When considering today’s prototypical NBA player, you can't go wrong with a 3-and-D wing. They are generally between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9, accompanied by a wingspan a few inches longer than their height.
Looking at the Toronto Raptors roster, it’s pretty evident that’s the direction they’re going. Long, athletic and versatile players that coach Nick Nurse can plug and play whenever, wherever and however he desires. Enter OG Anunoby, who is 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and shooting 37 percent from downtown over his first four years in the league.
While there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Raptors to begin the 2021-22 campaign, much of the focus remained on Anunoby. Fred VanVleet was handed the keys once held by the great Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam wasn’t available immediately due to injury and no one knew what to make of rookie Scottie Barnes. Not only was Anunoby expected to guard the opposition's best wing player every night, but he was also expected to expand his offence.
Fast forward to mid-April and the Raptors are set to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, a matchup perfectly tailored to Anunoby's biggest strengths.
When it comes to defensive versatility, Philadelphia is the perfect test for Anunoby. With arguably today’s most dominant big man in Joel Embiid, and one of the most prolific offensive players in history in James Harden, the 76ers are capable of hurting the Raptors in multiple ways. Last season, Anunoby had the highest positional versatility among players that logged a minimum of 1000 minutes. (Data for the 2021-22 season, via Bball-Index.com, isn't yet available.)
If we dig deeper, here’s how much Anunoby defended each position:
Point Guard: 17.8%
Shooting Guard: 18.2%
Small Forward: 18.8%
Power Forward: 28.2%
While most of his time was spent on guarding fours, he spent almost as much time covering guards as he did centres. But what about his effectiveness this season? Oddly enough, Anunoby and Embiid haven’t played against each other at all this season. But Harden has, albeit only one game, and when defended by Anunoby shot 25 percent, scoring just one triple. Since 2017-18, Harden has registered the following when covered by Anunoby:
2017-18: 5:08, 3 points, 3 turnovers, 1/7 FG (one game)
2018-19: 1:39, 3 points, 1/3 FG (two games)
2019-20: 7:08, 2 points, 1/2 FG (one game)
2021-22: 3:15, 3 points, 1/4 FG (one game)
In his first two games, Harden was completely inefficient and couldn’t get anything going. In the lone Harden was a complete non-factor in their lone matchup in 2019-20, in which Anunoby spent the most time of any Raptor that game covering Harden. That was when The Beard was asked to carry an enormous offensive load, but even with his relocation to Philadelphia, he’s not the same threat he used to be. In 21 games with the 76ers, Harden has shot a career-low 40.2 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from deep.
While that might be reassuring, Tobias Harris is still an option whether he’s lurking out in the corner or within midrange distance. But his numbers when matching up with Anunoby don't provide much hope for the 76ers.
2017-18: 7:22, 5 points, 2/8 FG (two games)
2018-19: 3:14, 0 points, 0/1 FG (two games)
2019-20: 5:20, 11 points, 5/6 FG (three games)
2020-21: 4:29, 4 points, 2/7 FG (three games)
2021-22: 5:28, 2 points, 1/7 FG (one game)
The obvious outlier would be in 2019-20, which was over the course of three games. The recurring theme here is that Anunoby is capable of disrupting the 76ers on offence. Whether he needs to switch from Harris to Harden, or from Tyrese Maxey to Embiid, Anunoby has the quickness and strength to match up with any one of the 76ers.
In terms of what he can do on offence, this year was a step forward for Anunoby. Despite the multiple question marks surrounding the Raptors at the start of the season, one thing was certain: Anunoby was going to get a lot more touches. That was indeed the case as he averaged a career-high 51 touches per game, including three post-up touches per game, which led the Raptors in that category. Not only is he capable of posting up, but Anunoby also paced Toronto with 1.0 three-pointers made on 46 percent shooting from the corner this season.
Overall, the increase in touches this season resulted in a career-high 17.1 points per game, including a career-best 36 points at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. Ultimately, the lack of an elite wing defender will hurt Philly, and it’s exactly why Anunoby could be the difference-maker in this series.
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