With the 23rd pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Raptors selected Indiana’s OG Anunoby. As he tried on his new Raptors hat, hugged shook Adam Silver’s hand, and dutifully answered questions, the folks at home — including yours truly — turned immediately to the next question on every fan’s mind: where does Anunoby fit on the Raptors?
As written last night on HQ, OG tracks as a small or power forward in the (new) NBA. He’s what Dwane Casey called a “power three,” which is a tremendous label for a player listed at 215 pounds, 6’8” tall, and a 7’3” wingspan. According to some analysts, Anunoby’s set to be a defensive force already, able to switch and move on the court to guard every position, 1 through 5. Naturally, given this skill set, OG is an elite athlete, and the dunk footage floating around out there show he can capital-F finish at the rim. These are exciting things to consider.
There are questions about Anunoby’s broader abilities on the offensive end however. At 20 years old, Anunoby has yet to show much in the way of a consistent shooting stroke, or any kind of play-making ability. Obviously, the latter won’t be asked of him in the near term, but it bears mentioning, given the rise in basketball IQ requirements and intuition across the league. The former is extremely important, but it’s also something that can be taught. (Casey has already said OG’s shot is not broken, it just needs work, like every young players’.) Base case, it looks like the Raptors have a high-motor defensive stopper who could potentially show some shooting range in the future. Not bad for the 23rd pick.
This buries the lede somewhat, I admit: the reason Anunoby slumped to the 23rd slot is because he tore his ACL six months ago in January. His exciting sophomore season was cut short, and NBA teams did not get a clear chance to see what OG could do. As always with injuries, there’s now an inherent risk here: maybe OG won’t be the player he was eight months ago, maybe he’ll re-injure his knee, maybe something else will happen. Who knows? Given some of the modest risks the Raptors have taken with their picks — hello Bruno Caboclo — taking a chance on a talented, but injured, player like Anunoby should not surprise. And given the high ceiling many saw for him before the injury, betting on OG could still very much pay off.
But what will that pay off look like? The Raptors are still a team in flux, waiting to see how numerous free agent chips will fall. First among them of course is Kyle Lowry. If he’s back (my bet is yes, he returns), the Raptors stay the course and do what they can to compete at a high level. That means making a push to re-sign Serge Ibaka, and maybe even one or both of P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson. (Though, admittedly, it feels very unlikely we’ll see Patterson again in Toronto.) If these players all return, it means Anunoby takes it easy on his knee and spends most of his rookie season with the Raptors 905, the team’s D(G)-League affiliate. The Raptors are likely going to rely on DeMarre Carroll in the 3/4 spot anyway, with P.J. Tucker (the original OG) potentially on hand as well. There are also the other 3/4 young players on the Raptors — namely Pascal Siakam and Bruno — who could or should get a chance to play in that position ahead of OG next season. My point is here, there’s no need to rush him back on to the court.
Then again, if the Raptors strike out on Lowry, they presumably let all the veteran free agents go and begin giving a more serious look to the whole cadre of young players on the roster. In this scenario, the oldest frontcourt player on the team would be Jonas Valanciunas, with Carroll anchoring the wing. After that the Raptors would have to figure out how useful the combo of Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl, Siakam, Caboclo, and Anunoby really are. By now the Raptors surely have a feel for where things are going with some of these players (to say nothing of Norman Powell and Delon Wright). And in this case, it’s not hard to track the expectations for OG too: play swarming, attentive defense, run the open floor, and finish strong at the rim. It’s a narrow focus, sure, but it will be OG’s calling card for next season. The Raptors on the whole will be based around this kind of focused role-playing and youthful optimism should this future come to pass. On the one hand, it’s something of an exciting mystery, guessing at how these pieces will fit together. On the other, it means the previous era of the Raptors would officially be over.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. It seems likely we won’t see Anunoby on any basketball court until October or later. An ACL injury is no joke — it’ll keep OG out of the Las Vegas Summer League — and there’s no reason at all to rush back from it. As has been the case during Masai Ujiri’s entire tenure, the Raptors remain on solid ground with their latest addition. Anunoby fits into whichever direction the team wants to go. Now we just need to wait.