Before Toronto had Kawhi Leonard, they had Kawhi Lite.
OG Anunoby was a revelation last season. No, not the kind of revelation where a lowly regarded player bursts onto the scene and surprises everyone with his outstanding talent. OG’s profile was well-known before he slipped to the Raptors at the 23rd pick of the 2017 Draft.
Anunoby made a name for himself in his freshman season at Indiana, shutting down future lottery pick, Jamal Murray, en route to helping his Hoosier squad upset the Kentucky Wildcats. His Draft Express profile reads like a crystal ball, “Anunoby is best suited playing a compact role offensively ... he can also find some offense, cutting off the ball or crashing the offensive glass.” This would appear to match with the player talent grades being handed out by BBall Index.
Where OG became a revelation was on November 14, 2017, when Dwane Casey, after only 12 games, inserted Anunoby into the starting lineup to plug the hole at small forward. From then on, the Raptors would not have to fill that role with players who were inconsistent (Norman Powell), injury-riddled (DeMarre Carroll), or unstable (Terrence Ross). OG was the perfect compliment to the new pace-and-space play that Casey (via new head coach Nick Nurse) had instituted. While Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan would initiate the offense, Anunoby would use his stellar off-ball movement to create more scoring opportunities. On the defensive end, OG would frequently cover the opposing team’s best player, allowing DeRozan to hide on a lesser player. Anunoby showed plenty of signs of becoming a future 3-and-D star — essential in today’s NBA — and perhaps more.
OG played his role perfectly and the success showed in the numbers. According to Synergy Sports, Anunoby’s possessions were largely from spot-ups (47.1%) or in transition (23.9%). This was a big reason why he finished the regular season third in eFG% (57.7%) among rookies, and third in eFG% (68.3%) during the playoffs — across all players. His shot chart would make Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni pass out. OG attempted 198 3-pointers, 136 shots within five feet, and only 11 mid-range shots!
In addition to all these juicy numbers, Anunoby’s first playoff season was very promising. Let’s compare his playoff stats with the rookie playoff stats of his newest superstar teammate:
OG Anunoby (Playoff Stats per 36): 11.9 PTS, 3.2 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 2.0 3PM, 69.5 TS%, 1.1 OBPM, 0.7 DBPM
Kawhi Leonard (Playoff Stats per 36): 11.5 PTS, 7.9 REB, 0.8, AST, 1.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 1.7 3PM, 62.3 TS%, 1.5 OBPM, 2.2 DBPM
So, what happens now? After swinging the biggest trade in franchise history, the Raptors now have a problem that any NBA team would dream of: they have to find time for all their 3-and-D players! When healthy, Leonard is arguably the best two-way player in the league. His resume doesn’t need any rehashing in this space. Fellow former Spur, Danny Green, has had the luxury of playing alongside Kawhi and LeBron. He’s a well-seasoned disciple of Gregg Popovich, whose defensive chops are impeccable. Green is also one of only six players to make at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in each of the last five seasons. Referring back to our friends at BBall Index, last season, only four Point Guards received grades of ‘A’ or ‘A-’ for both Perimeter Shooting and Perimeter Defense — two of those were Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
With all this amazing talent around him, is it possible Anunoby is susceptible to the dreaded sophomore slump? Nurse has already made it known that he has six starters. It’s safe to assume who those are — Lowry, Green, Leonard, Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas — and it’s also safe to say Lowry, Leonard, and (Nurse favourite) JV are locked in as starters. With everyone healthy and so much depth, Nurse is very likely going to play different starting lineups throughout the first month or so. Anunoby may not have as many starts (62) as he did last season. His minutes may drop because Masai Ujiri traded away one wing for two wings. And as you saw in the table above, OG’s offensive game still needs a lot of fine-tuning.
Thankfully, there’s a doctor in the house, er, I mean, a Nurse (I’ll see myself out). Knowing these were areas for improvement, Nurse handed the reins to Anunoby during Vegas Summer League. “I threw it to him in the post a little bit, designed a couple other little plays for him that are more isolation, one-on-one type of things that he hasn’t really done for us,” said Nurse during LVSL. OG ended the Summer League with an astounding 27.1% usage rate (for comparison purposes, DeMar DeRozan had a 29.6% usage rate last season). While he definitely won’t be asked to handle the ball that much, it’s encouraging to see his willingness to fix the gaps in his game.
As for the upcoming season, Anunoby is primed to play an integral role in the Raptors’ success. When inserted into the starting lineup, he and Leonard can form a defensive dynamic duo capable of stopping any opposing wing combo in the league. Add in some variation of Lowry, Green, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, adsgkjeijrngaren (crap, I passed out again) Delon Wright, and/or Ibaka, and the Raptors will have multiple switch-friendly lineups. His defense is deservedly the first thing that’s mentioned about his game, but don’t forget that Anunoby finished second among all East players (there’s that LeBron fellow again) in Offensive Rating. OG also finished eighth in Net Rating (VanVleet was second).
So, will Anunoby make the leap or hit the sophomore slump? I’m going to cop out and say neither. It’s undeniably crucial that Nurse gets Leonard acclimated and comfortable in this system. That alone should prevent Anunoby from making any huge leap this season. On the flip side, the slump normally occurs to players who go ice cold after burning up their rookie seasons. Since OG’s strength is his defense, he’s less likely to regress. (How do go ice cold if you’re not shooting a lot anyway?).Again, this is not to downplay his importance this season. Should the worse-case scenario (Kawhi not re-signing) occur, Kawhi Lite will have to become Kawhi 2.0 real quick.