By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
An athletic freak who can guard all five positions. A gym rat who won’t let himself be outworked. OG Anunoby isn’t just the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors forward has an old-school NBA mindset with a body built for the future.

If you only have time for one anecdote, one story that perfectly encapsulates Toronto Raptors rookie OG Anunoby, let it be this one:

It was 2015 — not all that long ago. Anunoby was a senior at Jefferson City High School in Missouri and he was on the court after class with his fellow Jaybirds, preparing for districts. Anunoby was good; a promising enough talent to receive several scholarship offers from major colleges and to be one of the most recognizable 18-year-olds in Jefferson City. Heads turned wherever he went. Middle schoolers lined up to rebound for him. His teachers adored him — one even baked him a cake. “He was the Jimmy Chitwood of Jefferson City,” says Blair Thompson, the Jaybirds coach at the time. “Everybody knew who OG was and when he came in the gym, everybody loved to be around him.”

Well, let’s just say all this attention didn’t sit too well with one of Anunoby’s teammates. He thought he was pretty good, too, and didn’t appreciate how every play seemed to run through the future NBAer. Anunoby remembers the animosity well, but says he never harboured ill will towards the teammate. What’s about to happen suggests otherwise.

It’s a full-court scrimmage, and Anunoby catches a pass on the wing. He heads straight to the basket and, wouldn’t you know it, there’s the teammate sliding over to take a charge. About 10 feet from the rim, Anunoby knew he could simply pull up and take a jump shot. He knew his opponent was expecting a drive. He knew the easy play.

The play Anunoby chose, the difficult one, was to take off in front of the aggrieved teammate, and not so much dunk over him as through him, knocking the defender back several feet and literally removing him from his shoes. “This poor kid, he lies there in pain for about 30 seconds,” Thompson says. “And then he had to go pick up his shoes.”

The practice court was bedlam. Thompson figures it took him and his assistant coaches a good 10 minutes to restore order. Even then, he simply called off practice because everyone was losing their minds. And what did Anunoby do in the midst of all the chaos he’d created? “There was no celebrating, no mean-mugging,” Thompson says. “OG turned and walked calmly back to his spot. And he just stood there waiting for practice to continue.”

In the latest episode, Donnovan and JD discuss Anunoby’s hot start, rise in the rotation and his ceiling as a player.
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Due to his extremely blunt, concise approach to interviews, Anunoby — the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick this June — has developed a bit of a reputation for having an intensely serious personality. Nothing could be further from the truth. When he’s relaxed and around those he trusts, Anunoby is silly, jovial, fun-loving, a dancer. Old teammates and close friends say they can’t get him to shut up. But only occasionally does his goofiness permeate into the public realm, such as the video of Anunoby — then a baby-faced college freshman — winning an on-stage dance competition at a tournament banquet in Maui.

Truth is, Anunoby has always been content to let his play speak for itself while everyone else sorts out the rest. He’s not shy and he’s not insecure — he’s just about his business in a way most 20-year-olds are not. It’s part of what made him one of the draft’s most intriguing selections — an extraordinarily gifted athlete and versatile defender with top-10 potential, who nevertheless fell to No. 23 due to questions about his offensive ceiling and the fact he was still recovering from knee surgery at the time, leading ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla to playfully coin him a “sexy blogger pick.”

There’s a lot for bloggers to like. Measuring six-foot-eight and 235 pounds, with a preposterous seven-foot-two wingspan, Anunoby is multiple defenders in one. He’s quick and explosive enough to keep up with guards on the perimeter; instinctual and energetic enough to stay on slicing wings; strong and bulky enough to hang in the paint with bruising big men. He’ll jump passing lanes for steals, fight through screens like he enjoys it, and use his rocket-shoed vertical to block shots. Offensively, he’s no magician with the ball in his hands, but he shoots from distance, scores in the post and comes up with key offensive rebounds. He’s the new NBA — a positionless player you can utilize in lineups both big and small. That, and his potential to grow into a Kawhi Leonard-type as he continues to mature and develop, is why Toronto was enamoured with him, and why they feel like they got an absolute steal selecting him where they did. “If he doesn’t have that injury,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said on draft night, “I don’t think we have a shot.”

