TORONTO — OG Anunoby has seized opportunity before.
Rewind to the 2017-18 season, a time when the Toronto Raptors were figuring out the Larry O’Brien puzzle and added the 23rd overall pick to the equation. Norman Powell was pencilled in as the starting small forward and was ecstatic about the opportunity after serving as the understudy to DeMarre Carroll.
The team started out well enough, winning seven of their first 11 games before a fateful trip to Boston. Powell came up limping while trying to defend through an Aron Baynes screen and his time on the sideline opened the door for Anunoby. The rookie took like a fish to water in the starting role, proving equally adept at taking on important defensive responsibilities while presenting a respectable spacing threat on the offensive end of the floor.
He went on to make 62 regular season starts before showing no fear of the post-season stage with strong performances through 10 games, including 44.8 percent shooting from three-point range. He even hit one from deep to tie the game late in Cleveland before the bucket was overshadowed by a LeBron James buzzer beater.
Progress isn’t linear, though, and Anunoby’s year while the Raptors won the championship was easily forgettable on the court. His best performances came in meaningless encounters against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards and he struggled to find his niche behind Kawhi Leonard at three and Pascal Siakam eating most of the minutes at the four. Off court, he had to cope with the misery of losing his father as well as injuries whenever it seemed like he was putting together a decent stretch of games.
“OG had a very unlucky year last year,” Masai Ujiri said at Media Day. “He’s had a very good summer and preseason in terms of just training before today. We’re excited about that.
“Both of those guys (OG and Patrick McCaw) had unfortunate deaths in their families and untimely injuries right when they were on the cusp of getting in to contributing to this team. There’s a refresh on their minds and I think they’ll be in a good place.”
The refreshed feeling is important, a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. It feels strange to say that the year the Raptors won a championship, for all intents and purposes, is one that should be red shirted for Anunoby, but it certainly feels like the case here. His 2018-19 season seemed completely misrepresentative of what he’s capable of, but brings us to an important point about the prism through which his 2019-20 campaign should be viewed.
What are appropriate expectations for someone who was reportedly made an untouchable in trade discussions, including the one that eventually brought Kawhi Leonard to Toronto? Pascal Siakam, president of the superseding expectations club, for one, thinks that setting them too high would be a mistake.
“I think it’s not fair to him,” Siakam said. “I think we have to let OG continue to grow and do what he’s gotta do. OG works extremely hard and I think I’ve seen him work a lot, you know, coming to the gym and seeing him early, work on his game. We’ve just gotta let him be himself and continue to grow.
“I’m sure he’s ecstatic about the season after last season, with everything that he went through. It was definitely a tough year for him just mentally, also. I think he’s excited about the season, man, and I’m excited for him and can’t wait to see him out there on the court.”
Anunoby figures to be the starting small forward once again, and perhaps that’s all the tonic he needs. Serving primarily as the backup four to Siakam last year — he played three-quarters of his minutes at power forward last season compared to just 24 percent the season before — Anunoby’s advantages of strength and size were often negated. Showing good basketball instincts was a big part of his rookie campaign, and there were still glimpses of that to lend toward the optimism that surrounds his upcoming campaign.
Here, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart miscommunicate on a switch, forcing Baynes to pick Anunoby up. Sensing the speed advantage, he quickly attacks the rim but also has the presence of mind to not just put his head down and go too hard, finishing around Hayward with a reverse layup.
Combine those instincts with a starting role next to playmakers the quality of Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and easy baskets shouldn’t be too hard to come by. With Rondae Hollis-Jefferson signed as well, the Raptors have an adequate backup four and head coach Nick Nurse also confirmed that Serge Ibaka will see minutes there when they look to maximize skill and size on the court. So much of the NBA and opportunity is about being in the right situation at the right time, and in looking to get his career back on track, the void Leonard has left at the small forward position looks perfectly suited for Anunoby to step in and establish himself as an NBA starter.
Can he be more? The Raptors would certainly like him to be and if they are going to repeat, as Anunoby himself proclaimed the team will do, he will need to be. He has the tools to defend the premier small forwards in the league, and one would think his three-point shooting can return to form with consistency in role and minutes. Strangely, Anunoby shot 27 percent on corner threes last season compared to 44 percent the year before that, and his shot is good enough to make it harder to imagine this year’s performance being closer to the former than the latter when the league average from the corner three region is 38 percent.
Colouring outside the lines of a 3-and-D role player will require added variety to Anunoby’s offensive game. Nurse showed with Siakam last season that he’s more than willing to hand someone the keys and let them figure out — with guidance from teammates and the coaching staff — when to ease up on the gas or when to hit the brakes. The free-throw line and transition opportunities are vital for Anunoby to be more than a role player, and while a stifling defence can help fuel the latter, it’s 1-on-1 moves and craftiness that will be needed to create the former. As far as Nurse is concerned, he’s happy to cater to those looking to become fishermen rather than be handed a fish as far as scoring is concerned.
“I think that one of our big successes a year ago, and you guys were all there to watch it, was so many huge impactful offensive moments from every single one of those guys: Fred, Kyle, Marc, Serge, Norm,” Nurse said. “There were moments where they all had monster nights in the playoffs. I don’t really know if I believe in a primary, secondary, tertiary scorer. We’ll just see how it all unfolds and move the ball and get everybody going. We want to play open and free.”
During the playoffs, one of the messages delivered, by assistant coach Adrian Griffin during the Finals was to “let it rip.” It was a message about leaving nothing to chance, seizing the moment in front of you, and having nothing to look back on with regret. Taking a free swing requires clarity and confidence, though, and the belief that Anunoby can put it all together this season stems from exactly that.
“He’s really in good shape. His body looks great, he’s healthy,” Nurse said. “His minds
et seems to be really free and clear and happy. He’s out there playing with a little more of a smile on his face in the pick-up games I saw in the last few weeks and he’s gonna have a great year.”
With opportunity in abundance and expectations still in the process of being recalibrated, this season is Anunoby’s moment.
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