto’s transition are their young guys. As the two stalwarts look to manage the present, it is OG Anunoby who has emerged as the key to the future.

The former Hoosier was initially looked upon as a lottery prospect, but fell off the map after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a game against Penn State. His timetable for a return seemed to vary across different teams, and for a six-foot-eight, 235-pound small forward who prides himself on athleticism, doubts over what he would be post-injury hurt his stock.

By making his first appearance just four months after he was drafted — in preseason — he put those concerns to bed, and some.

Anunoby wasn’t known for his ability to beat players off the bounce, so going behind the back, left-to-right on a crossover before finishing with a spinning up-and-under came as even more of a surprise.

The scouting report on Anunoby coming in wasn’t overly complicated. A defender first, his physical stature is made all the more intimidating by a seven-foot-two wingspan that provides a base so highly coveted in the league today. Not renowned for his shooting, he was expected to give his team someone who could fill the lane and create more transition opportunities. For the Raptors, it gave them a legitimately sized small forward who can defend multiple positions, which is someone they’ve craved for a very long time.

This is where OG’s NBA story gets interesting. The debate entering the season for the Raptors at the 3-position was over who should start between C.J. Miles and Norman Powell. Miles offered the theoretical spacing Lowry and DeRozan needed, while also freeing up room for Jonas Valanciunas in the paint.

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Norman Powell had grinded his way to this point, catapulting himself into consideration with performances in consecutive postseasons that arguably rekindled the 2016 and 2017 postseasons for Toronto. His ability to attack a closeout and knock down the open three appeared to mesh perfectly with the Raptors’ star backcourt, and this would also allow Miles to provide a veteran presence to Anunoby and a bench unit low on big league experience. A four-year, $42 million deal just prior to the start of the season appeared to seal the deal, but it was anything but smooth sailing after that.

Powell struggled to hit open looks, and his head-down one-speed rim attacks lost their novelty with defenses. Opponents stayed true to protecting the paint, ready to collapse knowing a kick-out was unlikely. Still, 11 games wasn’t enough to validate demoting him, but a right hip pointer injury seven minutes into their game against the Boston Celtics opened the floodgates.

The bench unit performed exceedingly well in the early season, and Miles was providing both leadership and the only credible source of three-point shooting. Anunoby to that point had showcased his basketball smarts, poise well beyond that of most 20-year-olds, and so offered an option of least disruption to either unit.

In some ways, it was ironic he would make his first start against the Houston Rockets, a team that prized away defensive specialist P.J. Tucker during the summer. There are similarities between the two, and Dwane Casey was quick to point them out at shootaround before the game.

“We feel like OG is gonna be that guy in time — no question about it — a better version of P.J. in time. The toughness factor, the size factor, he’s maybe a little bit bigger than P.J., the physicality part of it, he’s just like P.J. from that standpoint and has no fear.

The young fella has no fear and that’s what we love about him.”

The rookie didn’t disappoint during the game, guarding James Harden for large stretches of the game and though at first glance it may appear that the Rockets star had his way with 38 points, nine turnovers and 8-of-25 shooting tell a different tale. Anunoby himself found time to score 16 points while knocking down 3-of-4 from downtwon.

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“I thought OG came in and did a heck of a job,” Casey said during the post game scrum. “You’re not gonna stop a young man like Harden, but I thought he made him work for every inch of the court he tried to get to and use his foot speed and length to make things difficult.”

In 23 starts, Anunoby is averaging 6.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and just about a steal a game. Like a grizzled veteran, though, his impact lies well beyond his individual numbers. The starting unit of Lowry-DeRozan-Anunoby-Ibaka-Valanciunas is a plus-14.5 per 100 possessions over 330 minutes now, and he’s guarded players ranging from Bradley Beal to Giannis Antetokounmpo, while also finding time to mix things up inside with Dwight Howard.

Anunoby has complemented Lowry and DeRozan perfectly by knocking down 41.3 percent of his 3.3 three-point attempts as a starter, and his shot selection (which would make Daryl Morey blush) is what has him shooting at an effective field goal rate of 60.6. Again, it’s his poise that has made a big difference.

In his first few games, he was guilty of being reluctant to shoot when open, and the hesitation would not only take him out of his natural rhythm but also buy defenders time to contest. Through six games in October, he shot 26.3 percent. After that, he went through a hot stretch from the beginning of November to Dec. 20, knocking down 35 of his 67 attempts (52.2 percent).

Getting over the hesitation had a lot to do with the confidence instilled in him by the veterans on the team.

“C.J. and Serge have given me a lot of advice,” Anunoby said to the media after his season debut against the Chicago Bulls. “Just tell me to be confident and shoot the ball, play hard, and I know I can do that.”

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Anunoby’s shooting stroke doesn’t inspire a huge level of confidence, not for me anyway. A defender gets too close, and his shooting hand ducks quickly underneath the contest.  There are times when he holds the pose, others when his shooting hand dips down or raises up further after the release. He is now 4-for-24 over his last seven games and 19-of-30 at the free-throw line this season.

Regardless, 110 three-point attempts is far too few to make an assumption either way on the pedigree of his shooting, but the biggest thing going for him is his ability to contribute in other ways on the offensive end that lends hope to chiseling himself into a well-rounded threat.

In the first play below, Anunoby dribbles baseline left and the defender recognizes the opportunity to take a charge. Most rookies, and even more experienced campaigners, would fall victim to the offensive foul waiting to happen, but Anunoby is able to slow his move enough to spin around him for the easy jam. This is the subtle difference that varying one’s speed can make.

The second play shows his ability to make a read on the fly, as he cuts to the basket after recognizing that Paul Zipser has been sucked into Delon Wright’s drive attempt.

Anunoby has already proven through the early part of his career he is someone who is capable of playing within himself while executing exactly what’s asked of him. When he is put in situations where he has to make decisions on the fly, his high basketball IQ and feel for the game shines through.

As he continues to explore the depths of his game, the key benefit of playing for a team that should continue to touch 50 wins for a few years yet is that he’s challenged to improve in a manner that’s conducive to more wins than individual glory.

The Raptors furthered that thinking by revamping their offense, but more importantly, by enabling a glimpse into the future, they may have unlocked a door to greater success in the present.

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