Back in early March it seemed as though OG Anunoby was finding his offensive footing as a valuable 3-and-D role player with the kind of defensive versatility today’s NBA teams are always thirsting for. He seemed destined to be an extremely valuable defensive player with limited offensive skills. Frankly, that would have been totally OK for the Toronto Raptors to get out of the former 23rd overall pick. But then Norman Powell was traded to Portland and the Raptors found themselves with an offensive hole. They gave Anunoby the ball and maybe for the first time in his career the 23-year-old forward ran with it.
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet might always have more offensive firepower, but Anunoby’s on-ball offensive development this season was the most important story of the year for Toronto. It seemed to be the beginning of something really special for Anunoby and the Raptors and could be a harbinger of very big things coming just next season.
Prior to Powell’s departure at the March 25th trade deadline, Anunoby’s offensive workload was rather limited. Over half of his shots came from behind the arc, 48% of his shots were catch-and-shoot looks, and 59% came without a dribble. He was essentially the kind of player the Raptors never wanted putting the ball on the court worried he might fumble it away.
Once Powell left Toronto had no choice but to give Anunoby the ball a little more and let him work. His usage jumped from 17% to 22% and his offensive workload change dramatically. The majority of his shots after the trade deadline came inside the arc and most of them came after at least one dribble.
“He started out stiff as a cardboard box,” said former Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan on Anunoby’s development. “Now to see how he handles the ball, how he drives the ball, his post game, I saw him a lot this summer, we worked out a lot this summer, and to see his skill set grow from when I first saw it speaks volumes of how much he loves and appreciates the game. He’s come a long way.”
As DeRozan said, it’s been an astonishing rise for Anunoby who seemed to have the toughest time just dribbling the ball when he first broke into the league. Back then 73% of Anunoby’s shots came without a dribble. Yet he had the confidence to keep working to break out of his awkward shell.
“I remember he said it after his rookie year, ‘I want to be an All-Star next year,'” Kyle Lowry recalled. “I said ‘hold on young fella, be patient, let it come. It’ll get there.'”
It was an ambitious goal at the time and one Anunoby didn’t achieve, but it was a sign of how he sees himself. He’s a young man with big goals who works incredibly hard to get there.
“What do they say, the ceiling is the roof?” Lowry joked of Anunoby’s potential. “OG has got a chance to be special.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse seems to agree. He’s already thrilled with where Anunoby is at defensively and with his offensive game rounding out with each season the Raptors have high expectations for their young star.
“I think he’s made some great strides and just kinda keep going on that stuff,” Nurse said. “He’s really zeroed in on the workday, the professionalism, the desire, all those things. I think the future, as we know, is pretty bright for him, but I think it’s probably very, very bright.”
The comparison to Kawhi Leonard still remains a little out of reach. It’ll take a lot more offensive development before he’s hitting pull-up mid-range jumpers like his former teammate, but what Toronto saw from Anunoby in 2020-21 suggested there is another level in the young forward’s game. If he can be more than just a high-level 3-and-D role player, the Raptors will have found a player who can truly make a difference in a playoff series.