For OG Anunoby, obstacles have always been part of life. His mother died when he was only a year old and after just four years living in London, the city of his birth, his father transplanted the family to the United States. He remembers little of her, or England for that matter. During his final college season (and just months before the NBA Draft), he tore his ACL. As a rookie, and not yet fully recovered, he started 62 games for the Toronto Raptors and was given the unenviable task of containing LeBron James in the Playoffs. Last summer, he was strongly rumoured to be part of the Kawhi Leonard trade. Then, in late September of 2018, his father passed away. Now playing a reduced role, thanks to the impact of Kawhi Leonard, Anunoby has been tasked with yet another obstacle to overcome. Adapting to and providing impact off the bench. Unsurprisingly he is thriving.
When our very own Mike Miller spoke to OG Anunoby in the summer of 2017, he had just been selected by the Toronto Raptors and was in the midst of ACL rehab. An often serious setback that has been known to dishearten even the most stubborn of athletes, it certainly impacted him before he had even entered the league, decreasing his position across mock drafts and dropping him to 23rd on the actual night. But it was just another obstacle to overcome on his climb to greatness.
Anunoby wants to be the best. He’s not shy and he’s not insecure. His goals are lofty but, considering his undeniable talents, achievable.
He wants to be an All-Star. He wants to be known as a reliable offensive threat and one day, he wants to win Defensive Player of the Year.
Before he had set foot on the NBA hardwood, Anunoby had already developed a bit of a reputation for being an intensely serious personality – a reputation that, in part, comes down to the simple fact that he was no ordinary 20 (now 21) year-old. To put it bluntly, this guy has his shit together. He handles his business on the court, strives to improve himself everyday and leaves the off-court matters to those better suited to them.
As the 23rd pick in the 2017 draft, Anunoby was a steal, a fact that has become more evident from his performances this season. Everyone who had watched him playing at college in Indiana knew how extraordinarily gifted an athlete he was. After all, here was a 6’8, 235-lb forward, who could stretch the floor, pass, rebound and take his defender off the dribble when required. He’s the new NBA – everything a 21st century franchise wants in a basketball player.
It is perhaps fitting then that for many hoopheads, Anunoby’s pre-NBA comparison was Kawhi Leonard, a superstar and a modern freak of the game. Kawhi also happens to be a player with whom he shares many similarities and now, amazingly enough a locker room with. The serious personality, the insane athleticism and the chip on his shoulder are all just part and parcel of what makes OG, OG. And like Kawhi before him, none of us truly know what Anunoby will become in this league.
In his rookie season, he started 62 regular season games for the Raptors and played in all 10 of their playoff appearances. He contributed handsomely to the Raptors best season ever and showed everyone that he was a work-in-progress. He was also tasked with guarding LeBron James when the Raptors inevitably ran into their traditional postseason match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He did an adequate job, considering difficult circumstances and the fact that this was a rookie going up against a 16-year veteran and the self-proclaimed greatest player of all-time. Much of his rookie campaign was spent playing the three, filling a critical role for a Raptors side that was still working out how to fit their wealth of talent together. It was only natural for then Head Coach Dwane Casey to utilise Anunoby at that spot, given his attributes as a prototypical small forward. But there was always something far greater lurking beneath the shackles of the term ‘prototypical small forward’. Anunoby is anything but prototypical. He’s a rare talent and one who is now thriving under new Raptors Head Coach, Nick Nurse.
Nurse has been utilising the forward differently this season and the Raptors are reaping the rewards – with all the highs and lows that come from Anunoby’s reckless abandon. Now coming off the bench and occasionally playing alongside his pre-NBA comparison Leonard, Anunoby is proving himself across a mixture of positions and providing valuable second unit impact, despite shooting just 32.1% from the free-throw line, which is worse than his 3-point shooting rate.
Nurse’s understanding of what makes Anunoby click has allowed him to fufil the NBA role he was built for: power forward. At the four, Anunoby truly gets to utilise his speed, strength, footwork and overall versatility to damage opponents on both ends. That’s not to say he’s been restricted to the this spot, Nurse has utilised him at the three (now filled predominantly by Leonard) and, weirdly, at center this season. Well, actually it isn’t so weird when you consider Anunoby’s insane 7’3 wingspan, which is the same as San Antonio big man and former Raptor, Jakob Poeltl.
Anunoby’s outright versatility and enthusiasm for a challenge has been one of the hallmarks of the Raptors campaign so far and in doing so, it has made Anunoby a much improved defensive rebounder and – wait for it I’ve developed a new technical term – messer-upper. He appears to be thriving with this new found freedom, which allows him to use his length and athleticism in the paint to gain an advantage over some of the ageing dinosaurs around the league.
He’s also slowly begun to figure out match-ups where his lack of height hampers him, by engaging his immense length to make up for it. And he’s become one of the Raptors best players around the basket because of it, regularly making successful back door cuts for easy lay-ups. And if that doesn’t work, he can stretch the defense or drive into the paint and force the opposition to collapse, which often results in a teammate being left unguarded for easy baskets.
His movement and indeed his all-round effort on both ends of the court, has made him one of the critical cogs in a fully armed and operational Raptors roster this season. And right now, it is arguably the best team in the league.
Anunoby’s approach to the game probably shouldn’t be defined as attractive. His reckless abandon has a certain Lance Stephenson air about it some nights and it’s not going to leap off the scorers sheet or make the highlight reels, but it works.
He isn’t delivering nightly double-doubles and he’s only posted double-digits in scoring seven times this season and one of those was against the Cavaliers, who suck. But he contributes to the overall flow of the game by impacting it on both ends and doing the stuff that players traditionally don’t want to do.
Whilst it’s obvious that there’s a shot to refine and other areas of his game to improve, the strength and character of this young man, never ceases to amaze.
Featured photo – via Getty Images / USA Today / Perform Group / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration