Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby has taken the next step

Toronto Raptors - OG Anunoby (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - OG Anunoby (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

After a tumultuous second season, OG Anunoby has come back with a vengeance in 2019. The Toronto Raptors forward has reached another level on both sides of the ball.

Last season could not have gone any worse for OG Anunoby. He was banged up throughout the season, played poorly when on the court, and faced off-the-court issues that are much more important than basketball. He entered the season as the Toronto Raptors’ cornerstone prospect but finished the year as just “a nice piece.”

He came into this year with every opportunity to bounce back.  He was fully healthy for the first time in a while and back in a starting role. Anunoby was the trendy pick by many to be Toronto’s most improved player.

But it’s one thing to project improvement, and it’s another to see it on the court. Anunoby’s game looks completely different than it did a season ago. This isn’t a “bounce back” season; Anunoby has made strides as a player beyond what we’ve seen or expected.

We often project linear developmental curves to players, expecting growth every season. But that’s just not how it works. Player’s games take jagged steps forwards and small steps back as they slowly improve over time. Anunoby’s fall last season wasn’t precipitous but instead the typical path of progression. This offseason he’s taken a meaningful step forward, making significant improvements on both sides of the ball.

Defensive improvement

OG Anunoby was an impressive defensive player from day one. He’s 6-foot-7 with an absurd 7-foot-2 wingspan, he moves his feet like prime Sugar Ray Leonard, and he entered the league incredibly developed physically, looking more like a brick outhouse than your typical 20-year-old. By the end of his rookie season, he was the best wing defender on a 59-win team.

He showed flashes of that player throughout last season, even if he wasn’t able to maintain it over sustained periods. His playing time and role clearly played a factor, as he didn’t seem to have the same focus on a nightly basis.

This year, he’s reached another level. Not only has his consistency returned, but Anunoby has become a defensive playmaker. He’s not only a steady option to throw on opposing wings; he’s actively creating plays both on and off the ball.

His activity level has increased significantly. His hands are always active, reaching, prodding, and grabbing at a live dribble, one of the many reasons for his increased steal rate. Anunoby is posting a steal percentage of 2.1-percent, ranking in the top 96-percentile at his position (according to

He also has a unique awareness of when to attack players who maintain a looser handle than most. Here, he harasses Tony Snell like a pack of hungry piranhas that smell blood in the water and quickly forces him to give up on the play. It’s almost as if he’s offended that Snell has the audacity to dribble while he’s around.

Anunoby doesn’t force a steal on this play, but his impact is felt nonetheless. Snell barely risked putting the ball on the deck around Anunoby for the rest of the game.

But while his on-ball defense has certainly taken another step, it’s his improvement as a help defender which has had the most impact. Anunoby is averaging 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes, up from 0.6 last season. While he’s unlikely to maintain this pace through 82 games, you can bet the farm he’s improving from last year’s numbers.

He’s been particularly good in transition, camouflaging his help, waiting until the offensive player has already committed to the shot before showing his hand.

Anunoby erased two different transition shots against the Chicago Bulls. In the first clip, he waits until after the initial dig, when Thaddeus Young drops his head for just a moment to secure a loose dribble. If he leaves a second earlier, it’s an easy kick to the corner. A second later, it’s an easy flush.

On the next block, he waits for Kris Dunn to initiate contact and shield off Matt Thomas. Because of that, Dunn’s not able to see Anunoby lurking in the background, waiting to explode. Again, leave one second earlier, and it’s a pass to the weakside shooter. Leave a second late, and Dunn finishes at the basket.

When he’s not ripping opponents or swatting away shots, Anunoby’s a force on the defensive glass. Kawhi Leonard was one of the better rebounders at his position, and after his departure, Toronto looked like it might take a step back in that regard.

However, at the moment, the Toronto Raptors rank 11th in the NBA in rebound percentage, up two spots from last season. Anunoby, in particular, has increased his efforts on the defensive glass, grabbing an additional 1.8 rebounds per 36 minutes compared to last season. He’s also making a team-wide impact, as the Raptors are allowing 5.6-percent fewer offensive rebounds when Anunoby is on the court compared to when he sits. That ranks in the 84th percentile at his position (according to CTG).

