By the time the pass comes—a swing-around circuit that Marc Gasol hitched to Fred VanVleet, and VanVleet, no room to finish under the rim with Anthony Davis and Danny Green cranking in on him like a tightening vise, sent weaving behind Davis, barely out of LeBron James’ reach to Pascal Siakam in the corner, a zeroed-in James creeping toward him—OG Anunoby has a plan for it. He’s been watching. He sees that VanVleet’s tangle with Davis has bought him seconds, that James won’t have the push he needs to get out from the corner. He sees VanVleet begin to run himself backwards, making room under the basket.
As the ball sent by Siakam hits his outstretched hands, Anunoby’s feet are already moving. Precise, short steps that have him headed into the snare Davis and JaVale McGee have set, the closing gap between their towering bodies the bait. Davis is so sure the lure has worked that he tilts his body in, anticipating how hard he and McGee are about to make things on the 6’5”, 23-year-old British-born forward.
But Anunoby has been watching, remember? He wants Davis’ shoulder, the hulking curve of it, because as he’s coming downhill, eyes on McGee and Davis, the path he’d hoped for has opened up. He only needs a boost to get there. With a glancing contact against Davis, Anunoby sharply pivots and vaults, blurring by a disoriented Davis still caught in the slipstream of the spin and helpless to do anything but watch as Anunoby springs up, ball leaving his left hand for a tidy bounce against the glass before whispering into a wash of mesh. In just under three minutes of the season restart, the Lakers—and the league—took an eye-widening look at one of Toronto’s stealthiest secrets.
Anunoby would go on to hit three 3-pointers—a pair of which came in casual call-and-response to James sinking two of his own at the other end—four rebounds, two steals. and 23 points, helping to hold the Lakers to 93 points and secure Toronto’s first win in the Orlando bubble.
James noticed. Postgame, in the same breath he called Kyle Lowry and VanVleet “two-headed monsters” he noted the Raptors’ “extremely good” wings in Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. “They won a championship and it’s not only because of Kawhi,” James said.
“OG was unbelievable,” Lowry said breathlessly after the win, “The one thing about OG, man,” his voice turning matter-of-fact, “he’s going to be really good in this league for a long time.”
When asked about his performance and any confidence he drew from it, Anunoby first calmly clarified, “My confidence?” Before continuing, “I mean, it helps my confidence knowing I can do it against anyone.” He said in his characteristic, cool deadpan, “It’s just about getting the reps and staying with it and just being confident in my moves and being patient.”
While patience is one of the most important intangibles when it comes to sharpening game and rounding out performance, for most players it comes later. Three seasons in and Anunoby has enough to spare for guys two or three years his senior. The Raptors, who snagged him with their 23rd pick in 2017 (a steal Masai Ujiri attributed to the ACL injury Anunoby was still recovering from come draft night) wasted no time putting him to work, starting him often in his first year with the franchise, alongside Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, while his future core contemporaries of VanVleet, Siakam, and Norman Powell put in time with the inaugural Bench Mob.
"It's definitely fun being out there this year, being able to play. Being out last year taught me to not take it for granted." - OG Anunoby
Anunoby began what would be the Raptors’ championship season on largely the same trajectory as VanVleet and Siakam, but as its first months unfolded he was moving in lock-step with grief. His father had died that September, a sudden loss that Anunoby coped with in part by leaning on his teammates and channeling it into work on the floor. By winter, after a sprained wrist had him out for three games, his stats had all climbed incrementally and he represented the Raptors in 2018's All-Star Rising Stars game, but his season was interrupted once more, this time with a concussion that kept him out from late March into April. He was playing some of the best basketball he had all season in the stretch just before and shortly after the head injury—momentum that felt, finally, like what he’d been due for all season and would be welcome in the team’s highly anticipated trip to the playoffs. Two days before Game 1 Anunoby underwent an emergency appendectomy, his recovery complicated by his appendix rupturing before the procedure was underway. He’d miss the entirety of Toronto’s championship run.
It was a difficult season and could have hung a heavier hitch on how Anunoby shifted into this one, but ever since he set sure feet back on the floor, championship ring slipped easily over his finger in the deafening moments before the Raptors home opener, Anunoby has been resolute.
The irony would be that Toronto soon entered a season marred by the kind of upsets Anunoby had just weathered alone, leaving the third-year player as a rare constant in the Raptors’ rotating orbit of injuries and interruption. Everything he had learned the season before, all the time he spent watching, was put to instant, intuitive use.
The Raptors aren’t shy. Their nagging, smothering defence has frustrated teams all season and their offence can be just as stifling, but the basis for both are in-your-face coverages that leave opponents with no time to wonder where Toronto is. In Lowry and VanVleet’s tenacity at either end of the floor, Gasol and Ibaka’s exacting presence around the rim, how a quiet game for Siakam is 25-plus points and a handful of meteoric finishes, plus Powell’s hammering drives and Creation of Adam reproductions in his vaulting, horizontal hang time, the team is loud, emphatically aggravating.
To a degree, Anunoby’s versatility is a function of the team itself. A product of necessity, of bearing down on the basics in a next-man-up structure that for years had to make disparate pieces work and wasn’t shy about winning ugly. However, even as the Raptors have streamlined under the confidence a chip brings, Anunoby’s ingenuity has forked down a different road, into territory less tread by Toronto.
He’s quiet. On court he’s patient, watchful, his eruptions of energy self-generative and welling up from deep. Unique among his teammates, Anunoby has the unnerving defensive ability to pop up beside, or occasionally already on top of opponents, startling them into forced shots, fumbling handles or rushed passes—anything to shake the specter suddenly looming large at their heels, hellbent on jabbing the ball away. Size and speed aren’t factors with who’s up for his silent menacing. Since the restart, Anunoby has rattled James, Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis, and made fleet-footed shooters like Devin Booker and Caris LeVert look lodged in the mud.
