For most NBA players, the third season is when we get a good idea of who they are as players. Unless they’re a top 5 pick, there isn’t much pressure on rookies to come in and be major contributors right away. Naturally, we’ll still look for some bright spots in their games and discuss what role they could fill for a franchise for the next 4-7 years.
But the next year? That second year is a beast on its own. The league has a full season of footage. Opponents knowing their tendencies, hot spots, strengths and weaknesses. Fans place borderline unrealistic expectations on the player and, in some cases, organizations do the same. These are all things the player must now overcome if they want to continue that upward trajectory. It’s no coincidence most players struggle. That’s why we call it the sophomore slump.
For OG Anunoby, he hit that slump, albeit not as you would expect. At the beginning of training camp last season, his father passed. He dealt with a myriad of injuries all season long — always popping up just as he was putting together a good string of games — including one that knocked him out for the entirety of the Raptors post-season run. He was relegated to the bench with the Kawhi Leonard trade and into the back-up 4 spot, a position he rarely played in his rookie season. On and off the court, it was just a difficult year for Anunoby.
But things are looking up. In his interview with TSN’s Josh Lewenberg, Anunoby talked about his summer, including getting invited to Kobe’s camp alongside Norman Powell.
The good news (or bad news depending on how you see it) is that Toronto’s team composition has changed. Which means… opportunity galore! How can Anunoby take advantage entering his third season?
Role on the Team
As I mentioned, the opportunity is there. With the departure of Kawhi and Danny Green, a whole bunch of minutes and shot attempts have opened in the starting lineup. Coach Nick Nurse has hinted at playing Pascal Siakam at the 3 with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but that seems to be a situational lineup against longer frontcourts like the Philadelphia 76ers. That leaves Anunoby, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the players all vying for minutes and a starting position.
It should be Anunoby’s spot to lose. He’s a better perimeter shooter at 35 percent than Johnson (29.3 percent) and Hollis-Jefferson (22.3 percent), and he’s already built a level of trust with Kyle Lowry, the main engine of the Raptors.
Depending on who’s starting at the two (my guess is Norman Powell) the starting lineup could use his perimeter shooting to space the floor for Siakam’s post game. Anunoby is also versatile defensively and can guard spots one through four effectively, with the potential to form a disruptive pairing with Siakam.
If the lineup does shake out to be Lowry/Powell/Anunoby/Siakam/Gasol, OG could very well fill the spot left by Danny Green as the lineup’s 3-and-D guy. Powell and Siakam should see an increase in shot attempts, while Lowry and Gasol act as the playmakers. Anunoby would be that glue that makes the lineup work on both sides of the ball.
Discussing Anunoby’s weaknesses in the past had always been about his perimeter shooting, or his lack of ability to break teams down with the dribble, or more recently his abysmal free-throw shooting. While being a great perimeter defender with incredible defensive tools — 6’8 with 7’3 wingspan and the lateral quicks to keep up with faster guards — would it be asking too much to think about how he could improve as a defender? Especially if he already did this to perhaps the best offensive player in the game in his rookie season?
We’ve seen how great Anunoby has been as an on-ball defender. What separates him from, let’s say, P.J. Tucker, is rebounding. Tucker stands at 6’6” but routinely plays the 5-spot for Houston because of how well he rebounds. Anunoby is more athletic but is a poor rebounder for his height. He struggled mightily as a small ball power forward despite being strong enough to bang down low. One of the many thing Toronto will miss with Leonard’s departure was the rebounding he gave Toronto at his position.
We know Marc Gasol is not the best rebounder at his position anymore and that Siakam likes to leak in transition, meaning someone needs to gobble up those defensive rebounds. The next step Anunoby needs to take is showing a consistent effort on the glass.
While not a Pascal Siakam-level leap, watch for a noticeable improvement in Anunoby’s all-around game (rebounding, decision making, and ball handling) with a specific focus on being a knock-down corner shooter for the starters.