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OG is OK: Despite hitting the rookie wall, Anunoby stays productive for the Raptors

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The Raptors steal of the 2017 draft, OG Anunoby, has struggled lately, but a close look at his contributions so far this season dispel any long term concerns about him.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

OG Anunoby’s recent struggles that have seen him shoot a pitiful 14.8 percent from the arc and generally fade from view might have sceptics believing the rookie isn’t good enough to start on a championship calibre team. They are dead wrong.

In the ‘what have you done for me lately’ world of professional sports, fans often miss out on the bigger picture. The fact is that Anunoby has been a pivotal contributor for the Raptors this season despite his current dip in form.

The deck was stacked against OG coming out of Indiana last summer. He tore his right ACL in mid-season, leading many to believe that he wouldn’t be fully healthy for 2017-2018. Some even wondered if he had the chops to be a player at the NBA level. Unable to participate in pre-draft workouts, his stock plummeted. When he was available at the 23rd pick of the first round, general manager Masai Ujiri pounced.

Against the odds, the former Hoosier began his rookie season in Toronto healthy, making the squad out of training camp. His role through October was limited to the second unit — understandable for a late first round pick. But he impressed immediately with his aggressiveness and instincts at both ends of the floor, averaging 17.7 minutes and 5.8 points per game, and shooting 36.1 percent from the field. He was asked to be a scorer off the bench, taking 6.0 shots per game, even though he’d never really been a prolific scorer.

In fact, during his two years at Indiana, Anunoby never led the Hossiers in scoring. Coming out of high school, he had potential but his skills were raw, resulting in an unremarkable 3-star rating. Not surprisingly, his college career started slowly, with Anunoby averaging only 8.2 minutes over the first 10 games of Indiana’s 2015-2016 season. But head coach Tom Crean obviously liked what he saw from the youngster, quickly hiking his minutes up to 20.1 per game, and featuring Anunoby’s slashing offensive game and lock-down defending. NBA scouts began to notice.

Having earned his coach’s confidence, OG was poised for a break out 2016-2017 season. He began strongly, starting and playing key offensive and defensive roles for the Hossiers and averaging 25.1 minutes per game, with 11.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 55.7 percent shooting.

As solid as his offense was, his defense was off the charts. Coach Crean matched him up with the opponent’s best player every game and he delivered. A case in point: OG held Kentucky phenom Jamal Murray to 7-for-18 shooting and closed out with an emphatic block against him in a marquis Indiana-Kentucky March Madness matchup.

Anunoby’s college career came to a screeching halt in a game against Penn State last January with a season-ending knee injury. In the shortened season, he had shown flashes of the potential some scouts were buzzing about, including a strong all-round game. On offense, he could shoot, slash, pass and rebound, and he was lights-out defensively. Though standing 6’8”, his wingspan was that of someone six inches taller. This, combined with quick hands, active feet and strong anticipation, meant that he could defend all five positions effectively.

To those watching closely, Anunoby possessed an intriguing skill set that could translate to the NBA. But this assessment was based on a very small sample size.

Fast forward to this season and the Raptors early struggles. After the first dozen games, Toronto was hovering just over .500 and playing poorly. Especially worrying for coach Dwane Casey was the lack of chemistry and consistency from the starters. On most nights, the second unit was outplaying the first and keeping the Raps in games. And OG was an important part of this second unit, which usually featured Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, with Fred VanVleet and Lucas Nogueira also rotating in.

What the starting unit was missing was exactly what the second unit was delivering in spades: energy, movement and defensive tenacity. On November 12th, coach Casey made a decision that transformed Toronto’s season, inserting Anunoby into the starting unit in place of injured Norm Powell. It was a stroke of genius. OG energized the starting unit with his athleticism, enthusiasm and work rate. He also stabilized a soft defense, forming an imposing partnership with Serge Ibaka.

Since the switch, the Raps have taken off, winning 24 and losing only 9 for an impressive .725 winning clip. From his inclusion as a starter to the end of December, OG averaged 23.2 minutes, 7.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game. He shot 51.5 percent from the field, including an unexpected 43.4 percent from the arc.

Anunoby was the perfect complement to a lineup full of shooters, starting with the All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. He didn’t need many shots or any plays run for him to contribute offensively, and he defended the opponent’s best forward brilliantly on most nights. It was therefore no surprise that when Powell returned from injury, OG remained in the starting unit.

Since the beginning of 2018, Anunoby’s play has dipped dramatically. His shooting is way down: 32.7 percent from the field and a woeful 14.8 percent from the arc. Some wonder if the pre-Christmas version of OG was a flash in the pan.

Yet in spite of the slump, the Raptors have continued to play well and win in the new year, going 7-4 so far in January despite letting a few games slip away from them. Despite his shooting struggles, OG continues to play gritty defense and contribute positively on both ends.

The slump has been entirely predictable, with every rookie hitting a wall at some point in the first season. The NBA is unique with its much longer schedule, longer games, increased travel and much more physical play. College players just aren’t prepared yet for the demands of the professional game.

Add to this the fact that Anunoby has guarded the best position in basketball night in and night out. For example, in January he matched up against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons and the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, twice.

It is no surprise that the rookie has begun to wear down, but there is no need to panic or to consider making major changes. OG remains effective with his defending and energy. Once he gets over the current speed bump, the rest of his game, including his shooting, will no doubt return. While Casey may want to reduce his minutes somewhat, he needs to keep OG in the starting unit. He has proven to be a glue-guy for that group and needs to stay. And his upside is tremendous. The Raptors have a stud in Anunoby for many years to come. OG is certainly OK.