How Good can OG Anunoby be in Year 3?

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Lost within the litany of story lines during the Toronto Raptors run to the NBA title last season (four months later, and that sentence is still remarkable to type) was the absence of OG Anunoby. The 2018–19 season for Anunoby could be best described as something of a stop-start campaign. The acquisition of Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018 meant that Anunoby was pushed from his spot as the back-end option on the starting lineup into more of a bench role. In addition to that were the number of bad luck injuries he suffered including a concussion, wrist injuries, and an appendectomy that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2019 playoffs. Of course as well, having to deal with the death of a father, which was sadly the case for Annunoby in late September, is understandably tough to recover from.

Some of the intrigue around OG Anunoby as a young talent stems from a couple of factors. Drafting him with the 23rd pick in the 2017 draft was a coup for the Raptors given he projected as a lottery talent within some circles despite the ACL tear suffered during his sophomore season in college. Also, relative to his role on the squad, he graded out as a net-positive for the 2017–18 Raptors that went 59–23 and had the best record in the Eastern conference (we all know what eventually happened come the playoffs). Being able to contribute to winning basketball as a rookie is no easy feat. An accepted truth within most basketball analysis in 2019 is that a lot rookies don’t contribute in a positive way towards winning basketball. In fact, rookies tend to be below average in their first year. It makes sense given the major step up in quality from college/overseas to the NBA, along with the stylistic changes that come from playing in the NBA compared to college/overseas.

To illustrate that, I decided to look at Basketball References’s Box Plus/Minus metric for rookies age 18–24 that played at least 750 minutes in their first season since the 1979–80 season. BR’s BPM uses the box score and team performance to determine a player’s contribution while on the court (here’s the link if you’re interested in reading their methodology in greater detail). The cut-off point in terms of minutes and age does eliminate some notable debut years, including grotesque performances from players like Dennis schroeder and Anthony Bennett, but it includes many of the relevant rookie campaigns since the inclusion of the three point line in 1979–80. The graphic below shows how rookies have fared in BPM with at least 750 minutes played in year 1.

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As the graph shows, there’s more than your fair share of rookies who rated as negative after their first season in the league. Box Plus/Minus is by no means without its flaws, and even within the methodology, there’s acceptance in its limitations to measure defense given how much it’s relying on the box score. However, it’s not just BR’s BPM that rated Anunoby as a positive, but other public impact metrics such as Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus/Minus, or Real Adjusted Plus/Minus data.

Now, do I believe that OG Anunoby was as good as his 88th percentile rank according to Luck Adjusted RAPM or his 95th percentile rank according to RAPM in his rookie season? No I don’t. I think it’s fair to say that both impact metrics overrated the contributions that he made towards winning basketball. However it does say something that all of these impact metrics, to varying degrees, rated Anunoby as a positive in 2017–18. It helps that as a rookie, he showed two traits that scale quite well as you increase the team talent level around him: the ability to hit from the outside (37.1% from 3 as a rookie), and being a credible perimeter defender. Anunoby’s impact metrics suffered a precipitous decline in year 2, shifting almost entirely in the opposite direction where it painted him as a clear net-negative player.

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Both the offensive and defensive components for Anunoby took hits in his second season according to these impact metrics, especially on the offensive end. To some extent, there are ways to explain some of the decline: Anunoby’s own shooting dropped off last season, and compared to 2017–18 where he played a lot of his minutes on a successful starting unit, his minutes were dispersed among a number of lineups that ranged in outcomes in 2018–19. It’s also fair to say that judging by the eye test, Anunoby’s individual defense declined as well, though there were still the flashes of the elite defender that he can be if he hits his ceiling.

I’m curious about Anunoby’s off-ball defense more so than his on-ball defense, because I think that Anunoby could be a great on-ball defender that switches between the 1–4 positions (especially if he improves at navigating screens while defending in the pick and roll). When he’s having to act as a help defender before returning to the shooter behind the line, his closeouts can be a bit funky, which makes him susceptible to pump fakes. There are also instances where he gets lost off-ball and he’s having to play catch-up afterwards. These are things that admittedly aren’t easy for a young wing to be good at, and it could very well be that he gets better at this with more experience at the NBA level.

Overall though, I’m not terribly worried about Anunoby’s defensive ceiling, even after a drop off last season in performance. I still think he’s going to grade out as a clear positive on the defensive end given his skillset to defend on-ball at a capable level, and if he’s able to clean up some of his defensive work off-ball, he has a chance of peaking as one of the better defenders in the NBA. The greater fascination with Anunoby is where he’ll end up topping out offensively, and just how much of a dependent talent he’ll be. The first thing to point out is that Anunoby has been one of the lower usage players in the NBA over his first two seasons, as the chart below demonstrates.

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A good amount of Anunoby’s value will be dependent on how his jumpshot fares over time with a greater sample size. The current evidence is mixed after 351 shots, though it’s important to note that 351 shots from 3 is quite a small number so it’s hard to separate variance from true shooting talent at this stage. Though he did shoot just above league average from 3 as a rookie (league average in 2017–18 was 36.2%), 31.5% of his three came from the corners where he shot a crisp 44%, according to PBP Stats. Both his frequency from the corners (24.75%) and his accuracy (28%) declined in 2018–19, but that was replaced with better shooting from above the break 3's (38.2% vs 28.4% at a similar frequency of just over 25% in both seasons). The end result was still a dip in three point percentage below league average at 33.2%. It’s not a positive sign either that Anunoby’s free throw percentage in his first two seasons have been 63% and 58%, given that free throw percentage is seen as an indicator (though not necessarily a strong one) towards predicting shooting talent.

