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Player Preview: Is OG Anunoby ready for a starring role?

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Coming off his best season as a pro, OG Anunoby’s promising Bubble performances certainly suggests he is ready to take the next step with Toronto.

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

A year ago, I wrote a player preview for OG Anunoby. Entering the 2019-20 season at the time, Anunoby and the Raptors were in a much different place after the loss of Kawhi Leonard. The impossible expectation was out there that someone had to try and fill that role. Luckily for Anunoby, the burden fell on Pascal Siakam to take the next step as the team’s first option. Fred VanVleet increased his scoring and was the third leading scorer on the team while Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka all upped their offensive production from the season prior.

Not to be left out, Anunoby showed improvement across the board too. He averaged career highs in scoring, rebounding, and shooting percentage. More specifically, he jumped from 7.0 to 10.7 points per game, his rebounding (something I believed he needed to improve with Leonard’s departure) went from just under three to 5.3 boards per contest, and he shot his best from deep (39 percent) and the free throw line (71 percent). However, a lot of this improvement came down to Anunoby’s availability. He averaged 29.9 minutes per game while playing in 69 of Toronto’s 72 regular season games.

Now with the departure of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, even more opportunity has opened for Anunoby. Fortunately, if the Bubble and preseason were any indication, OG appears to be ready for a bigger role.

Expectations

Anunoby’s Bubble performances gave us a good insight into what we might see from him this season. First, he spent a lot of time working on his handle and showed a greater ability at being able to break down his defender with the dribble. In the clip below, we see him reject a screen, take two dribbles, and go into a controlled spin for an easy layup.

Balance has always been an issue for Anunoby and his work in between the suspension of the season and the Bubble showed improvement in this while attacking the rim. In the first preseason game against Charlotte, OG once again showed tightened handles, improved balance, and better footwork, scoring in a way we rarely seen him.

The second thing we’ve seen from Anunoby is his advance positional versatility. When Ibaka and Gasol had trouble dealing with the speed of Kemba Walker in the playoffs, coach Nick Nurse decided to go small to stop giving up the corner threes the Celtics were creating. In came Anunoby playing at centre. Due to his strength and speed on the defensive end, Anunoby was able to rebound well enough and also switch onto smaller guards when needed. That helped the Raptors get the stops they desperately needed in that series.

Anunoby was an improved rebounder last season. He averaged 5.3 boards over the regular season and that jumped in the postseason to an average of 6.9 over 11 games. I mentioned in his last season’s player preview that Anunoby can be a more athletic version of P.J. Tucker. If the Raptors are going to compete with Anunoby playing minutes at centre, he must be able to keep his rebounding numbers closer to those playoff numbers. He will be tasked with guarding Bam Adebayo and Tristian Thompson who, while undersized compared to, say, Joel Embiid, are tenacious rebounders.

With the addition of Aron Baynes and Alex Len, and the return of Chris Boucher, Anunoby will not be the full-time centre. We have already seen Nurse adjust the rotation this preseason, however, so as to have Lowry and Anunoby start second quarters with no true big man on the floor. In this configuration, Anunoby will likely play many of his minutes besides Boucher and Siakam and often take on the biggest player on the floor. What’s more, it’s probable we’ll see a closing lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Norman Powell, Siakam, and Anunoby.

What’s Next

This is could be a big season for Anunoby, who is up for a contract extension. With the news that Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks for five years, Anunoby’s extension can come sooner rather than later with Toronto. Players in his class signed big deals this offseason (e.g. Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo) and Anunoby has shown enough so far in his young career that he can demand the big bucks. He is already a defensive menace, has shown to be a playoff performer, and has steadily improved in his first three years. He was ranked 68tth in the ESPN Player Rankings this season, his highest yet. Anunoby should be a Raptor past 2021, its all just a matter of timing.

We should see another leap this season for Anunoby, upping his scoring, rebounding, and minutes again. His numbers probably won’t jump off the page (e.g. they’ll likely be in the range of 14 PPG and 6.0 RPG, while shooting 75 percent from the free throw line). But if things go well, Anunoby is primed to make some All-Defense team noise and will continue to be a steady contributor for the Raptors.