25-under-25: OG Anunoby at No. 18

OG Anunoby is already one of the NBA’s preeminent defenders. Can he become more than that and help the Toronto Raptors stay in the league’s upper tier?

As the prevalence of supersized, ball-dominant offensive creators rises, so too does the importance of versatile defenders who can slow them and offensive role players who complement them. High-usage superstars can’t exist without less-heralded teammates willing to accommodate them by taking less.

OG Anunoby fits into the latter category as well as any player in the NBA, and while the Toronto Raptors’ offense doesn’t orbit around a single star, Anunoby is the kind of player every team in the league — Toronto included — seeks out with increasing desperation. You seldom have to worry about a player like Anunoby — how he fits with other players, if he’ll execute your schemes, whether he can be exploited on either end of the court — and his portability as a low-usage role player helped make him a viable rotation player from the outset of his career. Now entering his fourth season, he has blossomed into a veritable multi-tool on the NBA’s most protean defense.

Not only is Anunoby a supremely versatile defender, he might also be the league’s most effective shadow of offensive superstars. He has the length and bulk to challenge gargantuan playmakers, yet remains lithe and agile enough on the perimeter to chase speedy ball-handlers over screens. A person of Anunoby’s size and length should not be able to slide his feet as well as he does, let alone swivel his hips quickly enough to mirror the NBA’s wiliest playmakers. He increased both his block and steal rates last season while fouling less, all while squaring up against the league’s most potent wings. Like Jaylen Brown in Boston, Anunoby spans the entire positional spectrum, which allows Nick Nurse to place him anywhere on the floor at any given moment. In last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Anunoby anchored the Raptors’ small crunch-time lineups as a nominal power forward while harassing Jayson Tatum into 9-of-28 shooting in the series.

Unlike so many other defensive-minded wings, Anunoby does enough on offense so as not to become a liability. He may not be as versatile or dynamic creating scoring chances as stopping them, but he takes very little off the table. Anunoby doesn’t shoot trying to miss, and indeed the three-year forward shot a career-high 39 percent from beyond the arc last season as part of his most efficient and productive season to date. Nearly three-quarters of his shot attempts came at the rim or from the corners, giving him one of the most efficient shot diets in the NBA.

Does OG Anunoby have another level as an offensive player?

The downside of that efficient scoring and Daryl Morey-ian shot profile is that it evinces a heavily dependent offensive game. Complementary players — even those as low-maintenance and perfectly scalable as Anunoby — necessarily come with certain limitations. Anunoby’s most prominent one is his lack of offensive range. He’s a reliable 3-point shooter but not a lethal one; he still struggles to shoot off of movement, let alone off the dribble. He’s a sound ball-mover and decision-maker, but nowhere near a bona fide playmaker.

While Anunoby has always shot well and often at the rim, he created very few of those shots himself, and thus didn’t strain defenses with the ball in his hands. Those limitations become slightly more pronounced on a team wanting for shot creation, and after taking a hit in that area each of the last two offseasons, the Raptors will require more of Anunoby in nearly every capacity.

A player who has never had to create much offense for himself or his teammates will be asked to initiate more often, or at least beat his own man off the bounce or from the post. A wing stopper will become more central as a help defender without Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka to barricade the rim (Toronto’s defense dropped nearly 10 points per 100 possessions when Anunoby played without Gasol compared to when the two shared the floor). A passable floor-spacer will have to ramp up the volume and difficulty of his attempts.

New addition Aron Baynes and lanky incumbent Chris Boucher will help compensate for those offseason losses on defense, and Anunoby’s enviable combination of length, explosiveness and instincts should allow him to improve as a rim protector. He has even flashed potential as a ball-handler, finisher and distributor in limited opportunity. Toronto won’t need Anunoby to become LeBron James, or even Josh Richardson, offensively; Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam will still carry the bulk of the creative load. But barring a resurgent season from Lowry or a third Siakam breakout, the Raptors will likely need at least one more reliable source of offense. Eventually, they’ll ask OG Anunoby to do more than just fit in.

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