OG Anunoby showing he can be integral part of Raptors' core

With the game on the line against New Orleans in the season opener, OG Anunoby picked up the defensive assignment of the Pelicans’ best player, Jrue Holiday.

The score was tied at 117 with 29 seconds remaining at Scotiabank Arena, and after initially killing some clock, Nicolo Melli came up high on the right side of the floor to set a screen for Holiday and possibly force Marc Gasol to switch. After a solid hedge by the veteran centre, Anunoby was able switch back onto Holiday, denied him going left, stuck with Holiday as he tried to change direction, forcing a kickout to JJ Redick, before receiving the ball back a the right extended elbow. All that, and Anunoby still hadn’t yielded an inch. A jab step and a pump fake later, Anunoby was still all over him and forced a miss.

It was exactly the type of possession the Raptors front office envisioned when they drafted Anunoby 23rd overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.

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In the Raptors’ second game of the season, against Boston, Anunoby defended each of Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown on each of the Celtics’ first three offensive possessions. That’s also what Toronto hoped for, someone who could spread his defensive prowess across the floor onto any wing prototype with ease.

And then came the coming out block party, Saturday night in Chicago where Anunoby showed he’s back at his explosive best with ferocious rejections and dunks at the rim in equal measure. But let’s focus on the blocks for a second.

The first one below is the type of block that adds real intimidation value to the resume. If there are those thinking Anunoby is a wing defender who can’t really intimidate in the paint — as his low rebounding and shot blocking rates coming into the season may indicate, it’s the type of play that can change that. Thaddeus Young, someone who has guided Anunoby through his younger days and helped him make his college decision, squeezes his way past both Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry and looks to have the rim at his mercy. As he rises for the slam, Anunoby helps from the corner, leaps with his left, and puts up a strong right to deny Young.

On this next play, spare a thought for Coby White. The Bulls rookie, like Young, thinks he has an easy two after blowing by Matt Thomas and VanVleet. Once again, Anunoby reads the play and times his leap to perfection to send the ball towards the Raptors bench.

Anunoby has always been looked upon as someone with all the tools needed to be a dominant defensive player, but what’s making him stand out on that end of the floor so early this season is how he’s using exactly the tools he needs for each matchup. A quick, smaller guard? Get low in the stance and show active hands to disturb the dribble. Neutralize the speed with strength when needed. A long, lanky forward? Use strength early to deny them the opportunity to get to their spot, and then trust the lateral quicks to stick with them, and the length to contest without being overzealous.

With the way the game is played today and the prevalence of guard play, Anunoby presenting himself as a rim protector in addition to all that he offers as an on-ball defender further increases the ceiling. If he can steadily improve his ability to clean up the glass, you’re looking at all-world ability on that end of the floor. By the end of the game, he splashed in three 3-pointers as well to finish with 17 points, six rebounds, four(!) blocks, two assists and a steal. After the game, he provided the most OG response when Jack Armstrong asked about his efforts.

“Yeah, it was cool.”

Through three games now, Anunoby is averaging 12.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while making five of his 12 3-point attempts. He has shot 11-for-16 inside the arc, and each and every single one of those twos has either been a dunk, layup or hook shot. A three, paint-two, and D player can give the Raptors exactly the complementary piece that needs to be flanked alongside what looks more and more with each passing day an All-NBA player in Pascal Siakam and a steady head-of-the-snake in VanVleet.

OG Anunoby has an important role to play in the Raptors' future. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
OG Anunoby has an important role to play in the Raptors' future. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Above all, it’s just heartwarming to see Anunoby start this season off on the right foot after a nightmare previous year off the court. After losing his father around this time last year, the 22-year-old finished the season by missing the entire championship run due to an appendectomy. He had to learn to walk again, before slowly ramping up his physical activity and steadily progressing to the point he’s at now.

“It's so great to have OG back,” Serge Ibaka said before the season began. “He deserves the best, especially what he went through last year. I've been talking to him all summer, and I still talk with him. I tried to help him a little bit. He's a great kid. He works very hard. He always wants to get better. That's the good thing about him.

“Most times, what happened to him last year, if it was most people, they would almost give up or get a little distracted. He didn't give up. Now he has to focus on getting back and getting better, and he did all summer, working on his body, working on his game. I feel like he's ready for this year. He's gonna have a great season.”

A page turned and life lessons learned, it certainly looks that way.

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