Anunoby arrived in New York on Sunday. He didn’t even leave his room to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Instead, he spent the night completing physicals, talking to head coach Tom Thibodeau and briefly reviewing the Knicks’ playbook before getting a head start on his sleep before game day.
Jalen Brunson knew Anunoby’s game plan for his first game in orange and blue.
“I remember coming onto the court, and he was like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I’m going to keep cutting,’” Brunson recalled. “I said, ‘OK.’”
The relentless cutting — coupled with his hounding defense and three-point precision — made Anunoby’s transition to New York look seamless.
He and his teammates called it instinctual. Without institutional knowledge, he had to read the defense and react accordingly.
“For me, that was everything, really,” Anunoby said. “New terminology, new everything. Just trying to figure out everything as fast as I can, so a lot of read and react today.”
And while he still must find a place to call home, for now, Anunoby can call Madison Square Garden his new residence.
He scored 17 points in his Knicks debut ( a 112-106 win over the Minnesota Timberswolves ) on 3-of-6 from downtown and scored, as he told Brunson, on a variety of backdoor cuts that led to rim-rocking finishes in the paint.
“Yeah, I thought first game, impressive really just to be ready and to kind of figure it out on the fly,” Thibodeau said of Anunoby’s debut. “Played smart, you know, played off of people well, played great defense, hustled, moved without the ball, shot good shots, made good plays. So very good start.
“[His defensive presence], it’s huge for us,”
It’s clear Anunoby is exactly as advertised, well worth the ticket price of two young, high-ceiling players plus a second-round pick projected to be 31st or 32nd in the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft.
He is a prototypical 3-and-D wing with the very size and athleticism that make scouts and executives swoon.
Julius Randle briefly couldn’t find his words before a deep exhale summed his first impression of Anunoby’s game on Monday.
“Psssssh. Amazing,” said Randle. “Seems like the perfect piece that complements our team very well. He does a lot of timely things out there, and it was big for us tonight to get that win.”
Anunoby knew he would be a good fit in New York. Or at least he thought he would. He and Thibodeau appear to be a match made in basketball heaven.
Thibodeau’s entire basketball philosophy revolves around toughness, prioritizing defense, getting into the paint and spraying the ball out to three-point shooters.
“I think I’m a tough player,” Anunoby said ahead of tipoff. “[Thibodeau’s] players are tough, they play hard, they play to win. I think I do all of those things.”
It’s no wonder Anunoby was a plus-19 in his first game as a Knick.
He may have been able to pad his stats had he not fouled out with just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“He just naturally just plays hard on both sides of the ball,” said Brunson. “When he sees something, he just attacks it, and it’s just who he is. He’s going to find ways to impact the game and that’s what he’s done his whole career.”
The learning curve, of course, is steep. This is the first time Anunoby has been traded in his career.
Players often say the NBA is a copycat league — that all teams run the same offensive and defensive sets but use different terminology — but Anunoby is still foreign to the Knicks, even though he’s been thrust into the starting lineup.
Ahead of tipoff, Donte DiVincenzo helped him find his spacing on the floor.
“Even during the game, they were telling me, ‘Go here. Do this,’” Anunoby said. “Yeah, they were helping me out for sure, a lot of them. And I’m thankful for it.
“I just think day by day. Each day, I’m going to get better and better. Learning everything. Learning terminology, learning plays, learning sets. I’ll learn every day.”
For a player who went in relatively blind, Anunoby’s impact was tremendous. Edwards, for example, scored 35 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the field but may have gone for 50 — and the victory — had Anunoby not blanketed him defensively, with much of his offensive output coming while guarded by Randle.
On his way to the podium for his postgame presser, the Knicks’ new star walked down a long corridor and passed Knicks senior Vice President Gersson Rosas.
Rosas and Anunoby bumped fists. The Knicks’ executive approved of Anunoby’s performance, as did everyone else at The Garden on Monday.
Knicks fans cheered their new star during pregame introductions and again when he subbed out midway through the first quarter.
There will be enough cheering to last an entire season if this is the impact the team can grow to expect.
“I was definitely excited. Always loved playing here as an opposing player, so to play here, play all my home games here, is really exciting,” said Anunoby. “Just an iconic place. A lot of big moments here happen, a lot of great games, and just really excited.”
Anunoby might not put it all together for some time, but after Monday’s victory over the Wolves, it’s clear he can be impactful on both ends even if he’s not all the way settled into his new city.
He doesn’t need to know all the X’s and O’s to make winning plays.
“He plays really hard on both sides of the ball, and he’s — I guess you can say a perfect fit,” said Brunson. “But I think he’s only going to get better with the more he knows the things that we do and the more he understands with our terminology on both sides of the ball and stuff like that, so he can be very special here.”