Replacing arguably the best player in the league is a daunting prospect no matter the scenario. When Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors for Los Angeles, he left a hole roughly the size of a 6’7”, 230-pound small forward with a 7’2” wingspan and stoic facial expression. Conveniently, OG Anunoby slots into that hole about as perfectly as any player in the NBA would, at least as far as physical attributes go.
Obviously, Anunoby would not even come close to having the impact that Leonard did, but if every player around him on the Raptors roster picked up the slack, and Anunoby showed improvement, this was still a dangerous team. Held out of last year’s playoffs as a result of an emergency appendectomy after a season where he was in and out of the lineup for various reasons, it almost felt like Anunoby was a new addition. Development by Anunoby was one of the main reasons Raptors fans did not believe the team would see a serious drop off in wins. Lately, however, his offensive contributions have not been enough for a shorthanded Raptors team that desperately needs a spark on that end.
Anunoby’s theoretical peak is about as tantalizing as possible for a player who does not project as a star in the NBA. That is not to put a ceiling on Anunoby, as doing so with the Raptors’ history of player development has proven foolhardy in the past. What separates a role player from a star, however, is the ability to create offensively for oneself and teammates. That is one of the few areas in Anunoby’s game that he has not shown significant potential. Why he remains so important to the present and future of the Raptors is because of the other things that he does.
His body and skill set reflect the prototypical role player in today’s league. The two things that the modern NBA is built upon are defensive versatility, and three-point shooting. If a player excels in both departments, then they have the ability to slot into virtually any lineup, play any style, and make a positive impact on both ends of the floor. Since his rookie year, Anunoby has shown the aptitude to do both at a high level.
Defensively, Anunoby is an impact player to both the analytically inclined and those who rely on their eyes for their information. Between his height and powerfully built, muscle bound frame, Anunoby cedes little ground physically. His lateral quicks allow him to mirror even the shiftiest of opponents, and his condor-like wingspan offers some margin for error and the ability to make calculated gambles without compromising his position. He can credibly defend positions 1-4 and battle a centre in a pinch.
Anunoby’s numbers, though slightly more ambiguous, tell a similar story. He ranks tenth amongst small forwards in defensive win shares according to NBA.com. His tracking stats from the same site see opponents shooting 3.3 percent worse when he is their primary defender. Advanced defensive stats obviously don’t give the entire picture, but Anunoby typically checks in at least above average in these categories.
Anunoby looks every bit the player Raptors fans hoped he could be on defense. It is on offensive where the problem lies. Even at full health, team offense, particularly in the half-court, is not a strength of the Raptors. When the injuries to Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell occurred, it became clear that these issues would be exacerbated. It is then when players with a lesser role, such as OG Anunoby, would get increased opportunity offensively. Where some teammates have thrived, Anunoby’s offense has dipped.
As I noted above, Anunoby is not a player who will create a basket for himself in an otherwise lost possession. That being said, with the injuries, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are the only two active players that will always be looked to for offense before Anunoby. On any given night, Anunoby can then be the third option for the Raptors. Unfortunately, that has not been the case since the first game since the injuries against the Washington Wizards, where he shot 2-of-5 from 3-point range and finished with 18 points, easily his best game of this recent stretch.
Since that game, Anunoby has shot just 2-of-19 from deep and averaged 7.8 points per game. Oof. Anunoby’s success on offense obviously revolves around his shooting. It is lazy analysis to say that Anunoby needs to hit his three-pointers but… Anunoby needs to hit his three-pointers. It is impossible to be considered a 3-and-D player if you only excel in the latter.
What was somewhat heartening in the Raptor’s most recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was Anunoby’s willingness to keep gunning. Yes, he finished 0-of-7 from three, but that he continued to fire without hesitation was positive. Too often, a couple early misses seem to spook Anunoby, causing him to be more wary about his shooting, and less willing to fire away when he is open. It is obviously extremely cliché to say, but great shooters have short memories, and Anunoby needs to develop that mentality to fully unlock his offense.
OG has proven that he can be a good shooter in stretches, so if he continues to shoot when he is open, opponents will at least have to respect him. It is in that respect that his developing skill attacking the rim can fully be utilized. If OG can get a step on a defender, whether that’s blowing by a closing out defender or otherwise, good things tend to happen.
Though not necessarily a metric, my confidence meter when Anunoby has a head of steam and going towards the rim is at a healthy 8 out of 10. In the prior two years, Anunoby could look out of control in this scenario and force something that was not necessarily there. When Matt Devlin drops a nervous “easy now” when you’re attacking, it likely means that is not the best source of offense for the Raptors. A younger Anunoby was a prime candidate for the “easy now.”
That is no longer the case, as Devlin will instead start building his voice to a crescendo when OG attacks in anticipation of an exciting play. When he gets to the rim, OG uses his ridiculous strength, athleticism, and body control to finish in unorthodox yet often spectacular ways. A shockingly soft touch to go with his brute force make him a very effective finisher in the paint, as he shoots 67 percent at the rim according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranks him in the 80th percentile amongst forwards, a position rife with talented at-rim finishers.
Toronto’s offense is rarely run through Anunoby though, so the onus falls on him to take advantage of opportunities when he sees them. Doing so also allows him to continue his development as a passer. He’s not Steve Nash, but if he continues to attack and draw attention, he can at least make a smart read and find an open man. Once again, this all starts with a willingness to shoot the three-pointer.
An OG Anunoby that is shooting the three at an above average rate, and opportunistically attacking the rim is the Anunoby that the Raptors need to attain their ceiling as a team this year and in the years to come. The team has sometimes had success in bench lineups without him, but in the playoffs where the rotations tighten, the Raptors need their best guys, of which Anunoby is absolutely one, to play like it. For now, a confident Anunoby on offense can be the difference between wins and losses for a hobbled Raptors team with a razor thin margin for error.
It should be noted that there is a correlation between good offensive numbers and the Raptors being at full strength. This likely means that he benefits from less attention placed on him, which makes sense considering his offensive game is predicated on open shots and attacking windows that could have been opened by other players. Nonetheless, Raptors fans, myself included, believe that he can do more with his talent, regardless of the circumstances, and the benefit of that to the team would be immense.
The void left by Kawhi Leonard is impossible to truly replace, but OG Anunoby has the opportunity to play a role in a valiant effort to do so. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and even Norman Powell have taken up the mantle this year, and though he showed signs of doing so early this season, Raptors fans are still waiting on Anunoby to fully embrace this opportunity. It is a long season, and a few nights of hot shooting can change the narrative entirely, but we need more out of OG Anunoby right now.