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Player Review: OG Anunoby revealed his importance to the Raptors this season

OG Anunoby proved this season that he’s the type of player every serious team needs.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to miss what OG Anunoby is while waiting for what you hope he can be. What he is, as he proved even through a stop-and-start 2021-22, is an extremely good basketball player — one who would make 29 others teams better were he in their employ.

Did he take the All-Star and/or Most Improved Player-like leap he was pegged for ahead of the year by onlookers both in and outside of Toronto? No. His efficiency tailed off on only a touch more usage than he saw during the Tampa season from hell, and injuries capped him at just 48 games played — not exactly the runway needed for a full take-off. The always unfair Kawhi Leonard 2.0 projections for the more optimistic (read: delusional) corners of the fan base can pretty comfortably be thrown out by now.

Anunoby’s caché was also hurt by something entirely out of his control. While he was hanging on the shore nursing his various nicks and bruises, the other core guys got caught up in the rapidly rising tide that tends to sweep up any team that vastly overshoots expectations. Scottie Barnes is the next crown prince of Toronto; Pascal Siakam’s an All-NBA stud of an offensive engine; Precious Achiuwa is the Raps’ front office’s newest prized piece; Gary Trent Jr. scores buckets, which people love; Fred VanVleet made the freaking All-Star team. It’s a tough cast in which to stand out, especially for a guy like Anunoby, whose most important contributions come in less sexy and obvious ways.

Anunoby fills the gaps between star talent about as well as any player alive, and has since his rookie season, where he started on a 59-win team. This year came with a little more in the way of forays into front-facing self-creation — and rightfully so, considering his age, tools, and the fact that this season was mostly about fact finding to help shape the team’s structure going forward. The results ofOG’s experimentation weren’t a total disaster or anything like that, but they did point to Anunoby’s best lot on this version of the Raptors being one where he connects instead of initiates, albeit with a little more responsibility than he had in that first season, when he sported a teensy 12.4 usage rate.

His shot chart evolved in 2021-22 from its usual shape from the previous four years. Where the pure 3-and-D version of Anunoby once lived mostly at the rim and in the corners (before this year he’d never ranked lower than the 79th percentile of NBA players by attempted corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass), Anunoby crept into the mid-range with more regularity, to not so thrilling results. His 34 percent hit rate on all mid-range looks ranked him in the 24th percentile among all players. And despite having a career-best year shooting from the corners (47 percent), he took a career-low 14 percent of his shots from the most efficient spot on the floor, his first time ever dipping below 21 percent in that department.

That’s kind of how it’s supposed to go when you’re testing your limits. It woulda been a stunner had he been notably efficient while scaling up, especially with how much variety was added to the types of possessions he finished. He posted up plenty and isolated twice as often as he ever had as a pro, with one in every eight OG possessions involving a clearout for those solo drives that look a little like a cross between a stork and a bulldozer. He scored just 0.61 points per possession in those spots, in the bottom 11-percent of all players to register an isolation per the NBA’s public tracking data.

Where he kicked ass on offense is where he’s always kicked ass: finishing plays on the tail end of the main offensive action. Per NBA.com, Anunoby ranked in the 95th percentile as a scorer on cuts and in the upper third of the league as a spot-up scorer. His bread and butter is gorging on the low-hanging fruit the likes of Siakam, VanVleet and now Barnes bring closer to the surface with all the attention they garner. And while it’s always nice to dream on a 6’8 wing levelling up into some sort of game-bending offensive force, every team needs someone to finish off plays the way Anunoby does.

What we learned about Anunoby this year, on the offensive end at least, is that he’s probably not the ideal guy to funnel the offense through. Siakam made the All-NBA team advancing in his playmaking enough to be a reliable engine powering the Raptors’ offense. Barnes crushed it from the mid-range and looks like a visionary playmaker in the making. VanVleet added a little more mid-range pop to pair next to his elite pull-up and drive and kick games. Those three guys — especially the two enormous playmaking forwards — should probably guide the bulk of Raptors possessions next year, and that’s fine. In fact, it would put Anunoby in the position where he’s never not succeeded.

The 2019 title team had a guy of a similar archetype in Year 3 Siakam; an opportunistic scorer who feasted upon the space Kawhi Leonard created with his gravity. The Raptors don’t win the title without his play-finishing, the same way most teams don’t win a thing without killer third and fourth options. Maybe Anunoby can’t do leading man stuff. Oh bother, I guess the Raptors will have to settle for him being the type of player every team on the planet needs. We haven’t even mentioned his defense, because posts about very obvious things are boring. He’s as comfortable guarding Trae Young as he is switched onto Nikola Jokic; he’s one of the 10 or so players alive who can actually claim five-position switchability. He’ll make an All-Defense team at some point if the voters ever get their shit together and stop voting for Matisse Thybulle’s 18 minute a night ass. With health, it could come as soon as next season. If you swapped him and say, DPOY finalist Mikal Bridges, the Suns would be no worse for wear. Toronto would be just fine, too, but with much less beef to throw around.

This spring, Anunoby added even more tape to the already bursting VCR-full of proof that he’s a post-season world destroyer. He can pop for 20-plus with the defense’s focus tilted elsewhere, and is the first answer Nick Nurse can turn to when an opposing player starts getting loose. Tyrese Maxey’s playoff breakout ran into an OG-sized wall once Nurse made that assignment switch back in April. For a team that will, at minimum, be looking to advance a round in the post-season in 2022-23, trading him away in some sort of illbegotten roster-balancing move seems like a pretty terrible idea, which is why Portland is probably shit outta luck with that speculated Josh Hart and no. 7 package.

Anunoby’s the kind of dude you want when the chips are down, for those spots in the early going of a season when your best player is sidelined recovering and you need a little improvised on-ball juice for a few weeks; in the closing stages of games where a slippery dude is a little much to handle for your other defenders; in the post-season when the first, second and third options aren’t always on the table. He’s the ace on the river to complete the royal flush. You probably shouldn’t count on it for all your success, but you’re damn thankful for it when it’s there.