As those unlikely Anunoby rumours swirl, Raptors enter draft with divergent paths in play

Toronto Raptors' OG Anunoby, right, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers' Paul Reed during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Monday, April 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

In a media briefing in advance of the NBA Draft on Thursday night, Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster was asked all the usual questions. Is it better to draft for talent; for fit? And the rest. Which aren’t all that compelling, given that the Raptors have the 33rd pick and will, by definition, be taking whatever prospect the rest of league doesn’t deem good enough to go in the top 32.

He was also asked about the reports, rumours, or speculation — choose your adjective — about Raptors forward OG Anunoby being unhappy in his role, so much so that he may even be open to being traded.

The noise has died down for the most part, but for an otherwise sleepy Tuesday, it was at least worth mentioning that Webster didn’t take the opportunity to grab the microphone and shout loudly that it was all bunk, and the Raptors would never, ever move the fifth-year forward they took with the 23rd pick on draft night in 2017 and have watched blossom into a high-end 3-and-D wing in between injuries.

“We have great communication with OG,” is what Webster did say. “He’s even up here [in Toronto] now. For one, it doesn’t make sense to comment on all the trade speculation. If we talked about every call we got or every player we discussed we’d be here for hours, so I don’t think it’s all that noteworthy.”

Which sounds about right: why get all caught up in what is mostly speculation?

But it’s hard to read that quote and not think that at very least the door remains open, just a crack, and that Webster at least hasn’t painted himself into a corner.

And it gets a little more interesting when paired with another comment Webster made regarding the Raptors off-season picture overall, with free agency coming up after July 1.

“You look at it two ways: We have a couple free agents, we have a mid-level [exception to offer]. Maybe in that sense it’s just adding to the group,” he said, assessing how busy the off-season might be. “Obviously if you have trade discussions, it’s different. There are kind of just two different paths you can go.”

Again, the most likely scenario? Not much happens. The Raptors come to agreements on  contracts with Thad Young and Chris Boucher, their two free agents, and use the mid-level exception to add a solid veteran who can help elevate the floor for a team that possibly over-achieved on its way to a surprising 48-win season and first-round playoff exit.

But there is that different path, where Webster tries to trade his way into a better roster — either now or in the future —  and in that scenario it’s easy to see why Anunoby’s name would come up.

But be clear: the extent to which Anunoby is less-than-satisfied in his role as the off-the-ball  offensive option while Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes are being repped out as high-usage playmakers — the job that gets paid the biggest bucks in the NBA economy — is thought to be overstated.

Would Anunoby like be in a more featured role, offensively? Sure, which makes him no different than just about every other player in the NBA who believes they could do a bigger job if given the chance.

But, on the scale of problems the Raptors have had to deal with, this isn’t the mutual frustrations that had to be worked through with Siakam over the past couple of years, or the near decade-long slow drip of headaches that was the Kyle Lowry experience. And by the way, both of those situations worked out well for all involved. 

The one benefit of having a report out there that a key player may be not perfectly happy, though, is that you get most of the league calling to find out what it would take to change that. Not surprisingly, the market for a 24-year-old veteran with playoff chops who can mind the store on both ends with term left on a favourable contract is brisk.

Brisk enough even that if the Raptors wanted to move into the upper half of the draft lottery they could probably do it.

What might interest them there?

Just for fun, there just so happens to be some highly regarded, athletic wings with Canadian passports projected to go in the 4-to-8 range in Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, a sharp-shooting two-way wing from Montreal and Shaedon Sharpe, a prototypical two-guard from London, Ontario who is regarded as the most athletic player in this draft and perhaps in many drafts.

The problem with moving up in the draft is that it requires a leap of faith. When you’re picking 33rd in the draft, players projected to go in the top-10 aren’t flying across the continent for a job interview.

On that front, the Raptors do have an advantage in that Mathurin was in camp with the Canadian national team last summer when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was wearing his Canada Basketball hat.

If there were an opportunity to make a move and Mathurin was available, the Raptors could act confidently. That’s not the case with Sharpe or any of the other top names in the draft.

All that said, it’s highly unlikely that the Raptors have plans to use Anunoby as a way to work themselves into the upper reaches of the draft for the simple reason that the versatile wing represents a bird in hand: What are the chances that anyone in the 4-8 range will be ever be better than Anunoby is now, let alone two or three years from now when accounting for Anunoby’s upside, which most think has yet to be fully tapped mainly due to injuries that have cost him 63 games over the past two seasons?

More likely is the Raptors take the best player available at No. 33 and then turn their attention to free agency, where – again – it’s expected Toronto will keep their own free agents and augment some of their roster shortcomings by adding a free agent. Although if the Raptors decide to get involved in the trade market at that point, Anunoby could surface again, as unlikely as that might be.

But, as they say, never say never. Webster didn’t when he had the opportunity Tuesday, so we stay tuned.

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