Raptors’ OG Anunoby evolving into ‘dangerous’ playoffs difference-maker

Fred VanVleet gives a candid answer when asked about his teams' feelings towards being doubted in the media following the franchises' first NBA championship.

On his last road trip before this one — already the longest one of all and it hasn’t even started yet — OG Anunoby played the game of his life.

The Toronto Raptors lost to the Denver Nuggets on March 1 — an inauspicious start to what would turn out to be a very successful 4-1 west coast trip to end the ‘Before Times’ — but it didn’t matter.

Anunoby’s dominant performance was what resonated.

The third-year wing was big and fast and decisive and looked every inch a budding star. He finished with 32 points, seven rebounds, seven steals and three assists. It wasn’t a fluke. The game before, against the Charlotte Hornets, he had 16 points and six steals. A little before that he had 25 points and 12 rebounds and against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

For the season, he’s shooting 38 per cent from three, and if you strip away a December slump he’s shooting 44.5 per cent from deep.

And he might be better now.

The Raptors are used to having players break out season over season, but Anunoby might be poised for a breakout within a season, something that’s a bit new and aided by a four-month break between games.

If he can it changes things for the Raptors, and they know it.

“You can see him when he when he does have good games there’s a groove that you could kind of notice, like he’s feeling good,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “We got to get him to be that all the time.”

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The Raptors have already come to rely on Anunoby’s supply of some of the most versatile one-on-one defence in the NBA as a long-armed yet thick-bodied six-foot-seven, 230-pound defensive unicorn who can stick with guards and hold his ground against centres.

But there have been plenty of hints that there is more there to be had, and rather than the hiatus being an obstacle to his game blooming, it might prove to be the hothouse he needed.

For all but the chosen few, stardom takes time and requires opportunity — it’s the story of the Raptors’ championship in a nutshell, as they become the first team in NBA history to win a title without a player taken in the draft lottery.

Much of Anunoby’s rookie year was spent getting fully recovered from an ACL tear that cost him most of his second season at Indiana – the main reason he fell to the Raptors, who were thrilled to get him with the 22nd pick in the draft.

Last season, injuries, a loaded wing rotation and dealing with the sudden death of his father were obstacles to his progress.

But this season – pandemic or not – Anunoby has shown himself determined to take a big step, and others are noticing.

“The biggest thing with OG I think is just maturing as a man, first and foremost,” said VanVleet. “He came in pretty young, pretty green, not knowing what to expect, or what he wanted to be.

“He’s just kind of finding his groove and finding his spots and I see him putting in a lot more work than I did early on, and smart work …[and] he just continues to get better.

“Obviously we all know how special he is and how special he can be … but I see him just being more patient, and I think that comes with maturing and just being more cerebral and understanding the game a little bit better.”

In other words, it’s one thing to have talent and another to have skill — but applying them is the trick that Anunoby seems to be getting the hang of lately.

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In the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers Sunday — the Raptors’ second of three exhibition games before re-seeding games begin Aug. 1 — Anunoby put on a show, provided you knew what you were looking for.

He faced up his man on multiple occasions and put the ball on the floor to set him up with various dribble sequences that left his defender grasping at air.

A couple of times he beat his man got to the paint and lasered passes to open teammates for threes, and another occasion he crossed over through his legs and went all the way to the rim for the three-point play.

They weren’t moves he hasn’t made before, but it was the power and quickness he made them with that seemed fresh and full of promise.

“It’s been something I’ve been working on the whole year,” Anunoby said when asked about it on a conference call after the Raptors practice at the Walt Disney World Resort Monday night, before meeting the Phoenix Suns Tuesday afternoon. “When we got back in the gym, just me and coach [Patrick] Mutombo worked on it every day, just trying to keep the ball tight, move fast, stay low to the ground.”

A man as big and powerful as Anunoby can generate a lot of momentum in a hurry and harnessing it can be a problem. Anecdotally he might lead the Raptors in falling down as he has had a tendency to lose control when he gets rolling to the rim. But that wasn’t the case on Monday night.

What came first, the improved ball handling or the improved balance?

“It’s a mix of both things,” he said. “It’s a mix in the middle of staying low and staying on balance, but also make sure the moves are quick and precise and just work on it every day to tighten it up.”

It’s the kind of work that is months in the making and largely stays hidden until it finally shows up and completely changes the trajectory for a player.

The Raptors are defending their title without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — starters from their championship that left in free agency — but they have added new players without adding new bodies.

Norman Powell is in a different category this season than last and Kyle Lowry has somehow found an even fresher set of legs. Pascal Siakam is poised on the brink of superstardom, shedding his role-player status in the space of 12 months.

Complications from an appendectomy left Anunoby off the playoff roster last season, but the player who is in the rotation now — while already a legit ‘3-and-D’ threat — is evolving into something more again, even if getting there has been a painstaking process.

“It’s just lots of reps,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s ball-handling growth. “It’s a footwork thing first of all and some of that is [done] at a really slow pace and then the key to it is to be able to do it on the move … it’s kind of fine, fine-tooth stuff. It takes a little walking through, stopping, talking, re-teaching, and then lots of reps, and then you got to be able to do it to speed, so it’s a process.”

But the goals are clear and increasingly, seemingly, in reach.

“We just want to make him really dangerous,” said Nurse. “He’s a pretty good catch-and-shoot guy we want to make him a guy that can really make teams pay for having to send help to some of our other guys and eventually I [would] just like him to be a bigger part of the offence and just a tough matchup to guard with his shooting, his size, his driving, his posting. Just more actions and more things you can do.”

Anunoby is down for it.

“It’s always fun to work on that type of stuff … everyone works to do more than they do in the game. In practice, I’m working on doing something with my hands, taking different shots, working on stuff to expand my game.

“[I] just had the opportunity [Sunday] and I did it. I have been working on it relentlessly … so I guess it was the build-up of all the hard work that showed.”

It was worth watching, and for the Anunoby and the Raptors, it was a display that might help complete a championship picture.

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