How Kawhi Leonard’s departure paved the way for OG Anunoby to become the Raptors’ next breakout forward

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Zach LaVine has radically changed his shot selection this year, doing his best to conform to the Chicago Bulls‘ new (for them) offensive philosophy. Against the Toronto Raptors, though, he did this:

The man who smothered LaVine, forced him into an uncalled travel and contested his ridiculous turnaround fadeaway is OG Anunoby. This is the kind of stuff that made draftniks fall in love with Anunoby. From DraftExpress in 2017: “He has prototypical physical tools with his elite combination of size, length, strength and mobility, and demonstrated the ability to defend all five positions at the college level when he was dialed in and operating at maximum intensity.” 

Back then, the 6-foot-7 Anunoby was rumored to have a 7-foot-6 wingspan. It was measured at a little longer than 7-2 at the combine, but it is telling that people believed the exaggeration, which provided an easy answer to “how in the world did he do that?” Thaddeus Young and Nikola Vucevic might still be asking themselves that question:

Anunoby has moved into the starting small forward spot that Kawhi Leonard rented last season, and Toronto’s starting lineup has remained extremely stingy. With Fred VanVleet taking Danny Green’s place, the Raptors’ first five has a defensive rating of 101.9 through seven games. (Last season, the Kyle Lowry-Green-Leonard-Pascal Siakam-Marc Gasol lineup surrendered 107.7 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and 101.7 in the playoffs.) 

Toronto is the most efficient transition team in the league, per Synergy Sports, and only the Bucks and Rockets spend a higher percentage of their possessions in transition. Some of that is because Anunoby can do mean things like this:

Yoink!

It is easy to get excited about his defensive potential, especially when he talks about studying Leonard, Metta World PeaceDraymond Green and Scottie Pippen. Defense, however, is not the whole story. With Leonard out of the picture, and with opponents giving the Raptors’ other starters most of their attention, Anunoby has found spots where he can attack on offense. He is shooting an amazing but unsustainable 50 percent from 3-point range, and his most encouraging moments are the ones that hint that his game is going places that draft experts didn’t foresee. 

Anunoby is not going wild with playmaking; his usage rate is still a minuscule 12.8 percent, per NBA.com. But look at him squeeze this pass to Serge Ibaka in a 4-on-3 situation, Draymond-style: 

And here he is with two clever passes to VanVleet in a matter of seconds:

The Raptors want to beat teams with improvisation, unpredictability and ball movement. Ideally, they would like everyone on the floor to be able to make 3s and, just as important, make quick decisions. It would be franchise-changing if Anunoby becomes the kind of off-the-dribble shooter that allows him to go to his Kawhi impression consistently … 

… but for now I’m more impressed with this kind of thing:

ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted early in the season that Anunoby is driving more often and more effectively. That has continued. He has always had the requisite speed to beat his man off the dribble, and he entered the league as a better ballhandler than advertised. He has improved in that area, though, and improved, even more, when it comes to his footwork in the paint:  

At times, he still looks young and overly ambitious …

…but at other times, he looks like a seasoned vet: 

The way Toronto plays, though, Anunoby does not need to create all that much. He can find easy baskets simply by making himself a threat on cuts. The Raptors have a bunch of high-IQ passers, and Siakam in particular likes looking for him:

I would personally like to see more Siakam-Anunoby pick-and-rolls:

Anunoby had a difficult second season on and off the court, but he is just 22 and has never looked better. “He’s growing each game and he’s blossoming,” VanVleet said, via the Toronto Sun, which is similar to how everybody was talking about Siakam this time last year. 

It’s too early to anoint Anunoby a Most Improved Player candidate, but the mere fact that it seems possible is evidence that he is making a leap. For a team that has a fuzzier future than any recent defending champion, Anunoby’s continued development offers Toronto something solid.