OG Anunoby is young but getting older — at least by the strange aging standards of the NBA, where being in your late 20s makes you a veteran and anyone into their 30s is viewed as an oracle to be mined for wisdom.
Heading into his fifth year, the 24-year-old year-old Toronto Raptors forward has some official leadership responsibilities — he was anointed as one of the new-look roster’s three pillars, along with Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
It’s a new role. “I’ve been for so long now, it’s my fifth year so, (so I’m) old but young still,” he said. “So, I’m still learning also — some guys are older than me; Goran (Dragic) is older than me, I’m still learning from him. And then (I’m) also helping the younger guys, so I’m in the middle kind of, but still a leader.”
That’s off the floor, or in practice. “Just (show) how, like how coach expects us to play hard, our pillars defensively, offensively, what’s a good shot, what’s a bad shot. Just the structure we usually have to play with. Just show those guys …”
But Anunoby’s role should expand on the floor, too. The Raptors could certainly benefit if he’s up to the task.
“Watching him early here in camp I think he’s continued to expand his offensive game, so I think people will see that,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster.
“Also, our message to him is continue to expand the offensive stuff but keep the defence at an all-NBA level. And he’ll also get a chance here early with (Pascal Siakam out recovering from shoulder surgery) here early, so it will be a big chance for him to be in a bigger role.”
He’s already come miles from the defense-first rookie who was trusted with little more than spot-up shooting duties. The growth has been incremental and has been stifled at times with injuries. His entire second season was almost a wash-out as a result, but in his third season he took a big leap after the league went on hiatus for four months after the pandemic struck in March of 2020. When play resumed in the bubble in Orlando, Anunoby was far more assertive with the dribble, more effective at finishing drives and was even showing some signs of an in-between game to complement much improved three-point shooting.
Last season he took another jump, and kept growing during the compressed, off-kilter season. He had an 11-game stretch early in the season when he shot 54 per cent from three on nearly six attempts a game, showing his utility as a high-end ‘3-and-D’ wing, the kind of player any elite team craves. At that point he was shelved 10 games with a calf injury. He came back briefly before missing another three weeks due to COVID-19 protocols.
But it was the next 20 games that offered the most reason for encouragement. With the roster largely emptied out and the push for best draft lottery odds in full swing, the Raptors put the ball in Anunoby’s hands and watched.
His usage rate increased to 22 per cent — significantly higher than his 14 per cent career average — as for the first time it was his responsibility to initiate offense, rather than space the floor and wait for others to find him.
The results were impressive. Before being shut down for the final week of the year Anunoby averaged 18.3 points a game while shooting 40.1 per cent from three on nearly seven attempts a game. Even more significant was the way he was mixing his offense up. He averaged just 3.5 drives per game in 2019-20 but nearly doubled that to 6.7 per game in the last part of 2020-21.
It almost goes without saying that a 6-foot-7, 240-pound man who is deadly behind the three-point line but who can drive the lane and finish at the rim profiles as a major problem for opposing defenses.
Watching it all and taking notes has been Scottie Barnes, the Raptors’ prized rookie and another defence-first wing who Toronto hopes can grow into a dynamic offensive piece as his skills round out.
“You just see how strong (Anunoby is),” said Barnes after the Raptors’ first official practice of training camp on Tuesday. “He knows how to get to his spots on the floor and I think that’s a great thing to see … how he can get to the basket, force his will when he gets into the paint, be able to score, he’s really good at getting to his mid-range, getting up shots, he gets his shot up from three. I would say he’s really good, he’s a really good basketball player. He’s got all the tools.”
Anunoby isn’t a big talker with a microphone in front of him but privately he’s more willful and aware than he lets on. He knows that to make an all-NBA defensive team, his offence might be the deciding factor if votes get tight. Even though he’s in the first year of a four-year, $72-million contract extension, he knows that further individual and team success will only help his cause when he hits free agency again in what should be the prime of his career.
What did he try to add to his game this summer?
“Everything,” he said. “Shooting off the dribble, getting into the lane, finishing, and passing, (using my) teammates.”
Did he improve?
“I think so.”
The early returns have been positive — not only from the first official practice but from informal workouts over the summer.
“I think his skill set and scoring ability continues to develop,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think he’s put in a lot of work on it at both ends, I think there’s starting and ending drives, he’s gotten a little bit craftier, starting to get free and I think he’s gotten stronger and more balanced at the end of them and a (has) different array of ways to finish.
“But I also feel he’s developing a pretty good tempo of playing in between as well. Just being able to look at somebody and not necessarily go by him but make him move to get clearance for a shot as well.
“Again, continue to see progress with that,” said Nurse. “I think just from what I’ve seen this summer and today and this fall, I think he’s gotten better.
“We’ll see but, again, I think he’s got more things in his arsenal to be able to score.”
Anunoby growing as an offensive force would help the Raptors in all areas as they try to find their identity as a new-look team. The best way to lead in the NBA — whether young or old — is by example.