If Raptors decide to trade Anunoby, Achiuwa’s improved play could fill hole

Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa. (David Zalubowski/AP)

PHOENIX — There is some irony that in the midst of what was shaping up to be his healthiest season — and arguably his best — O.G. Anunoby’s future with the Toronto Raptors could be decided while he’s on the shelf with an injury.

The big Raptors wing will miss Monday night’s start against the Phoenix Suns — the fourth game of the Raptors’ seven-game road trip — with a sprained left wrist he suffered in the first half against Golden State on Friday.

Forecasting how long he’ll be out isn’t possible yet. Anunoby was wearing a splint or brace on his wrist at shootaround Monday morning, but the result of an MRI and the subsequent medical interpretations have yet to be disclosed, though an update is expected closer to game time.

Which is a bit like forecasting the Raptors’ future, and where Anunoby fits in it. At the moment, it’s not clear.

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I spoke with Anunoby about his place in the Toronto firmament on Friday prior to him getting hurt after a scary fall from a foul on a dunk attempt. Reports about his relative satisfaction or lack thereof have been circulating since last summer, but when he’s spoken on it he’s dismissed them. So no surprise the individual Raptor most indifferent to media attention has paid little mind to being arguably the most prominent name making the rounds as trade speculation heats up.

As conversations go it was, predictable: short, polite, one-sided, and so for Anunoby, perfectly on brand:

If there was anything to rumours that he wants out of Toronto?

Anunoby: “No. It is what it is.”

Is he happy with his role in the Raptors offence?

Anunoby: “Just trying to get better every day. Some games you get a bigger role. It’s the same for everyone. It changes game to game.”

If it bothered him that his name was featuring fairly prominently in trade rumours leading up to the deadline:

Anunoby: “No, it doesn’t bother me. What can I do about it? I didn’t tell anyone to do that story or say whatever. It’s not my choice for whatever is going on to be going on. I can’t control it, so what’s the point of being mad about it?

We then digressed into a discussion about his minimalist approach to social media.

Do you miss keeping up with your friends?

Anunoby: I have friends!

But social media is how a lot of people keep up with friends’ day-to-day stuff sometimes.

Anunoby: I have my friends’ phone numbers.

Fair enough. I then asked him about what he did for dinner, (out with some guys from the team), and if he is careful with his diet (not overly but tries to avoid sugar and salt).

I complimented him on his discipline and wished I could say the same, patting my belly. He laughed and said I was doing okay, which was kind of him.

Anyway, I’ll miss the guy, if indeed he does end up being traded between now and the deadline.

For what it’s worth, when I’ve asked around the sense I get is that Anunoby has no issue playing in Toronto, but as a young player just entering his prime with a significant contract opportunity on the horizon, would he like to have a more varied role in a Raptors offence where Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and increasingly, Scottie Barnes, get the most touches? It’s not hard to imagine that.

Anunoby is still just 25, has one year left on an affordable contract and is one of the NBA’s best three-and-D options, and thus could positionally ‘plug-and-play’ in — without exaggeration — any starting lineup in the league. But there’s a bit of a logjam in Toronto at the moment.

“They need to unplug one piece,” was how one NBA insider put it.

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On that front, what decisions the Raptors make in the next 10-12 days are far from certain but moving on from Anunoby could be the most fruitful option the Raptors have if they want to reset their roster and gain a significant return without completely tearing down what they have.

What do they have? Well, through 51 games they have a 12th-place team that seemingly should be more competitive, but lacks rim protection, shooting and depth, and could probably stand to add some extra draft picks in case they do pivot to a rebuild, or — thinking big picture — want to be taken seriously in the pursuit of the next disgruntled superstar who wants to be traded.

There are all kinds of ways the Raptors could go, but each has some potential downside. Trading either Gary Trent Jr. or VanVleet — likely free agents this summer — is potentially problematic because shooting is an area the Raptors are already short (the Raptors are 28th in both three-point percentage and effective field-goal percentage). So trading one or two of your best shooters comes with risk, especially considering VanVleet is the only true point guard head coach Nick Nurse trusts and someone who has played a significant leadership role on the team since he became a rotation regular in the 2017-18 season.