For his part, Anunoby’s strong preference was to become a Raptor as well. His draft workouts were a little unconventional considering he couldn’t actually work out. Still rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered in his right knee in January, Anunoby was unable to do anything more than stationary shooting, which put him under much more scrutiny when he sat down at the table to be interviewed. Teams asked endless questions about his knee, his rehab timelines and how hard he was working to get back to full strength. Some, he sensed, were skeptical. “I was telling them everything,” Anunoby says. “But, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t believe everything.” Toronto’s interview, meanwhile, was much more encouraging. “They were really trying to know me as a person, more than other teams did,” he continues, noting he felt a strong familial vibe from Toronto’s front office. “It was just a good environment. Everyone seemed really close. I liked Toronto right away.”

"Who is this guy?"
Anunoby was the 261st-ranked prep player in the U.S. before an AAU breakout performance in which no one knew his name put him on the radars of top NCAA Div. 1 programs.

One of six siblings, Anunoby knows a strong family when he meets one. His father — also named Ogugua — was born and raised in Nigeria before moving to the United Kingdom for graduate school. It was there, in England, that Anunoby was born. But when he was only four years old, his father was offered a teaching opportunity in Jefferson City. So, Anunoby Sr. transplanted the family to Missouri, where he still resides today, working as a professor of business and finance at Lincoln University.

Anunoby’s older brother, Chigbo, is also an athlete, one who bounced around four different NFL teams as a defensive lineman. While he’d like to take credit for their innate physicality, Anunoby Sr. concedes it was his wife, who competed in track-and-field at a national level in Nigeria, who likely provided the genetic material that allowed two members of the family to reach the apex of their sports. “Their mother was a champion athlete,” he says. “She was a sprinter, she was a jumper — she was very competitive.”

Anunoby’s mother died when he was only a year old, and it’s not a topic he, or his father, particularly care to discuss. OG remembers little of her, or England for that matter, but says he’s planning to travel to both the UK and Nigeria after the season to visit family and learn more about his roots. “It was tough not having a mother,” he says, “but my dad did a really good job raising us.”

Anunoby Sr. carries the personality his son expresses in interviews — only he’s more talkative. A serious, stoic man, he speaks slowly and purposefully, not wasting a word as he crafts eloquent, thoughtful sentences. “I do not intend to be immodest, but we tried to raise a proper family,” he says. “And when I say proper, what I mean is we are people who do things well. We value hard work, order, and success. You don’t talk unless you have to talk. And if you have to talk, you should say something that doesn’t take away from the conversation, but enriches it.”

A lifelong academic, Anunoby Sr. made his son read for an hour every night (Aesop’s Fables was a favourite) and constantly stressed the importance of diligence, never letting homework go uncompleted or grades fall below the high standards he set. And Anunoby was studious and disciplined from a very young age, falling in line with the methodical, structured home his father ran. But once they settled in the U.S., Anunoby naturally gravitated towards sports. He played soccer, ran the 400-m., competed in high and long jump, played wide receiver, and excelled at baseball, both as a long-levered pitcher throwing a hard fastball and as a patient hitter with exceptional plate vision. Baseball was the sport Anunoby Sr. thought his son was best at, and the one he tried to nudge him towards. But he still remembers the day he realized basketball was his son’s true passion.

They were in a sporting goods store. Anunoby was eight. He’d been bugging his father for months to set up a hoop in the backyard so he could work on his shot. But he wanted the premium one — 12 feet, adjustable, with a price tag in the hundreds. Making that case to a stern professor of finance proved challenging. But one day, Anunoby Sr. cracked. “I said to him, ‘You have to promise to actually use it. You will make sure that we have value for money,’” Anunoby Sr. remembers. “It turns out, it was a very good investment.”

