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OG Anunoby has become the backbone of the Raptors

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Currently out of the lineup with a strained calf, OG Anunoby’s absence from the Raptors has highlighted just how much Toronto relies on their fourth-year forward.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

When OG Anunoby missed time in the 2018-19 season, the Toronto Raptors won twelve games and lost three. This season, Anunoby has missed three games, and they have already lost two. Times were very different of course. Back in 2018-19, Anunoby was a bench player in his sophomore year for Toronto, playing by Kawhi Leonard, and battling for minutes on an eventual championship-winning squad. Now, OG has transformed himself into one of the team’s more important players, and when he’s out with an injury, the team struggles without him.

So why have the Raptors been lost without Anunoby in 2020-21? And just how much better has Anunoby been this year? As has often been the case with OG, let’s start with his defense — which is the best it’s ever been.

Anunoby’s Case for the All-Defensive Team

Anunoby was known for his defense coming out of the NBA Draft and he’s improved on it every year since entering the league. His strength and 7-foot-1 wingspan give him the versatility to guard positions one through five. He also is a great off-ball defender, with the awareness to get into passing lanes and disrupt play. Anunoby currently ranks second in steals with 2.1 per game (career-high) and seventh in deflections with 3.5 per game.

Anunoby is a pivotal piece of the Raptors defense. When Anunoby is in the lineup, they allow 13 fewer points per 100 possessions, a number that ranks him at the 95th percentile of all players. Toronto becomes a top-four defense in the league when he’s playing and the worst in the league when he’s off. Opposing teams shoot an effective field goal rate of 5.4 percent worse when OG is on, and that includes an astonishing 7.5 percent worse at the rim.

Anunoby’s on/off stats alone display how important he is to the team and that he should be in real consideration for an All-Defensive team. Last year his on/off stats didn’t pop out as much because of how good the Raptors’ team was with Marc Gasol in the lineup. But with Anunoby being far and away the team’s best and most consistent defender, his impact is far more noticeable.

But really, there was never any doubt on Anunoby’s ceiling as a defender. The question marks surrounding him were always about how much he could develop his offensive game. In this, Anunoby has shown incremental improvement throughout his first three seasons, but this year — after a cold start — he has taken a bigger jump than usual.

Anunoby’s Newfound Potency on Offense

When Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry were announced out against the Indiana Pacers, coach Nick Nurse had to replace the Raptors’ offensive production with another player. He decided to go with OG Anunoby — and he didn’t disappoint. In his effort, Anunoby had something of a breakout game, tying his career-high for field goal attempts with 16. He also scored 30 points (two points below his career-high), went to the line ten times, and scored six of the last nine Raptors’ points to close the game and lead them to victory.

Against a solid opponent, OG looked like a legitimate number one option and he did it by overpowering players with his strength. Taking a bigger player like Domantas Sabonis to the rim and scoring was impressive. Anunoby was fearless and it was a perfect showcase for the improvements he’s made on the offensive end this year.

So far, Anunoby is currently averaging a career-high effective field goal rate at 61 percent which ranks him in the 95th percentile of all forwards. He’s also shooting 42 percent from three, 71 percent around the rim, and doesn’t shoot long- to mid- range shots (only 5 attempts), per Cleaning The Glass. Taken altogether, this has spiked OG’s efficiency rates as high as they’ve ever been, with scareer-highs in True Shooting percentage (63 percent) and usage (16.3 percent).

Anunoby’s biggest improvement from three is his shooting when left open (4-6 feet). Last season when left open, he shot 33.8 percent on 1.2 attempts per game, compared to 48.8 percent on 2.4 attempts per game this season. Anunoby’s increased volume on threes (from 3.3 last season to 5.7 attempts this season) seems to give him the confidence needed to be a better knockdown shooter in tighter spaces.

The most fascinating improvement in Anunoby’s game so far this season has been his finishing around the rim. He went from going to the rim with a hot potato in his hand to being much more meticulous. Anunoby looks calm, poised, and calculated now when attacking; he anticipates shot-block attemps, uses his body as a shield to finish, and shows a bit more craftiness to his game we haven’t quite seen before. Don’t believe me? Check out this sequence as a good example of Anunoby’s newfound craftiness.

Former Raptors Jakob Poeltl and Rudy Gay both have their hands ready to block, but OG Anunoby is prepared and double clutches the layup. Had this been last season, Anunoby might not have seen them looming, or tried to force the issue which likely would have ended with his shot being sent back. been blocked — something that used to occur too often for a player his size. In 301 attempts last season, OG got blocked 52 times; in all, a total of 17.3 percent of his shots at the rim got blocked. This season that percentage has been almost halved, dropping to 9.2 percent.

To achieve this success, Anunoby has shown himself to be much more patient with the ball than he was before. Here he baits Joel Embiid into thinking he’ll go up, and once Embiid is in the air it’s an easy lay-up for OG — which is no small thing with a player as good (and big) as Embiid. OG does the same thing in the following play, this time waiting and then muscling past Steven Adams, no slouch of a defender at the rim.

Anunoby’s coolness in traffic has spiked his at-the-rim shooting percentage from 64 percent last season to a ridiculous 71 percent this year. In all, he just isn’t as rushed when going to the rim anymore, and as a result OG is becoming more of an offensive force for the Raptors.

Despite the improvements, Anunoby won’t be scoring 30 points every night anytime soon — no matter how much we’d love that. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take on more responsibility as a secondary or tertiary option moving forward for the Raptors. Anunoby has too much capability to be used as a regular 3-and-D player. And with the team’s championship aspirations out the window for now, there’s no better time to make Anunoby an integral part of not only the team’s defense, but its offense too.