There's nothing fair about injury, and there's definitely nothing fair about COVID-19.
Which is why as impressive as OG Anunoby has been — and as high as the expectations have been for him of late — the hardware is likely to elude him once again.
When healthy, the Toronto Raptors wing has shown why he was one of the frontrunners for the Most Improved Player award, as well as an All-Star candidate, ahead of the 2021-22 season. The comparisons to Kawhi Leonard kept pouring in, and with the Raptors franchise entering a new phase, Anunoby seemed poised to step up to star category.
In many ways, he has. But just like in last year's COVID-shortened campaign, he's unlikely to add any accolades to his season.
As the Raptors have scrambled to stay healthy and figure out who they are without Kyle Lowry, Anunoby has proven himself indispensable to the team's success, taking on every new responsibility head coach Nick Nurse has thrown his way — whether he's comfortable with it or not.
— NBA (@NBA) January 16, 2022
The 24-year-old went from a defence-first forward to a solid and scrappy offensive contributor, learning how to leverage his strength to his advantage. He's developed into a good ball handler and increased his usage rate, minutes per game and shot attempts.
But this evolution hasn't happened overnight, and with the Raptors testing out different lineups every game, trying to figure out how to best utilize prized rookie Scottie Barnes and navigate a small-ball roster, Anunoby has looked out of place at times. He was lukewarm to start the season, averaging 18 points and a 38.7 field-goal percentage during the first month.
Then November came around and the NBA was reminded of why Anunoby was on everyone's radar as a potential breakout star this year. He went off for a career-high 36 points against the New York Knicks to kick things off and ended up making 46.6 percent of his shots over 38.6 minutes in eight contests during that period.
Anunoby's stats have improved across the board for two years in a row now, and, despite what the odds say, there's still a fair case do be made for the forward to win the Most Improved Player award.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 16, 2022
But a nagging hip injury, a bout with COVID-19, and all the growing pains that have come with this year emerged as a reminder of just how little the universe cares about "fair."
First, it was the hip pointer, which kept Anunoby sidelined for 13 games. Then, a stint in the NBA's COVID-19 protocols had him sit another couple of contests, considerably diminishing his reps.
Morant likely leads the way right now. Though he had a brush with injury in November, he's been on a tear over the last month, averaging 24.7 points with a 48.5 field-goal percentage over 32.5 minutes each night. The Memphis Grizzlies guard benefits from being his team's indisputable No. 1 option on offence — though his defensive metrics are shaky at best — and he's led Memphis to an impressive 31-16 record.
The guard's numbers jump off the page a lot more than Anunoby's do. And the same can be said for Anunoby in comparison with past Most Improved Player winners.
As an example, his teammate and former MIP Pascal Siakam doubled his points per game and converted from bench player into All-Star and offensive focal point from one season to the next.
Though he's also getting there, it has taken Anunoby two seasons to get his numbers to jump that drastically.
Last year, when the Raptors' young forward was also touted as a Most Improved candidate, Knicks forward Julius Randle ran away with the contest by becoming a walking double-double and a constant source of 20-plus points per contest.
As for that All-Star nod, it doesn't seem like it's in the cards this year, though the Raptors have been campaigning avidly for their fifth-year forward and Anunoby has been outstanding for stretches of the season.
Stephen Curry (West guards), Kevin Durant (East frontcourt), DeMar DeRozan (East guards) and LeBron James (West frontcourt) continue to be the top vote-getters at their respective position groups in the second fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting presented by Tissot. pic.twitter.com/dAaVBHrXi5
— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) January 13, 2022
That's the nature of the game. And you can just ask Leonard about injury-driven missed opportunities, specifically. Anunoby's former teammate has been sidelined all year, watching his Los Angeles Clippers trudge along to a tepid 22-24 record.
This season has been a particular catalyst for comparisons between Anunoby and a young Kawhi precisely because the two-time Finals MVP took one of his biggest leaps in his fifth year in the league. That was when Leonard — then still a member of the San Antonio Spurs — became an All-Star for the first time and upped his season average to 20 points per game.
Though it's easy to see why Anunoby and Leonard have been linked when talking about the youngster's progression through the seasons, it's not likely that Anunoby will see his name in the limelight just yet. Blame it on the circumstances, the team's current situation, or the fact that he's still finding his place, but Anunoby will need a little longer to get the star status.
But hey, even Leo got his Oscar eventually.
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