“We value hard work, order, and success. You don’t talk unless you have to talk. And if you have to talk, you should say something that doesn’t take away from the conversation.”

Anunoby shot baskets morning, noon and night — through rain and snow. He put his siblings to work rebounding for him. His father couldn’t pry him away. He’d call his son in for dinner and OG would never arrive. By seventh grade, Anunoby was playing on a travel team, and in eighth grade he convinced his father to let him start playing AAU, which took him all over the country. By the time he was a freshman in high school, Anunoby had shot up to six-foot-three. He was still skinny, which left him stuck on Jefferson City’s junior varsity team, but he hit a big development spurt during his sophomore year, filling out and stretching even taller. The extra size helped him get invited to a big AAU tournament before his junior year, playing with the St. Louis Eagles alongside current Boston Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum.

Anunoby got great grades and his basketball IQ was always through the roof, but, like most teenagers, he sometimes needed a little push to come out of his shell. Thompson, the Jefferson City coach, remembers running a defensive drill that stressed communication and having to announce to his team practice would not be ending until Anunoby spoke up. He also remembers Anunoby as the gym rat of all gym rats — a tireless worker who’d regularly call his coaches at 11:00 p.m. to let him into the school so he could shoot. “And if one of us didn’t answer, he’d start calling the middle school coaches to let him in,” Thompson says. “We couldn’t get him out. He was literally here all the time. To the point where you’re telling him, like, ‘Man, you’ve gotta go home and eat. Do homework. Be a kid.’”

By his senior year, Anunoby was nearly as tall as he is now. He grew more diligent in the weight room, put on highlight shows at his high school games, and excelled with a new AAU program, Team Thad, playing more of a feature role than he had alongside Tatum. He became the most in-demand teenager in Jefferson City, fielding constant requests to coach at basketball camps and read to elementary school children — community work he happily completed whenever he had spare time. He’d even go to Jefferson City’s arch rival, Helias Catholic High School, to work with their players and give them any insight he had.

“He was a bit of a celebrity. But he’d still grab a seventh- or eighth-grade kid and take them to go shoot. And you can imagine what shooting with OG Anunoby was like for a seventh grader,” Thompson says. “He’s the only NBA player the town has ever had. I think a lot of people were excited about that and could see it coming. So, they loved to be around him and talk to him. They wanted some of that to rub off on them if they could. They wanted any part of OG that he was willing to give.”

At Indiana, Hoosiers coaches drilled Anunoby's handling endlessly and helped him build an inventory of post moves.

The passion of those in Jefferson City wasn’t exactly matched by national recruiters. In his senior year, Anunoby was the 261st-ranked prep player in the country per the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which combines all the top national rankings into one list. Maybe it was because he was so quiet, both off the floor and on, where his game was more businesslike than flashy. Maybe it was the time spent bouncing around AAU teams and playing in Tatum’s shadow. Maybe it was the broken wrist he suffered blocking a shot against the backboard for Jefferson City, which ended his junior year and held him out of AAU play for some time. Whatever the reason, Anunoby was sparsely recruited, and needed a stroke of blind luck to even end up on the NCAA Div. 1 radar.

It happened in Atlanta, at an Under Armor tournament Team Thad participated in right before Anunoby’s senior year. Many of the top prep players in the country were in attendance, which meant many of the top college coaches were there, too. And while the majority of them were watching highly touted prospects on other courts, a small contingent from Indiana University — including then-head coach Tom Crean and a pair of his assistants — had camped out under the basket at Anunoby’s game to watch a pair of his teammates, Nick Marshall and Jaylen Fisher.