For such a low usage player, I’m oddly a bit optimistic on Anunoby’s ability as a slasher both from an individual scoring standpoint and creation for others. Part of that optimism stems from his strong physical dimensions as a power wing, at 6'7–6'8 with a wingspan over 7'2 at his listed weight of 232 pounds. He’s shot 65.7% at the rim over his first two seasons according to PBP Stats, above the league average rate of 63.2%. You can see it in the film as well; when he’s got a head of steam to slash to the rim in a straight line, it’s hard to stop him from generating a decent look.

This kind of functional strength is valuable for wings to have, and it’s partly why the faint whispers of Kawhi Leonard popped up in discussions surrounding Anunoby as a college prospect. This isn’t to say at all that Anunoby will turn into the offensive force that Leonard has become, because that’s got very low odds of occurring. It’s always a dangerous thing to compare a young talent to someone like Kawhi who had one of the greatest outlier growth curves in NBA history. However, if there’s one trait that both Leonard and Anunoby share, it’s in how defenders seemingly bounce off of them when initiating drives to the rim. When Anunoby can’t get enough separation from his defender after the initial bump on the drive, things get considerably tougher at the rim as he lacks that certain level of contortion and diversity on his finishing to make up for it.

Anunoby has been at his best when he can limit the amount of dribbles in a sequence. Once the dribble count gets to 3 or more, that’s when things become dicey in terms of generating quality offense. His dribbling in static situations is rudimentary as there’s not enough fluidity in his dribble sequences to create separation off the dribble. He does have a go to spin move either at the top of the key or driving from the corners, which does work on occasion en route to easy layups, though he does have a penchant to mix up his footwork and either get called for travels or settle for tough at-rim attempts.

While his passing at this point of his development is very much in the basic stages, he at least has shown the ability to execute these basic reads. When he’s able to slash to the rim either after receiving the pass as a spot up player or coming off a screen, he’ll look for the drop off pass to the open big if he senses an opening to do so. This is a good example of Anunoby’s passing at his best, and the type of passing that is realistic to expect from him given his usage + player archetype. Anunoby get’s a runway to the paint via a screen and attracts Joel Embiid over, leading to an open dunk from Serge Ibaka.

I’m a bigger believer in his off-ball cutting. When Anunoby was on the court, he was stationed quite a bit in the corners to help mitigate the lack of off-ball gravity he had as a shooter. To combat this, he’s shown a good sense of when to cut to the basket when the defender closest to him is ball-watching.

None of these things on their own are sexy to talk about, they don’t inspire the same level of curiosity as say, projecting considerable growth in on-ball creation does. However, these are the type of skills that can act as connective tissue when you increase the team talent level. Being able to credibly perform as a 4th or 5th option who can take 2–3 dribbles and make a good decision afterwards, that makes you a valuable asset at the highest level of play. I think Anunoby can get to a point with his game where he’s doing these things on a more consistent basis.

There’s been added excitement this preseason because not only has he been better at some of the skills that you’d hope from him relative to his role, but he’s even sprinkling some high level plays to boot. For sure, there’s still the limitations with regards to his handle being very mechanical, though it’s looked better in the preseason. It’s still hard to see how Anunoby can be much of a threat as a off the dribble shooter given the flaws remaining in his shooting form. That being said, shooting 46.2% from deep overall on 4.9 attempts per 36 minutes during the preseason is encouraging. As well, he’s showing greater diversity in his passing when driving to the rim, not just dumping it off for the big man but also spraying out passes to shooters.

Even with the added on-ball reps during preseason, I would hazard to guess that Anunoby’s role is going to look demonstrably different than it has over the past two seasons, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Between Pascal Siakam’s continued ascension as an on-ball creator, Kyle Lowry having to shoulder more of the load offensively, and a cast of credible offensive players (Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred Van Vleet), Anunoby’s usage rate is going to look fairly similar to what it has been in his first two seasons. More than anything, it’s going to be interesting to monitor how he does in important skills that will determine whether he’s a success: will his recognition off-ball defensively improve with two years of NBA experience under his belt? How will his shooting fare with a greater sample? Does his passing continue to make incremental progress?

This is a big year for OG Anunoby, and for the Raptors as a whole trying to put forth a credible defense of their NBA championship after the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It’s in year 3/4 where you really start to get an idea of what a player eventually ends being. While one shouldn’t completely throw away last season for Anunoby, because it does represent a data point, there are ways to explain some of his struggles as a sophomore. The preseason was encouraging for him, though it’s always hard to know how much one should glean from it. The actualized version of OG Anunoby should be able to fit in on high end NBA teams as a true 3&D wing with added versatility on both ends due to his size + mobility, and if he gets closer to realizing his potential this season, that would be a positive for the 2019–20 Toronto Raptors and increase their odds of being a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference.

Previously wrote about football, my old Medium posts can be found here

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