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Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby.
OK, back to reality.
Few — if any — teams in the NBA are better at developing talent than the Toronto Raptors. In each of the past two seasons, the organization has had players in the Most Improved Player discussion, with Pascal Siakam winning the award two years ago.
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Heading into this season, no player on the Raptors roster looks better positioned for a breakout — Most Improved Player worthy — season than the 23-year-old Anunoby. Vegas has him at 20/1 odds of winning the award, the sixth highest in the NBA, implying about a 5% chance of it happening.
So what exactly does an Anunoby breakout season look like?
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Anunoby is a modern NBA offensive darling. He averaged 10.6 points per game last season while taking over 90% of his shots either behind the 3-point line or at the rim. He was essentially a highly efficient role player who was assisted on the vast majority of his points.
This year, the Raptors will likely ask a little bit more from Anunoby who should see his usage rate climb from 14%. For him to succeed, it will require a little more offensive creativity, something Anunoby is preparing for.
“Just being more aggressive, looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved,” he said.
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He said he spent much of the offseason working on shooting off the dribble, ball handling, and passing on the move, the kind of stuff he’ll be required to do with the ball in his hands a little more this year.
In his introductory session with the media on Friday morning, Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch explained what he thought went into a good NBA offence.
“To me, the most important thing right now is to be highly unpredictable,” Finch said.
“When you get to the playoffs, everybody knows who you are and what you do and what you do well. That’s where they start to try to stop you.
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“So the more randomness that you can have, the more purpose within that randomness, more structure that you can have, it’s always great but at some point, the game comes down to you playing basketball and some sort of random mindset.
“If you can do that really well from the beginning it’s really hard for teams to guard you. That’s been one of the calling cards of a lot of the teams I’ve been associated with, is that we’ve been able to maintain that type of unpredictability.”
A few hours later, one possible piece of that unpredictability puzzle sat in the same chair and wondered about his future.
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“I think so,” OG Anunoby said about the possibility of having an increased role in the Raptors’ offence this year.
“Just be more aggressive looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved. Just trying to do more. I think so.”
If good offence is about wrinkles and throwing the unexpected at your opponent, Anunoby might be the perfect candidate for the role. He heads into his fourth season in the league, all of them with the Raptors, with potential still radiating from his six-foot-seven, 232-pound frame.
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It’s funny in a sense that after building a reputation as the team’s top defender over the last three years that it’s a half-a-second of offence that’s attached itself to him. Type his name into Google and the autocomplete instantly tries to take you back three months to the bubble, where his buzzer beater in Game 3 against the Celtics instantly became one of the top highlights of the playoffs.
“It was a cool moment. Looking back on it was exciting, it was fun,” he said.
“But we lost the series.”
At the start of a new season, there’s finally an opportunity to get past that lost series and to start fresh. Anunoby said he’s worked more on his ball handling, shooting off of the dribble and passing on the move. He also may have made training camp history by being the first athlete to say that he hadn’t put on weight over the off-season. He said that he strengthened his core and worked on individual leg strength while keeping his weight the same.
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With the change that’s come with this new season, in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka going to L.A. to play for the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, there’s room for Anunoby to grow, to take on more responsibility on and off the court. Finishing out the season in the bubble, he started to show signs that he was ready to take those next steps.
In the playoffs, he surpassed his career averages of 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and an assist per game with 10.5 points, 6.9 rebounds 1.2 blocks and assists and one steal per game. He shot 41.5 per cent from three in the playoffs, compared to the 39 per cent he shot during the season. Keep in mind he does these things while often defending the opposition’s best players on the other end of the floor.
A year older and further up the ladder of vets on the team, there’s plenty of opportunity for Anunoby to continue to evolve, to be that element of unpredictability and help his teammates.
“I think every year in the league, I try to be a better leader than I was the year before,” he said.
“I try to show the young guys the way. If they need help they can ask me. I think I lead by example, more than a guy that’ll be yelling and screaming. I just try to do things the right way. I know how we do things, like drills and practice stuff. I just try to show the guys who don’t know. They can watch me and figure it out or they can ask me for help and I’ll help them.
“When I was young and I got here and I didn’t know what to do I could look at Pascal (Siakam) and ask him what to do, or ask Norm what to do and they’d help me figure it out. It’s just passing on what I’m taught.”
“I thought he started to become more of a driver, getting by people on the catch or making a move and getting by people,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s performance in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble last year. “There’s probably a midrange game in there that he could find, I know he’s working on.”
While it’s unlikely Anunoby ever becomes a 20 points per game scorer, a little more shot creation to increase his scoring to 15 points per game would make a massive difference for Toronto and could vault him into MIP consideration.
Anunoby is already one of the NBA’s premier defensive players. He’s a true 3-and-D player who can guard almost anyone on the court.
One through four, Anunoby has no issue stopping the opposing team’s best player. This season though, with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol playing in Los Angeles, it’s expected that Anunoby will see a little more time defending centres.
Last year, Anunoby defended opposing centres on about 14% of his defensive possessions, according to Krishna Narsu. His most notable stretch against opposing bigs came in the playoffs when the Raptors opted to go small against the Boston Celtics, playing Anunoby at the five against Daniel Theis.
It worked pretty well for Toronto, who held the Celtics to just 101 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. It was, however, a bit of a learning experience for Anunoby who gave up some easy lob passes down low to Theis.
“Just gotta be strong, gotta be on my feet, just ready to go, ready to protect the rim, ready to get back to my man because I know [Theis] got some lobs from me stepping up too early,” Anunoby said, reflecting on the matchup. “Just learning from those situations, knowing to stunt, get back, just knowing what to do, reading the situation.”
Anunoby’s ability to hold his own against opposing bigs for extended stretches will likely be an X-factor this season both for the Raptors as a team and for Anunoby’s development into an all-star caliber player this season.