Team Thad was playing a press defence, with Anunoby at the top creating all kinds of disruption. “He was just tipping every ball, stealing every ball, running down the court and knocking down a three,” says former Indiana assistant coach Chuck Martin. “He’s hitting the open shot, dunking, getting to the rim — he was all over the place. We were like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

The Indiana coaches started rifling through their programs and tournament guides but couldn’t find a name to go along with Anunoby’s number. Turns out, he’d been mistakenly omitted because he’d been sidelined with the wrist injury. So, the Indiana contingent could only watch as the mystery player continued to impress. As soon as the game was through they scrambled to call the tournament director to get the kid’s name. By the end of the weekend, they were on one phone with Anunoby, inviting him to campus for a visit, and another with Thompson, asking a million questions and requesting every last megabyte of film he had. Anunoby and his father visited Indiana’s campus shortly thereafter, and the Hoosiers made him a scholarship offer before he left.

“It was pretty obvious right away — we really liked him,” says Steve McClain, a former Indiana associate coach who led Anunoby’s recruitment. “We were never really worried about rankings or any of that. Our only worries are: do we like him and does he fit our system? And OG answered those questions immediately. And then you find out he’s got a brother in the NFL, and you meet his dad, who’s a high-character guy. So, there’s a makeup of hard work, success, and high-level athleticism. What more could you want?”

Eventually, word got out, and Iowa, Gonzaga, Georgia, Wichita State, Vanderbilt and more than 20 other schools all started poking around. But a combination of Indiana’s early interest and sheer aggressiveness (the week after the Atlanta tournament, Crean called Anunoby every day), its history of developing similarly unheralded prep players (perhaps none more so than Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo), and Anunoby’s desire to play in a basketball-crazed community, led him to Bloomington.

“There isn’t a time I can remember that he wasn’t working out, getting shots up, doing extra stuff in the weight room, ball-handling, watching film — just anything he could do.”

Once he was there, the real work began. The Hoosiers coaching staff refined his shooting form, simplifying his mechanics and eliminating his tendency to fade away on jump shots. They drilled his ball handling endlessly and helped Anunoby build a deep inventory of post moves that utilized his wingspan and explosiveness. He didn’t play big minutes as a freshman, but when he did get on the floor, it seemed like he was perpetually making something happen. A late rebound, an important block, an unexpected steal, a fastbreak off a turnover that he finished with a soaring dunk — every key play was earning him more trust, and as Indiana entered the 2016 NCAA tournament, Anunoby was regularly seeing 17 minutes or more off the bench.

He scored 14 points in 15 minutes during Indiana’s opening game before the Hoosiers drew high-powered and high-ranked Kentucky in the second round, which is when Anunoby announced his presence to the world. He played suffocating defence against star Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, helping hold the soon-to-be seventh overall pick to 1-of-9 from distance, while putting up two steals and three blocks, including one late in the game on Murray beyond the arc that helped seal Indiana’s upset victory.

Anunoby and the Hoosiers eventually fell victim to North Carolina in the sweet 16, but Indiana — and the greater basketball world — was now acutely aware of just what they had on their hands. And so, they went back to work over the off-season, polishing every aspect of their young star’s game, a pursuit Anunoby relished, just as he did when he was a high schooler pulling on locked gym doors. “There isn’t a time that I can remember when I was in the office that he wasn’t working out, getting shots up, doing extra stuff in the weight room, ball-handling, watching film — just anything he could do,” says Jake Thelen, a former Indiana graduate manager who ran individual workouts for Anunoby on a near daily basis. “And then I’d go home, and he’s getting in touch with me at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, asking, ‘Hey, can we get shots up? Can we work out? Can we do this? Can we do that?’ It was just non-stop.”

The pair of teammates Anunoby lived with in Bloomington — Juwan Morgan and Thomas Bryant, who’s now with the Los Angeles Lakers — would regularly hear their roommate up at 7:00 a.m. on weekends, blasting Young Thug through the apartment before he left to work out. (“They never complained,” Anunoby protests.) Morgan started trying to time his naps for when Anunoby was at the gym, because he knew his roommate would be gone for hours. “We all did extra. But not to the extent OG did,” Morgan says. “We’d finish a practice and he’d still be working out. So, we’d wait for him and then we’d go get something to eat. And then we’d be like, ‘Alright, let’s go home’ — and he’d say he’s going back to the gym to shoot some more. He’s always just had that about him. Just trying to outwork whoever might be trying to outwork him.”