Trading Siakam seems like a stretch, given he’s the team’s best player, is still just 28 and as a late bloomer has continued to improve. At the very least it seems like a move that happens over the summer rather than at the deadline, because it would have to be a significant deal and traditionally moves of that size take place in the off-season when more teams can get involved.

This brings us to Precious Achiuwa, who may just represent the tipping point if the Raptors decide to accept what would likely be a significant offer in trade for Anunoby.

Moving on from Anunoby is not a decision the Raptors can take lightly, but Achiuwa’s recent and rapid emergence could change the picture.

The 23-year-old hybrid big is rounding into shape after missing 24 games with an ankle injury and just happens to be playing the best basketball of his life.

Defensively Achiuwa doesn’t have quite the versatility of Anunoby — who is a true four and sometimes five-position defender — though he can handle himself against a good cross-section of guards, wings and centres. And for now, Anunoby is a more reliable three-point threat and proven on-ball defender against some of the most dangerous scorers in the league.

But the presence of Achiuwa — if his development curve continues — means Toronto could at least entertain the possibility of using Anunoby’s value to address other needs, with some confidence that Achiuwa will help back fill the gap Anunoby would leave in the roster.

Achiuwa’s progress is hard to ignore. Over his past 11 games he’s averaging 14.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.2 steals while shooting 57.4 per cent from the floor and 40 per cent from three while playing just 27 minutes a game.

Encouragingly as his minutes and role have grown, his production has also.

Over his last five games — which include two recent starts while Anunoby was out of the lineup and starter-like minutes when Anunoby had to leave the Warriors game due to injury — Achiuwa’s numbers spike again, up to 18.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on 62.7 per cent shooting.

He seems to have found a balance between using his speed and athleticism to attack off the dribble — he’s as fast with the ball as anyone on the roster, which can get him into trouble at times — and simply playing within the flow of the game and finding easy scoring chances. His free-throw shooting has improved significantly too, another promising sign.

“Obviously he’s getting better,” said VanVleet after Achiuwa scored a career-high 27 points in Toronto’s win over Portland. “He’s getting off (the ball). He’s going right to the next DHO [dribble handoff]. He’s playing on the second side. He’s catching in the pocket and finishing, catch-and-shoot corner threes, hitting the glass. This is what we know he can be.”

The defence is there too, with Achiuwa using his size and agility to cover huge swaths of the floor from the three-point line to the rim but more importantly doing so with an increasingly firm grasp of the game plan.

“The best thing he’s doing is talking and anchoring our defence and being our back line,” said VanVleet. “He’s been special at that end of the floor for us over the last week or two.”

What the Raptors are going to do with their roster as the Feb. 9 trade deadline approaches remains an open question. Team president Masai Ujiri flew to San Francisco on Friday and is expected to be with the club at least until they play Utah on Wednesday this week. Raptors general manager Bobby Webster has been on the trip from the beginning, though the two executives may head back to Toronto before the end of the trip (on Sunday in Memphis) to hunker down and make decisions on all the intelligence they’ve been gathering.

Their challenge is to sort through a strange season to date and determine what problems are real and which ones are just bad basketball luck. For what it’s worth, on basketball-reference.com, the expected record for Toronto, based on various statistical measures, is 27-24. That mark would place them in a tie for seventh place, a game out of sixth and the final playoff spot, and in a position to at least dream of securing a top-four seed, which was the goal when the season started.

But in some ways the NBA economy forces decisions on you. Anunoby has been one of the Raptors’ most exciting development stories after being taken 23rd overall in the 2017 draft. So much so that when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2024 he’ll be one of the most sought-after players on the market and is in demand now as the trade deadline approaches.

Not many teams can afford to trade an elite multi-positional defender who can shoot and score the way Anunoby can. But if the Raptors decide that’s the move they need to make, the way Achiuwa has come on should make the decision a little easier.

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