Offensively he cultivates the same stealth, with many of his scoring contributions coming from converted turnovers he’s forced or steals still red hot in his hands. He will go from eerily still to full-tilt downhill in seconds, splitting a team’s defence like a shark fin suddenly slicing the water and with the same cold control, there and gone before the blood’s even started to bloom.
“For us, we always trust in his abilities and now he’s doing it,” Lowry said of Anunoby’s offensive gains after Toronto’s dominant Game 3 win against the Nets, “He’s worked, he’s put the time in and the work in the post, and the work on the ball handling, it’s just now he’s putting it into play. It helps him get to his spots and use his size and his strength.”
"At that size and speed and strength, he can cause your defence a lot of problems,” VanVleet said of Anunoby’s controlled offensive bursts after Toronto beat Miami early in the restart. “We need him to be our primary stopper,” he continued, “It allows us to switch and fly around and keep our bigs out of foul trouble, for the most part, and keep guarding the rim.”
“His balance at the end, his finishes. It’s nothing specific,” Nick Nurse echoed on what Anunoby has brought so far in the season restart. “We tell him to make the right play. If it comes to him and you’re open, shoot it. If the close out is where you want to attack, attack it, but just do it quickly, do it well. We want him to be able to do many things well.”
The versatility that Anunoby affords Toronto on both ends of the floor is part of his playmaking growth this season, as are the skills he’s been quietly improving. His ball handling work has done double duty in his near-hypnotic ability to lock in and disrupt an opponent’s dribble as much as tightening his own handles. It’s in talking about these tangible skills that will cause Anunoby to occasionally slip from his coyly impassive responses in interviews and lighten, as if his body were shifting into the motions he describes.
“It’s a mix in the middle of staying low and staying on balance, but also making sure the moves are quick and precise,” Anunoby said when asked how he’s worked on perfecting such a light, precise touch as a physically larger player, his centre of gravity naturally higher. “Just trying to keep the ball tight, move fast, stay low to the ground.”
When asked if he finds that kind of work dull or repetitive, he rebuffs, “It’s always fun to work on that type of stuff because everyone wants to do that stuff. Everyone works to do more than they do in the game.”
It’s a statement that could be as much motto for the Raptors as it speaks to Anunoby’s steadily increasing depth, but the foundations of that flexibility come in his physical capabilities. Length-wise, he has a wingspan similar to Siakam or Chris Boucher, rangy and reaching, but his size puts him closer to Ibaka or Gasol, even if his movements, in their stealth and lightness, make your brain reject the comparison to a traditional big. It’s a fluidity his teammates have been candid about.
“I mean, OG’s really a five, so it wasn’t that much of a mismatch,” VanVleet chuckled when asked how Anunoby could so easily guard Adebayo, Miami’s strongest player, “We make that joke with him all the time. But he was great for us, to be able to go from guarding LeBron [James] to Bam [Adebayo], and whoever we play next. He’s our primary defender and I think the more he relishes that role, the more successful we’re gonna be.”
That Anunoby’s physical versatility moulds so intuitively to the stretch positions he’s explored this season that it seems another secret about the Raptors’ youngest starter bound to get out this postseason, especially in a second round rife with as many potential mismatches as the Celtics present. The Orlando restart has given fans live basketball more hours than not in a day and exposed markets that aren’t always at the peak of broadcast priority, like the Raptors, to the wider world. That fact, paired with the ongoing conversations around position-less basketball, is bound to draw attention to Toronto’s profusion of more positionally fluid players than nearly any other team in the league. Anunoby, as a confident, strong, playmaking big with the soft touch and IQ of a shooter, is in many ways the perfect prototype.
“OG can do it. I think the way the league’s going, there’s not that many who can throw it down into the low, block back-down bigs,” VanVleet said on the scope that Anunoby’s size gives him, and whether any player, even a traditional big, would prove too much of a challenge. “Most of the guys are on the move, and they’re doing a lot of dribble hand-offs and rolls and slips and two-threes,” VanVleet continued, going through all the moves Anunoby has deftly handled. “I wouldn’t doubt him against anybody...” His eyes suddenly crinkle, the tell that he’s smiling wryly under his mask. “Except for me.”
Players need to come into the league with a mix of confidence and practicality or their time within it risks being limited from the jump. With Anunoby, his natural composure found a bulwark within the tight-knit and unselfish Raptors forged by Lowry and DeRozan, absorbing team chemistry and distilling it into something even stronger through his addition. Of all the teams that Anunoby first interviewed with before his draft, he said Toronto was the only franchise that asked him questions about himself instead of drilling him about his recovery timeline. He immediately liked that there was more to the team, even in his prospective acquisition, than just him, that they had depth he could gain from. He’s proved a quick study.
“It's definitely fun being out there this year, being able to play,” Anunoby said simply after the Raptors’ first-ever playoff sweep in a Round 1 win over the Nets. “Being out last year taught me to not take it for granted.”
Nurse has called him, in the same rushing breath, “fast and explosive and balanced and athletic” and Lowry has likened Anunoby’s play this season—his swooping, stealthy erasure of opponents in the restart so far—to “just baby steps for him in his career.” But the most jolting realization doesn’t hit until you’re watching him go as still on the floor as a relief carved in marble, measuring up his next move in the split seconds before he explodes into it—he’s waiting because from where he’s finally standing, he’s got all the time in the world.