Throughout this season, much of the attention paid to the Toronto Raptors has surrounded their revamped offense. The Raps have been one of the East’s best teams over the last several seasons, but the predictability of their style of offense has come back to bite them in the playoffs. They’ve routinely been unable to generate good shots when it matters most, with their two best players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) experiencing dramatic drop-offs in their production and their role players being unable to mitigate the damage.
Dwane Casey talked a big game about changing not just Toronto’s shot distribution this season, but also the team’s style of play. The Raps have responded by backing up his talk, as they’re moving the ball with far more urgency and precision than in seasons past and getting out in transition to pursue early offense more often. Additionally, their shot distribution has changed to reflect the systemic improvements. All of these tweaks have resulted in the NBA’s fifth-best offense.
But the Raptors don’t just score points an elite level — they prevent points better than almost anyone, too. They’re one of two teams, along with the Golden State Warriors, that rank inside the top-five on both sides of the floor. Things didn’t start off that way, though. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Raptors ranked just 16th in defensive efficiency. Since that point, they’re third.
What happened after 12 games? Casey inserted rookie forward OG Anunoby into the starting lineup. Correlation obviously does not equal causation, but the team has been 10.1 points better per 100 possessions with Anunoby on the floor than off since he entered the starting lineup, per NBA.com. That’s the single best mark on the team.
After about a month of watching Anunoby defend his ass off as a bench player, the notoriously youngster-averse Casey simply felt compelled to make the rookie a starter. It’s the earliest in the season Casey has made a rookie a starter since Jonas Valanciunas in 2011. With 28 starts heading after Thursday night’s game against the Cavaliers, Anunoby has already started more games for the Raps during his rookie season than Toronto’s last four first-round picks (Terrence Ross, Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl) combined. Once he starts three more games, he’ll exceed the combined number of rookie-year starts for every first and second-rounder since Valanciunas. (Norman Powell started 24 games as a rookie.)