OG Anunoby’s Continuous Improvement Should Pay Off In A Big Way In 2021-22

Player by player, move by move, the core of the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors title team is leaving their Canadian post. First, it was Kawhi Leonard. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka followed a year later. Norman Powell was dealt at last season’s trade deadline. Kyle Lowry joined the Miami Heat earlier this month. The infrastructure of that team is dissipating and it’s paved the way for guys such as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet to blossom in expanded roles.

You can count OG Anunoby among those Raptors who will receive more chances to showcase the depths of his game. Following Lowry’s departure and coming off a season where he ushered in major strides, a larger role at this state of his development could be the perfect storm to usher Anunoby onto the precipice of stardom.

A year ago, Anunoby averaged 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 60.5 percent true shooting (.480/.398/.784 split) while staking his (unsuccessful, but nonetheless valid) claim for an All-Defense Team spot on the wing. He was a hellacious on- and off-ball defender and considerably more adept as a creator, even if ample room for improvement remains in the latter area. The problem was various ailments confined him to just 43 games and the Raptors’ turbulent Tampa tenure saw them finish under .500 for the first time since 2012-13, both of which hid some of his breakthrough.

While Toronto may once again dip below .500 this season, another jump from Anunoby would vault him to a borderline All-Star after serving as an above-average starter during his 43 games in 2020-21. Achieving that means building upon the self-creation bedrock he established last season and patching up the holes that prevented it from being a reliable source of offense.

By no means is he primed to become one of the NBA’s preeminent wing initiators, but the foundation of consistent creation manifested much more regularly last season. He touts bulldozer strength, which allows him to overpower opponents on post touches and face-ups. His handle, while very much still in a developmental phase, is tiers better than his rookie year and enables him to facilitate some on-ball volume.

Still just 24 years old, and in tandem with his growth curve, Anunoby’s fourth-year maturation was rather encouraging for his offensive projection. He should never be burdened as a primary catalyst, yet the defense is so superb that simply another sizable step forward will drive him toward stardom. Expect the Raptors to see how far they can stretch his creation next season in an aim to both find the optimal threshold during his prime and elevate its ceiling.

To heighten that creation quota, Anunoby needs to refine aspects of his arsenal. Whether that means merely evolving as a shot-maker as many young guys do upon their prime, or addressing his shortcomings with ball-handling, balance and vertical leaping are within his domain. These facets are not mutually exclusive; the final three developmental regions can absolutely (and probably would) influence the shot-making. But at this stage, he’s not quite prepared to be the third creator because of those limitations. He was the No. 4 cog behind Siakam, Lowry, and VanVleet a year ago. The hierarchy is rearranged in light of Lowry’s absence.

The ball will swing his way against more set defenses. He will become more prominent on scouting reports. Currently, his North-South handle remains a pressing issue, particularly if the intention is to scale up his offensive role. He struggles navigating tight quarters as a creator and contact tends to perturb him significantly. It’s why his handle is best weaponized in an East-West manner with crossovers and spin moves. When he tries to maintain a controlled dribble and leverage his strength on drives, he either loses his handle or falls off balance.

That incongruity seeps into his balance issues. Despite being so strong in many regards, applying that strength as a slasher and self-creator isn’t always his forte. He often fails to generate power on drives while staying on balance. By the time he’s near the rim, he cannot stably explode off one foot to finish. The imbalance sacrifices so much of his strength advantage, which is exacerbated by poor one-foot leaping and inflexibility.

Wiggle or controlled, meaningful “oomph” isn’t typically existent on his drives when a clear lane is not available or forged via East-West handling. Expecting continued evolution with his handle is reasonable, given the history thus far, but these other faults seem much more embedded into his physical profile. They don’t have to prevent him from reaching stardom, nor do I anticipate they will, yet it’s nonetheless useful to acknowledge some of the sterner caps on his offensive ceiling.

The counter then, as I view it, to still jack up his usage without magnifying his flaws is more second-side creation instead of on-ball deployment. Second-side creation, for me, is defined as just anything where he’s not the one initiating a possession from the outset. He can still create or finish the possession, but his involvement is not the genesis of a play or action. If it is, it’s in a favorable matchup/context or in space away from the sea of help defenders.

