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How Norman Powell and OG Anunoby fit with Toronto’s evolving bench unit

Last season, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell were battling for the same minutes with the Raptors. This year, both players are rediscovering themselves together in Toronto’s evolving bench unit.

Toronto Raptors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Last season, with DeMar DeRozan gobbling up the majority of minutes at the two-guard position, Norman Powell was relegated to inconsistent playing time thanks to the emergence of OG Anunoby. This left him in a largely nondescript role as a bench player.

At the same time, as a first year player and starter, Anunoby rarely played any minutes at power forward — a stark difference to what we’ve seen this year, particularly with the presence of Kawhi Leonard on the Raptors.

How have things changed for Powell and Anunoby so far this season?

Drastic Changes to Minute Distribution

Under former coach Dwane Casey, Powell and Anunoby’s minute distribution by position looked like this:

2017-18 Season

Norman Powell:

SG: 75 percent

SF: 25 percent

OG Anunoby:

SF: 76 percent

PF: 24 percent

With Nick Nurse at the helm, as well as a more open-minded approach to where players play their minutes, Powell’s minute distribution may not look too different. But considering the starters ahead of him (Danny Green at the two-guard, and Leonard at small forward), Powell has been awarded a consistent role and an overall increase in minutes at his natural two guard position.

Conversely, Anunoby is being used in an entirely different way — and for the most part, it’s resulted in a growing comfort as the season progresses, utilizing his natural strengths more and more.

2018-19 Season

Norman Powell:

SG: 71 percent

SF: 29 percent

OG Anunoby:

SF: 20 percent

PF: 79 percent

C: One percent (yes, OG has logged minutes at centre at some point, though I can’t remember when, exactly.)

Dissecting Norm Powell’s Resurgence

The increase in minutes at shooting guard (sans DeRozan) has greatly expanded Norm’s role in the bench offense. He’s seen himself become a secondary ball-handler — a role in which he has, so far, excelled in. It’s resulted in — almost counter-intuitively — a decrease in turnovers and an increase in successful drive-and-kicks thanks to his ability to draw post defenders to his drives — which has become one of his biggest strengths thanks to his size.

Due to his length compared to Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry (our other two prolific drive-and-kick guards), he’s able to make plays that their size simply inhibits them from making.

Powell has become a key piece in a number of bench units that, during his rehab from his shoulder injury, struggled to score points because of a severe lack of shot creation — and I haven’t even touched on his improved shooting touch, particularly from the corners. He’s shooting 50 percent on corner threes, compared to 29 percent last season. (It’s a small sample size, but still.)

Putting Powell in as the de facto replacement for Danny Green at the shooting guard position has increased his floor time and brought with it a more consistent role. Some would argue that Norm’s injury helped him gain a unique perspective of what the team — and second unit — needs from him. These are insights that are tough to uncover when you’re on the floor night after night, amidst the action in real time.

In being able to watch the bench fail to create offense on a nightly basis, aside from the occasional blistering scoring performance from Jonas Valanciunas (before the injury) or Fred VanVleet (and with Delon Wright still struggling to find an ounce of scoring consistency for most of the team’s first two months), Powell was able to identify the holes in the bench offense and adjust his game accordingly upon his return to help bolster shot creation in the second unit.

Since returning from injury four games ago, Powell is averaging 20 minutes, 7.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting .522 from the field. Most importantly, he’s not forcing shots, nor is he making silly mistakes on the floor that marred his time on the floor a year ago.

He’s playing within himself, totally — understanding both his limitations and what the team needs on any given night.

While these stats may not set the world on fire, when extrapolated over 36 minutes they increase to 14 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists — great per minute production from a player who, last year, struggled to find a stride playing spot minutes behind DeRozan, and battling with Anunoby for minutes at the small-forward spot — which brings us to our next subject.

OG Anunoby Finds a Useful Niche at a New Position

Like Powell, Anunoby’s opportunities were limited to the small forward position for the majority of his rookie season. It only seemed natural, given his frame as a prototypical three, but his play style is much more akin to a new-age, speed-driven power forward — much like how he played at Indiana. He is arguably the best back-door cutter on the team, and his inclination to playing around the basket has helped him become a much-improved defensive rebounder as of late.

Over his last five games (as of 12/28), Anunoby is averaging 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep — often catching his larger opponents frantically out of position before hurdling toward him at the three point line.

Anunoby’s ability to stretch the floor gives him a huge advantage: his improved handles allow him to either take a corner three, or if the defender recovers adequately, put the ball on the floor and take them off the dribble. It’s a developing skill that’s afforded him the ability to make successful dump off passes as a help defender commits to his drive, normally leaving a Raptor teammate unguarded underneath the basket.

In his fourth start of the season against Cleveland last week, Anunoby slotted as the power forward, next to Pascal Siakam at centre. The results speak for themselves: pitted against Cedi Osman — a similarly sized player — Anunoby posted a season-high 21 points and eight rebounds while shooting 64 percent from the field in just 22 minutes.

Two games later in Miami, while coming off the bench, Anunoby again played a huge chunk of minutes as the team’s power-forward, this time matching up against a taller, but slower, Kelly Olynyk. He notched just five points, but tied his season-high with eight rebounds, set against Cleveland just two games prior.

All you need to do is watch OG’s movement on the floor as a post player — the freedom he feels in the paint, and his ability to crash the boards, while also playing effective defense against the occasional plodding power forwards of ages past. Match-ups in which Anunoby’s length makes up for his lack of height have proven to be something he’s becoming more and more comfortable taking advantage of.

Combine his quickness with the wingspan of a 6-foot, 11-inch player and you have a dangerous weapon on the defensive end — especially when combined with Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka or Kawhi Leonard. Anunoby’s lower body strength helps him gain optimal position under the glass and defensively, while his elite athleticism allows him to sky for rebounds over slower opponents.

So, while Anunoby was billed as a prototypical small forward, Nurse has seemingly unlocked a comfort level that simply wasn’t there in his rookie season when he was matched against similarly sized and quick opposing small-forwards.

The Futures of Norm at SG and OG the PF

These revelations beg a number of questions. First, are these changes permanent? Given the results we’ve seen thus far, I’d venture to say Nurse has found adequate roles for two players that were clashing (not on a personal level, of course) just a season ago. Where Casey would rarely play the two together for extended periods of time, Nurse has rolled the dice (mainly because of the litany of injuries early on this year) and landed two sixes.

Given an opportunity for consistency in these roles, I think it’s a safe bet that both Powell and Anunoby will further settle into them and eventually grow more comfortable as time goes on. With each player’s ability to step into the starting lineup if needed, it only adds to their overall importance to the roster as the season rolls on and as we approach the final stretch, post All-Star Weekend.

Whereas last season Powell was one of the team’s biggest liabilities, this season he’s quickly becoming one of the most trusted bench players on the team — especially given the season-long struggles of C.J. Miles.

Anunoby on the other hand, has adapted quicker than one could’ve expected given the position change. He’s naturally fit to play in the post — with excellent lower body strength, athleticism and a freakish wingspan — though his effectiveness will only stand to get better as his comfort level evens out — following a tumultuous and inconsistent beginning of the season.

The small-ball lineups look to be sorting themselves out, even amidst the most injury-riddled month in recent memory for this Raptors’ squad.

That, in my opinion, speaks volumes to Nick Nurse’s willingness to think outside of the box with his lineups and his player preconceptions — all while providing a glimpse into his style of rotations come playoff time.