OG Anunoby has turned into one of the strongest players in the NBA.
The six-foot-eight, 232-pound Toronto Raptors wing has tree trunks for legs and battering rams for shoulders, providing him with a unique blend of size, strength, and athleticism that enables him to match up with some of the largest people in the NBA, including seven-foot centres.
However, Anunoby has always had trouble leveraging that strength for his own benefit on the offensive end of the floor. Coming into the league, he struggled to stay on balance when trying to shoot after contact. And as recently as last season, Anunoby’s strength was used against him as he consistently got called for the “push off” offensive foul when trying to move defenders off their spot, picking up 16 offensive fouls in 43 games last season.
The 2021-22 season has been one of growth for Anunoby, even if he doesn’t end up being an All-Star or Most Improved Player candidate, partly because he has already missed 23 games due to a hip pointer and COVID protocols.
But Anunoby is very quietly averaging 19/5/2 on 44/36/80 shooting splits this season, along with his stellar multi-positional defence. And like much of his development since he entered the league in 2017, this year’s growth has been subtle and has taken place around the edges.
But that doesn’t make it unimportant.
Perhaps the biggest development this season is that Anunoby is getting more comfortable leveraging his overwhelming strength to create and finish advantages on the offensive end of the floor. And even though he isn’t getting a high amount of reps to do that since everyone has been back and healthy — when he falls to a distant third option in the pecking order behind Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — that kind of improvement can pay huge dividends in a playoff setting when mismatch-hunting and half-court creation become that much more important.
“I think the biggest improvement of his game since he's maybe joined us is his starting and ending drives,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said about Anunoby’s development this season. “He's getting by people and then he's getting to the end where he's getting on balance and using his balance, strength and athleticism.”
Case in point: The percentage of Anunoby’s shots that are self created has taken a massive leap this season, from just 30 percent of his shots coming unassisted last season to 43 percent this season, along the same lines of players like Jaylen Brown. Plus, a career-high 25 percent of Anunoby’s shots this season are coming from the midrange — the territory of stars — up from 17 percent last season, with 79 percent of those shots coming unassisted. He’s also shooting a career-high number of free-throws at 3.2 per game, up from 2.4 last season, and hitting them at a career-high 80.8 percent.
Safe to say that when Anunoby uses his strength to get downhill, good things happen.
Without an elite handle or pull-up jumper, Anunoby is smartly leveraging his strength to create the type of separation necessary to attempt more self-created shots in the first place. And he is doing so without nearly the same degree of balance issues or foul trouble he has had in the past. In fact, Anunoby has only six offensive fouls in 23 games this season, and he explained the adjustment he has made in order to create separation without getting called for those cheap fouls.
“I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want them to start calling charges. But I try to not extend too much, not run people over. Slower, more pace, just be more aware and knowing how they’re reffing, too. Like knowing the bonus. Just knowing when not to be so aggressive,” Anunoby says.
“Just knowing who’s guarding you, who is going to flop and who probably won’t flop.”
While his last point about flopping is funny, it also shows a maturity and understanding of the league he has now had four-and-a-half seasons to learn, because a big part of succeeding as a primary option in the NBA is understanding the defensive habits of the players guarding you, and Anunoby is clearly getting better at that with more offensive reps.
Another thing that has changed for him this season is that, with the addition of Scottie Barnes in the starting lineup and Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa coming off the bench, the Raptors have a dramatically bigger team. This has allowed Anunoby to often be matched up against smaller opponents than he was last season, enabling him to play some bully-ball and expand his post-up game against size-mismatches.
“Yeah, it changes in games but, yeah, for sure. Last year [it was] fours, fives. This year, it’s like twos, threes, fours, some fives sometimes. Just depends who I’m on the court with,” Anunoby explains.
“I try to mix it up. Mixing up being on ball, off ball, posting, just trying to do everything. Passing.”
But the numbers show that Anunoby is posting up more than ever before, with a career-high 11.1 percent of his offence coming from the post. It's also true, however, that he's shooting just 33.3 percent on postups, or 0.69 points per possession, which ranks in the 12th percentile.
Of course, just because someone is creating more for himself that doesn’t mean they’re all good shots. In fact, self-created shots tend to be more difficult ones, with more defensive attention and less room to get them off, as Anunoby is finding that out this season, with his shooting percentages from the rim and three both having dropped with the increased frequency.
As Raptors Republic’s Samson Folk recently pointed out, Anunoby too often settles for pull-up jumpers after creating a bit of separation, often of the step-back variety, instead of appealing to his strengths and getting to the basket, where he has historically been a very good finisher. While the forward is shooting 63 percent at the rim this season, a slight career-low, he is shooting just 33.6 percent on pull-up jump shots, so it’s clear that getting to the rim more would be beneficial for him, even if he does feel comfortable shooting over top of smaller defenders.
Plus, some of these efficiency issues are not Anunoby’s fault at all.
Part of the reason he is getting to and finishing at the rim less effectively than ever is because the Raptors' spacing is so poor, and Anunoby is relied upon to be one of the few Raptors who can space out to the three-point line and open up driving lanes for others. During Tuesday night's loss to the Phoenix Suns, Anunoby and VanVleet were the only two Raptors to hit a three-pointer, with the rest of the team combining to go 0/14.
Over the Raptors' last eight games, a period that coincides with the team being healthy for the first time all season, 55.2 percent of Anunoby’s shots have come from behind the arc, which would be a career-high for him over a full season, making it clear that the team is still adjusting to putting everyone in the best positions to succeed.
“I think we're probably looking for some more chances [for Anunoby],” Nurse said recently. “He does a lot: he's a really good perimeter shooter. He's a post-up potential guy. You know, and he's also a 'drive it to the rim' guy. So, yeah, we're looking for him to get a few more cracks in there.”
Right now, Anunoby is sacrificing quite a bit for the greater good of the team as a spacer who doesn’t have much room to drive to the rim himself. It’s encouraging that someone with as much skill as him is willing to be so patient, watching his offensive reps increase ever so slowly over his seasons with the Raptors.
There is little doubt that Anunoby can do more, but as the Raptors continue to get better and win games this season, it doesn’t seem as though he's in any rush to do so.
“I think we’re in a good place right now,” Anunoby said when asked about his role. “We’re winning games, that’s all that matters. Everyone’s happy right now.”
Still, Anunoby's newfound ability to use his strength to create advantages and attack mismatches could end up being very useful in a playoff setting down the road. It's a work in progress, but in a game won around the margins, Anunoby's improvement leveraging his overwhelming strength could be key for the Raptors.
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