Because his driving potential may not quite be as enticing as one might imagine from a 6’8 forward with a 7’2 wingspan, the pull-up jumper feels vital for his creation ascension. He can still intermittently chisel his way to the rim on handoffs, but holstering a viable pull-up jumper for some utility in these actions would be a substantial boon.

His pull-up frequency spiked from 7 percent in 2019-20 to 13.1 percent last season. While he only shot 27.9 percent on these 68 attempts, such a hefty increase requires a degree of adjustment that may surface later than the volume spike; remember, development can arise merely through improved shot-making. He exhibited some comfort off the bounce and parlaying that comfort into competency is an important step. If the handling trajectory sticks and he pairs this volume bump with newfound efficiency, scaling up the usage becomes a lot more appealing.

A threatening pull-up in certain on-ball occasions would put defenders in trickier spots and perhaps open driving lanes, which might be more readily available through a sharpened handle. He’s not imposing shooting off the dribble against pressure because his dribble to shoot transfer (read: gather phase) is a bit messy and his handle demands serious tightening to suffice if/when defenders fight over screens to crowd him.

But incremental progress in both outlets could exponentially matter. Offensive skills regularly compound, which is the case here. Second-side creation projects as his preferred upscaling and these factors will determine its efficacy. If he authors said headway, it’ll also empower him to further showcase his interior playmaking chops, where he skillfully identifies when he’s drawn the attention of multiple defenders and small pockets of space emerge to capitalize.

Because of his aforementioned physical hindrances, slashing to score won’t always be available. That does not mean, though, slashing itself cannot persist under the assumption of continued handling advancements or bolstering the face-up volume to exploit strength-based advantages.

Anunoby’s chances for stardom must be assessed through the prism of increased offensive impact. Many of the pathways have already been laid out — plus, some juice as a roller and off-screen shooter. Interior passing is a skill in his toolbag, but one that becomes more useful in the event of enacting wider means to compromise defenders as a driver or mismatch mercenary in the post.

For as many gaps in the offense as there are for him, his defense checks basically every mark among the league’s contemporary crop of premier wing defenders. He can credibly guard 2s, 3s, and 4s, as well as some 1s and 5s on certain occasions. He’s versatile off the ball, functioning on the interior, as the weak-side low man, and around the perimeter. Moving forward, he should be a mainstay among All-Defense Team conversations, with health probably being the foremost reason he failed to earn a nod last season.

On the ball, he’s shockingly nimble for a 6’8 man with his brawn. He floats laterally to cover ground and stymie preferred angles, and seamlessly absorbs contact in stride. His center of gravity allows him to get low for mobility and still fluidly change directions; creating space against him is arduous. On post-ups, he can fluster some assignments with his reach and capacity to anchor himself. Averaging just 3.9 fouls per 100 possessions last season, he doesn’t bite on many hesitations or shot fakes. His 7’2 wingspan is the exclamation point of his overwhelming stopper package.

He’s also hawkish off the ball, aptly pinging from responsibility to responsibility with his enabling physical tools. Above the break and near the nail, he floats around to spin passes or dribbles into takeaways. His hands are ridiculously strong and large. Those dimensions seemingly surprise offenses and he’s constantly blowing up actions at the elbow.

In contexts closer to the rim, he’s quite effective as a weak-side helper, whether that’s tagging on rolls or altering attempts around the rim. Players shot 7.2 percent worse than their average within 6 feet of the hoop against Anunoby last season, which ranked 38th among 181 players to contest at least three shots per game, according to NBA.com. Top 40 isn’t elite, but for a guy whose chief defensive attributes are on the ball or at the nail, faring that well is notable and underscores his malleability.

A healthy season inserts him squarely into the All-Defense conversation. It won’t be the byproduct of some gargantuan leap on that end. He was good enough in 2020-21 and injuries hamstrung his candidacy. Yet if he finds himself garnering All-Star buzz around the turn of the calendar, that will, almost certainly, stem from climbing another rung of the offensive ladder.

Perhaps his handle inches even closer toward being an asset and ripples into other elements of his creation. Perhaps this is the year the surging pull-up volume is accompanied by efficiency. Whatever happens, if it happens, will likely spring him into that tier of young, star wings and help ease Toronto’s pain of losing yet another pillar from its 2018-19 championship run.