As free agency looms, offensive ceiling for Raptors’ Anunoby remains unknown

Toronto Raptors' O.G. Anunoby (3) drives as Minnesota Timberwolves' Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) and Rudy Gobert (left) defend during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — There is a great deal of value in consistency. Knowing what a player will bring each night, and being able to rely on it, is a necessary component of success and team-building.

Stagnation, however, is a second cousin of consistency.

If a player, particularly a younger player, brings the same thing to the table year after year, teams have to weigh that consistency against the lack of a step forward. Not every young player has the space and opportunity to expand their game, and in those cases, you’d hope a player becomes better and better within their designated role. Player-development curves peak in the late 20s, and while they can continue improving beyond that point, a player is usually paid for who he is by age 27 or 28.

Those realities make O.G. Anunoby’s 2023-24 season fascinating, especially as the Raptors look to install new offensive principles and a more egalitarian system.

Anunoby can opt out of his contract following this season, becoming an unrestricted free agent. The new CBA’s more flexible rules about contract extensions didn’t go far enough to make an Anunoby extension a realistic possibility, and so unlike Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr., Anunoby heading to free agency seems inevitable. That speaks to a few things, including the quality deal the Raptors got on this current contract, how Anunoby has developed since, and how the NBA’s economics have changed since that deal was signed in December 2020.

At age 26 and likely headed into free agency, this season has a lot on the line for Anunoby. Whether his game expands in coach Darko Rajakovic’s offence could help determine Anunoby’s contract upside this summer.

So, how has that all looked?

Good, if your frame of reference is Anunoby’s career to date, as he’s basically in line with or slightly above most of his career marks, statistically, and he’s made a very strong quarter-season case for another All-Defensive Team nod.

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But how much more is Anunoby offensively? Or, if we accept certain constraints to once again being a lower-priority option in the Raptors’ offence, how much more could he be? If you were hoping for Anunoby to add more to his game in this new environment, you may be lukewarm on his first 16 games.

Teams will know and value what Anunoby is right now: One of the best and most versatile defenders in the league, by position and role, and a very steady catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter. He is the endpoint of the previously en vogue “3-and-D” designation, someone who is perhaps too good at both things to be constrained by an “elite role player” tag. Whether teams will pay beyond that definition, either because he fits a need so snuggly or because they see more offensive upside to tap into, is unclear.

Anunoby was compared to Mikal Bridges for years, and at age 26, Bridges was traded in a move that challenged him to jump from elite role player to top option. It’s an imperfect comparison, as Bridges had a more complete handle and, though he actually created fewer of his own baskets than Anunoby has, the tools of self-creation are the single-most important skill for a player to scale to greater usage; there just aren’t going to be enough opportunities knocking down corner threes, running in transition and finishing off cuts. Bridges was also already under a long-term contract at a number (four years, $90 million) below — and maybe significantly below — what Anunoby could get this offseason. The Nets got to gamble on Bridges expanding his role to borderline stardom while already having him under contract at a high-end role player prices. Anunoby’s suitors this summer won’t have that opportunity.

What would Anunoby expanding his role even look like?

There were two windows in which Anunoby was given that chance. The first was after the trade deadline during the Tampa Tank 2020-21 season, where his usage rate and assist rate both spiked without much change in his efficiency. The second, when Siakam missed time early in 2021-22, had shakier results, with a bump in assist rate but a big dip in efficiency.

That wasn’t nearly enough runway to say he never could have developed those skills, but it’s the one time we’ve gotten a look at a sustained stretch of (slightly) higher usage Anunoby. If he weren’t drafted into a win-now situation, as a Day 1 starter and lock-down defender, followed by a sophomore season with championship aspirations (and successes), could Anunoby have developed more on-ball creation? Could the Raptors have shifted more developmental touches his way over the four seasons that followed the title? Those are unanswerable what-ifs, leaving us to evaluate Anunoby within a defined role he excels at.