Returning as a sophomore starter, Anunoby began putting it all together on the court, earning an expanded role on offence while guarding all five positions. He had 13 points and three blocks in the Hoosiers season-opener against Kansas, outplaying future lottery pick Josh Jackson. He scored 16 as Indiana avenged its tournament loss to North Carolina. He had seven steals against Rutgers. “In our staff meetings, we were raving about what he was doing. We kept talking about how he was really starting to hit his stride. He was getting really comfortable in the offence and really confident in his game,” Thelen says. “And then, well, you know what happened at Penn State.”

Anunoby dropped in the draft thanks to a knee injury, allowing the Raptors to nab him at No. 23 overall.

The play was designed for Anunoby to get the ball in the post. It was mid-January; Big 10 play; dying seconds of the first half; Indiana up seven in their crimson reds. Moments earlier, Anunoby had taken the ball on the perimeter, blown by Penn State’s point guard, charged right through heavy traffic in the paint and jammed all over a defender in the lane. With enough clock for one more play, Crean figured he’d give it to the kid and see what else he could do.

But Penn State knew what was up. The Hoosiers couldn’t get Anunoby the ball. So, as Indiana settled for a long three-pointer, Anunoby outmaneuvered his man and charged to the rim looking for a putback. Morgan, sitting on the bench nursing a foot injury, remembers being locked in on his roommate the entire play, waiting to see what he’d do. “He runs in,” Morgan remembers, “and then he just drops.”

There was so little to it. Anunoby was moving to his right into the paint, but the ball bounced off the rim to his left. As he planted to change course, his right knee buckled. Anunoby yelled and collapsed, rolling onto his back under the rim, clutching his knee. The entire team rushed over, and Anunoby was eventually helped off the court with his arms over the shoulders of Morgan and Indiana’s strength and conditioning coach. When he got back to the locker room, he broke down in tears. “I didn’t want to believe it,” Morgan says, “but everyone kinda knew.”

Many athletes who suffer ACL tears feel relatively capable in the days following. They can walk, jump, squat. The knee feels different — many describe the sensation as hollow — but the ability to move around gives false hope that it’s not as bad as it seems. That was certainly the case for Anunoby, who, upon returning to Bloomington, grabbed a ball at practice, walked over to a basket and threw down a dunk. “I was thinking I was fine. No swelling. I’m moving around, shooting threes and stuff. I could still do everything,” Anunoby says. “I really thought everything was okay.”

Anunoby has impressed with his defense and shooting, pushing his way into the top of the Raptors' rotation.

MRIs revealed otherwise, and Anunoby had surgery in New York before the end of the month, ending his season and throwing his plans to move on to the next level into doubt. Anunoby got in touch with a series of current and former NBAers — Derek Anderson, Alex Poythress and Thaddeus Young among them — who had experienced similar injuries. The one thing he kept hearing was that he needed to pick a direction — either return for his junior year or put all his energy into making the jump — and stick with it. “I was being a little hesitant,” Anunoby says. “But the more I consulted with people and thought about it, the more I realized I still really wanted to go. So, I just went all in.”

That meant doing everything he possibly could to prepare himself for NBA basketball while being unable to play basketball at all. Since he couldn’t do much physically, Anunoby directed his energy towards the film room with Indiana’s director of player development, Derek Elston. They scrutinized footage from his freshman and sophomore seasons, obsessively nitpicking every last flaw in his game. “We scouted him like he was an opponent,” Elston says. “His shooting form, his misses, his makes.” When they identified something to adjust, they’d head out to the gym — Anunoby hobbling in his big knee brace — to work out the kinks. Elston set Anunoby up in a chair at various spots on the floor and watched him take thousands of seated shots, focusing on every subtle aspect of his form. “He’d want to hit six in a row,” Elston says. “And then six wasn’t good enough — it had to be 10. And then 15.”