Accounting for his numbers, nightly responsibilities, and overall impact, Anunoby should be on everyone’s All-Defensive Team radar. Perhaps it will take a year for his reputation to catch up with his play on the court. However, in terms of merit, it’s hard to credibly argue many names that are playing defense better than Anunoby right now.

Offensive improvement

Last season, Anunoby’s efficiency took a significant dip. His shooting percentage decreased from 2-point range, 3-point range, and from the free-throw line. His shot profile remained remarkably consistent from his rookie year; he just wasn’t making shots.

This year, he’s more aggressive both with and without the ball. He’s attacking the rim more through dribble-drives and cuts, showing a crafty awareness that was largely muted during his first seasons. He often waits for his opponent to slide just a hair out of position, and then flashes when the ball handler needs him the most.

Zach LaVine drops a bit too low on this play, allowing the window for Anunoby’s cut. Anunoby could easily clog the spacing by leaving too early; instead, he waits until Siakam has already been stopped at the rim and earns himself an easy dunk.

Dunks have been a bit of a trend for Anunoby this season, along with general looks at the basket. He’s attempting 53-percent of his looks at the rim, up from 42-percent last year (according to He’s had nine dunks in only six games, after finishing with just 39 all of last season.

On the perimeter, the shots that weren’t falling last year are starting to go in. After shooting 37-percent from beyond the arc during his rookie season and 33-percent last season, he’s up to 46-percent on the current year. That can partially be attributed to small sample size, but a look at Anunoby’s shot profile suggests an improvement might be sustainable. Anunoby is attempting 1.5 fewer 3-point attempts per 36 minutes than he did last year, allowing for a better overall shot distribution.

According to, 17 of his 22 3-point shots this season have been “wide-open,” with no defender within 6+ feet. 55-percent of his 3-point shots have been from the corner, a figure slightly up from last year’s numbers. Anunoby is no longer looking for long-distance bombs due to his aggressiveness inside the paint. Because of that, he’s cut out the worst of his looks, while maintaining a healthy diet of open opportunities.

Anunoby’s shot chart looks like an analytics wet dream. He lives at the rim and in the corners offensively, generating 71-percent of his looks from those two spots on the floor. It’s one of the primary reasons he’s posting an incredibly efficient 64.8-percent EFG%, ranking in the 84th percentile at his position in the NBA (According to

Where does he go from here?

There are legitimate questions on whether Anunoby can become more than a secondary or tertiary option.

Part of his struggles last season can be attributed to unfortunate health and off-court problems. However, Anunoby was also playing alongside less talented players and asked to do more in bench lineups than when he was with the starting unit. It’s fair to wonder if Anunoby’s role last season contributed more heavily to his regression than any other factor. In the six games Anunoby was asked to start last season, he saw a significant spike in his overall numbers and efficiency.

He’s still a limited playmaker, failing to average even 1.5 assists per 36 minutes at any point in his career, and he’s recorded just eight assists in six games so far this season. While he’s been incredibly efficient as a scorer, he hasn’t increased his volume on a team that could use some shot creation. His points per game increase this season has simply been a result of more time on the floor; his points per 36 minutes remains the same as last year’s figure.

But perhaps the best answer to those questions might be that it doesn’t matter.

When Kawhi Leonard first arrived, the comparison was jammed down our throats. Late first-round pick, an impactful defensive player with a growing offensive game, the comparisons were too easy. But that was never going to be Anunoby’s path. Leonard’s developmental curve was one-in-a-million. Anunoby can become a star without becoming that level of a pure scorer.

Raptors fans should recognize better than anyone the impact a player can have on a game without volume scoring. The greatest player in franchise history, Kyle Lowry, has averaged 17.4 points per game during his tenure with the Toronto Raptors. If Anunoby scores 17-20 efficient points and continues to play defense among the elite at his position, that’s a star in its own right, even if it’s not the way we traditionally think about one.

Next. Toronto Raptors 905 season preview. dark

Anunoby’s not a star yet, but he has the tools to get there. Right now, he’s a highly impactful player on one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. He’s taken the next step of his development and is a drastically different player than we saw one year ago.