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Making the early case for OG Anunoby as the NBA’s Most Improved Player

Despite Monday night’s unfortunate eye injury, OG has been a major bright spot on both ends for the Raptors so far this season. 

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Having been inactive during the Raptors’ historic championship run last spring, OG Anunoby had become somewhat of a forgotten man for Toronto in the eyes of many observers and fans. The second year pro out of the University of Indiana entered the 2018-19 campaign with high expectations following a solid rookie campaign. Unfortunately, a string of injuries as well as some personal misfortune kept him out of 15 regular season games last year, and, most significantly, the entire playoff run.

However in the early stages of the 2019-20 season, Anunoby has quickly reminded everyone of his prodigious talent and potential. Over the course of the Raptor’s first ten games, he has taken his game to another level on both ends of the floor and is in full ascension.

Entering the NBA, OG was seen by most front offices as a prospect with tremendous upside on the defensive end given his impressive 6’8”, 232-pound frame and 7’6” wingspan. The question mark regarding his ceiling as a pro was his offensive potential, specifically his shooting ability. In college, OG shot 36.5 percent from deep in a very limited sample size of only 72 attempts in his two-year stint. This season, he has taken a major leap forward offensively, shooting the ball at 52.8 percent from deep on 3.6 attempts per game. It ranks him fourth league-wide.

A deeper examination of his shooting charts shows that all of his 36 attempts from beyond the arc this season have either been on open (defender 4-6 feet away) or wide open (defender 6+ feet away) shots. This was similar to last year where 97 percent of his 202 attempts from three were open or wide open. What is markedly different, though, is that last year’s conversion rate was only 33.2 percent — almost 20 percent lower than so far this season. It’s likely OG’s shooting won’t stay that hot for an entire season, but it does mark his improved confidence and ability from deep.

Much like Pascal Siakam’s early-season shooting barrage, Anunoby’s improvements have been attributed to an offseason focussed on shooting mechanics. His shot this year is noticeably smoother. Additionally, Anunoby has improved at staying more engaged in a shooting stance throughout offensive possessions, allowing him to pull the trigger on shot opportunities more quickly and decisively than previously. The result is a conversion rate that is 17 percent higher than last season on catch-and-shoot threes.

Another important part of OG’s offensive success revolves around his shot selection. This season, he is either shooting open threes or attacking the rim with force. Out of his 47 attempts from inside the arc, 37 of them have been at the rim, and he’s converted those 67.6 percent of the time. With his athleticism and quickness, OG is finding success cutting with speed towards the rim on feeds from Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet. Not surprisingly, he leads the Raptors in dunks with 11.

On the defensive end OG has been as good as expected — or perhaps even better. His massive wingspan and quick feet allow him to guard literally anyone on the court. The full range of his defensive prowess was shown last Sunday in L.A. Anunoby had the daunting task of guarding LeBron James for much of the game. Despite King James recording a triple double (ho-hum), he had a poor shooting game, going only 5-of-15 from the field. On multiple occasions, LeBron’s attempts to drive to the rim were thwarted by the third year Raptor, who went toe-to-toe with the legend.

For a specific example, consider the 2:26 minute mark of the fourth quarter of that game. OG checked in with the Raptors up only four points and scuffling. After another missed shot by Toronto, LeBron picked up the ball and rushed up the court, attempting to drive through. OG anticipated the drive and denied him the lane entry, forcing James to pass at an open Anthony Davis beyond the arc. AD shot an air ball but L.A. gathered the offensive rebound, leading to a Kuzma three attempt. That shot missed as well, resulting in an empty trip for the Lakers.

A minute later, at the 1:19 minute mark and with Toronto up eight points, LeBron managed to switch to Siakam during an inbounds play and immediately drove to the rim. OG rapidly rotated to help his teammate, sealing off the lane and forcing LeBron to again pass off instead of finishing. Again, the result was an empty offensive possession for the home team. In short, when the Raps needed someone to step up defensively in the crucial final two and a half minutes of the game, OG was the man.

If Anunoby is to take his game to another level, he must improve a few key areas of his game. First, his handle needs to be better. He currently has neither the confidence nor the skills to consistently take solid defenders off the dribble one-on-one. However the opportunity is there. With his significant improvement from three, defenders have little choice but to get tighter on Anunoby to deny the long ball. This will open up space for him to drive, which in turn will keep defenders honest.

On the other side of the ball, OG has to stay alert and engaged more consistently. During some defensive possessions, he can check out mentally — either on a switch or off a screen, leaving his man wide open. This happened during last Wednesday’s game against Sacramento, resulting in a key three-pointer from Buddy Hield. For someone with so much defensive upside, lapses like these are inexcusable.

Anunoby has been very good so far this season. At times, it seems like he’s taking a similar leap to the one Pascal Siakam took last year. Of course, this remains to be seen — now even more so as we wait for more news on his injured right eye. However, if OG keeps shooting the ball as well as he currently is, and defends like he is able to, it should add up to a very impressive campaign, perhaps garnering some consideration for the league’s Most Improved Player award at season’s end.