Over seven seasons, Anunoby has consistently hovered just below league-average usage while clocking in above league-average efficiency. Efficiency is more difficult to maintain with higher usage, as your diet of shots becomes more difficult and defensive attention becomes greater; there is a real selection bias to the usage-efficiency trade-off, as usually only very good players get to push their usage higher and higher.

This season, Anunoby’s usage and efficiency are almost identical to his 2020-21 and 2022-23 seasons.

Anunoby is tied for the league lead in corner threes made this season, and he’s hit 51.1 per cent of those attempts, an excellent mark. His 40 per cent overall mark on threes is hampered by a 30.2 per cent clip above the break, which is lower than we’d expect given how few of his attempts have been pull-ups. Still, the net is a career-best mark on threes, coupled with a career-best mark on mid-range jumpers. He’s also finishing at the rim at an above-average rate for a wing, as he always has. The only areas he’s really been struggling is the floater-range part of the paint, where he rarely shoots, and those wing threes. All told, his play-finishing ability is in line with what we’d expect given his career so far, give or take a bounce here and there.

In terms of how Anunoby is getting those shots, not a lot has changed there, either. Nearly 60 per cent of Anunoby’s used possessions come in transition or as a spot-up shooter, two areas he excels at. He’s been given slightly more pick-and-roll opportunities, and those have gone poorly, as they often have in the past. He’s driving and posting up a bit less and coming off screens a bit more, but this is largely the same offensive role Anunoby has played in the past.

This doesn’t mean nothing has changed. Players can improve in their roles without a major change in usage or efficiency because a player isn’t involved at the end of every possession. Setting a really good off-ball screen, cutting with authority to draw defensive attention, making the right pass that sets up the next pass, and several other things aren’t captured easily. The Raptors are better offensively when Anunoby is on the court (and remarkably better defensively), something that holds even when we control for linemates and look at narrower on-off impacts. Over a large enough sample, we’d expect those little things to show up at the team level, and the last few years suggest Anunoby is a slight positive on offence and a monstrous positive on defence.

The most measurable of those non-box-score offensive impacts are passing and cutting. As a team, the Raptors have been passing significantly more and significantly better under Rajakovic.

Based on data provided to Sportsnet, Anunoby’s passing profile hasn’t changed a tonne. When it comes to passing along the perimeter, passing from the paint to the perimeter and passing while attacking, Anunoby’s passing role is about the same as it was last season. Where he’s made a big jump, though, is finding another player once he’s already in the paint — Anunoby is threading more of those dump-off, lay-down, or cutter passes once he’s inside, and his turnover rate and those high-traffic dishes have decreased.

Said differently, Anunoby has not changed much with high-low or low-high passing, as a nature of where and why he gets the ball. He’s the back-cutter or the open shooter too often for too many low-high or high-low feeds, respectively. He is making the extra read once in an advantageous position, though, which is a good sign.

Anunoby is also cutting way more than in the past. The play-type table above shows how often Anunoby finishes a play as a cutter, but there are plenty of cuts that don’t immediately lead to a shot for the cutter. Anunoby is cutting nearly 40 per cent more often, something the Raptors are emphasizing.

(Team-wide, the results have been pretty poor, and that’s probably the single area they could make the most offensive growth as the season progresses. They’re not going to be able to just add better 3-point shooters, which is their biggest shortcoming. Doing a better job finishing these new opportunities Rajakovic’s approach is creating is within their control more than improving the personnel is.)

It is, admittedly, a bit disappointing to see Anunoby’s role stay more or less the same. The most notable statistical change is that Anunoby is relying on assists for his offence more often than before, especially on paint touches. That’s what the new system wants, so it’s hard to fault Anunoby, even if that note, coupled with a lack of progression in self-creation play types, is mildly discouraging. Most other changes in his profile are either small-sample noise or too small to change your overall Anunoby outlook, at least until he builds on them.

Mostly, Anunoby has been asked to be a slightly better version of the same Anunoby. That’s an incredibly valuable one who will be in high demand if he hits free agency. It just doesn’t give us much more of a window into if — and how — Anunoby could expand his offensive game if asked to. 

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