“Sometimes, as a young player, you think too much. But when he comes in, he just plays. That young man is doing a good job.”

Draft day in June was exciting and a test of patience, as Anunoby had little sense of where he’d be selected. He sat nervously through the first 22 picks as players listed beneath him on many pre-draft rankings came off the board. It seemed that plenty of teams Anunoby interviewed with — Los Angeles, Sacramento, Orlando, Denver, Portland, Indiana — had considered his injury and still relatively raw offensive skillset, and opted to go in another direction. Sacramento and Portland each passed twice, despite showing interest leading up to the draft. Morgan texted Anunoby furiously with each passing selection, breaking down the next team’s needs and systems, and making his case for why his friend was going to be taken there. When Anunoby’s agent passed along word before Toronto’s selection that the Raptors were taking him, Anunoby looked down at his chat with Morgan and sent a simple message: “Finally.”

It was a similar sentiment to the one he had a few months later at Raptors training camp, when he learned he’d been cleared to play in a late-September intrasquad game, his first live basketball in eight months. It was a surprising 16 minutes of game time — not for Anunoby, who had been amused by the public speculation surrounding his return, but for Raptors observers who assumed the gossip that he would be out of action well into winter was gospel. A report in May had him sidelined until 2018; one in June said he’d be off the floor until December; another in September said he wouldn’t even participate in training camp. Through it all, Anunoby never even considered missing the first game of the season.

“I was hearing about these reports and I was like, ‘What?’” Anunoby says. “I was in full practices. I always felt good. I was always doing stuff that people thought I wouldn’t be able to do. There was never a turning point or anything — everything just went really well. In my mind, I was always good to go.”

Just as he's done since high school, Anunoby is surpassing expectations early in his NBA career.

About 14 minutes in to his first NBA game, Anunoby caught a pass on the wing and headed straight to the basket. Quincy Pondexter, the Chicago Bulls swingman with nearly 300 games in the league, slid over to take a charge, just like Anunoby’s Jefferson City teammate did before losing his shoes. But Anunoby didn’t dunk through anybody this time. Instead, he planted with that repaired right knee and spun to his left just as he was about to run into Pondexter, who flopped flat on his back expecting to take the charge. The rest was elementary, as Anunoby leaped up and jammed home his first two NBA points. Back in Bloomington, Elston was watching. “I’m like, dang, man,” he says, “if I’m coming off an ACL injury, I don’t know if that’s my first move.’”

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was watching, too. He watched Anunoby steadily earn trust over his first 10 games as a professional until, in the rookie’s 11th — an early November contest against the New Orleans Pelicans — Casey started giving him precious late-game minutes. Anunoby had done a strong job containing Anthony Davis through three quarters, but Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday was running wild with 32 points. When the speedy veteran checked back in for the fourth, Casey moved Anunoby onto him. Holiday missed three of the four shots he took in the quarter, as the Raptors edged out a narrow victory. “He did the best job on Holiday of all of our guards, all of our wings,” Casey says. Less than a week later, the coach put Anunoby on James Harden and watched as the rookie held the five-time all-star to 2-of-15 from the field in the 23 minutes he guarded him. Harden shot 6-of-10 with Anunoby on the bench. “Sometimes, as a young player, you think too much and you try to get everything right,” Casey continues. “But when he comes in, he just plays. That young man is doing a good job.”

That young man is just getting started. There’s a shot to refine, a handle to improve, a still-recovering knee to grow stronger and more durable. And there’s a promise to fulfill to his father, one he hopes to get to sometime next year by beginning online courses to complete his education — a major in sports marketing with a minor in business. Anunoby continues to provide return on investment for the hoop Anunoby Sr. bought all those years ago, and calls home after every game to debrief with the stoic professor. The man who preached diligence, order, and success. The father who taught him you don’t have to say much to be loud.

Photo Credits

Andy Lyons/Getty Images; G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images; Mike Stobe/Getty Images; Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images; Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo Illustration and Design by Drew Lesiuczok