The entire OG Anunoby experience right now is, outside of the deep stages of the post-season, the most thrilling place to be as a fan. It’s not often a player with the juice to change the fortunes of your franchise comes along, let alone one with such a slow burning developmental arc. The hope of what could be just might kill you eventually, but hitching your wagon to a rising star is just about as good as this sports thing gets.
OG’s fifth year, beginning tomorrow, is about possibilities; the road not yet paved but cleanly blueprinted. Expectation foretells disappointment, unless you don’t even know what exactly you’re looking for.
It’s fair to assume whatever is on tap for Anunoby this year will be some degree of good. He has of course been just that in each of his NBA seasons, with his niche ranging from super low-usage three-and-D rookie to wildly efficient third option who guards everyone, and guards them well. Each new campaign comes with additional forays into the type of stuff you like to see from true building blocks — a pick-and-roll run here, a pull-up mid-ranger there. All those moments have had an air of experimentation, like Anunoby’s been taking a peek in his bag just to see what’s in there. It feels like the last four years have been in service of what’s about to happen.
What OG did during Toronto’s exhibition schedule was different, more thrilling, and more all-encompassing than any flashes he’s conjured before. The puny insignificance of four preseason contests is notable, but every self-created three or punishing drive Anunoby completed over the last couple weeks felt like confirmation of the inklings those who’ve long speculated on his upside have held for years.
The breakout is coming in some form or another. What’s important now is enjoying the hell out of it while it’s happening. Worry about the big picture stuff later, relish the 6’8 marble slab of a dude drop 20-plus and moving even larger dudes with ease right now.
Growing pains are going to happen for Anunoby this season. It’s the inevitability that all but the very greatest face as their games expand. They’ll probably even be amplified in OG’s case, considering the circumstances under which he’s set to begin his ascent to a new plane. Toronto’s incumbent best player, Pascal Siakam, is out for who really knows how long to start the year; early, mid or late November all seem like reasonable ETA’s for the former All-NBA Second-Teamer. He is Toronto’s most dynamic ball-handler and scorer, and the third-best passer on the roster at worst. If Anunoby’s near-25 percent usage rate in the preseason is any indication, the majority of the burden Siakam confronts each night as the team’s number one is about to be shifted OG’s way. I’d guess few up-and-coming guys with All-Star aspirations have faced the sort of trial-by-fire Anunoby is about to run up against in the weeks before Siakam returns to share the load.
That said, there’s a lot to pull from the preseason to suggest Anunoby just might be ready for all that responsibility. It could be that he weathers the extra attention defenses throw his way in month one admirably, if not totally flawlessly, and the return of Siakam sets him up for even more of an explosion than he might have been in line for with a fully-healthy roster from the jump; like dropping a difficulty level in 2K and becoming unbeatable to your piddly A.I. foes.
His work on the ball over those four warm-up outings does inspire hope. Clearly given the green light to test some stuff out, Anunoby continued the years-long trend of scaling up his workload without hurting his efficiency, and did so on a far more difficult diet of looks than he’s used to.
Per NBA.com, 97.1 percent of Anunoby’s threes in 2020-21 were assisted, with assists leading to 70.3 percent of his total baskets. Heap all the preseasony grains of salt onto these numbers you like, but those figures were down to 53.8 and 50 percent respectively over the exhibition schedule. His True Shooting percentage not only held steady, but spiked to 69.1 percent. Again, it’s four workshop games. But damn. His assist totals held steady at 2.2 a game, and he sported a turnover rate of just 14.3 percent, the same as Fred VanVleet.
None of these figures are to say that Anunoby is for sure about to take the East by storm. Plenty of guys shine under the dimmed and bizarre lights of the preseason only to not quite parlay that into sustained regular season success. Hell, Malachi Flynn looked better than LaMelo freaking Ball in the abbreviated lead up to their rookie years. However, the wildly altered shot profile, and the sheer comfort with which OG took on top scoring duties do lend credence to all the buzz from the broader NBA coverage world that has OG penciled in as one of the key swing characters of 2021-22.
What’s important now is to not let your expectations outpace reality. Even if Anunoby is loading up the springs for a leap, there’s almost no way the end product will be on display over the next six months. These things take time, and plenty of flashpoint learning moments. The first month will be a fast, extremely flavourful marinade to help out with the seasoning. But growth curves can’t progress without the rest of the league’s help. If OG comes out bombs away as a number on scorer early, the league will adjust, meaning he’ll have to in response, and so it’ll go until he maxes out his ability or slams through the ceiling. Jayson Tatum’s been going through the process Anunoby’s about to start for the better part of four seasons, and still isn’t anywhere close to finished. Most of the greats truthfully never are.
There is an outcome, perhaps a not terribly unlikely one, that sees Anunoby struggle to match his preseason efficiency, where is 20 percent mark on pull-up threes last year makes a comeback, and where his fledgling playmaking makes him an easy target for double-teams from which can’t keep the Raptors’ offense moving. His usually sterling efficiency will probably drop off some some degree. If his true shooting percentage falls slightly to 58 percent, that’s overwhelming success. If it tumbles to something below average — 53, even 52 percent, it’s by no means a failure. That’s not a conclusion anyone should be drawing about OG’s expansion for years.
The way Siakam has become one of the most idiotically discussed players in all of basketball should be a good example of how not to approach these next few years of Anunoby. Siakam went from delightful surprise to legit home grown star to guy who is apparently broken all within the span of a couple years. In actuality, Siakam is just fine, and this coming season could be yet another positive step in his grander growth arc as well. By April, the Siakam-slandering corners of Raptors internet and NBA media could end up looking pretty stupid. The same will apply to any reactionaries who jump at the first signs of struggle of Anunoby as some sort of proof that all the All-Star prognostication with him was off-base. If the first month is trying, that’s OK; more than that, it’s part of the deal. Impatience for the end destination will leave you wishing you’d paid attention on the way there.
It really sucks that this is true, but Anunoby’s contract will probably be what keeps the discourse about him several degrees cooler than it has been in Siakam’s case. He’s already wildly underpaid, and his new deal doesn’t even kick in until Wednesday. Any step he takes beyond the All-Defense-worthy, dead-eye shooter status he occupies today is a bonus; stagnation won’t come with the cap-brained laboriousness with which Siakam’s max deal is analyzed.
So there’s really no excuse not to revel in the excitement of what comes next for Anunoby. It’s new, and unknown. Whether Anunoby morphs into an All-NBA quality two-way monster, or something either a little or a lot less than that, is barely relevant right now. Worry about that in 2024. In the mean time, hitch your emotions to every last OG pull-up triple, or coast-to-coast dunk off a steal. Let him inspire a new array of gasps and yelps and other guttural mouth sounds you didn’t even know you could make with each pop of stardom. If he becomes the type of cornerstone he could be, Raptors fans will have years to discuss, debate and enjoy that completed version of Anunoby. You’ll only get one chance, however, to soak in each moment of the climb.