Raptors reward OG Anunoby for his ability to fill any roleDecember 22, 2020
Teams that win titles have superstars; NBA tradition would tell you.
But they also have players that are superstars in their roles, which is how Tristan Thompson used to characterize himself when he was doing the dirty work on behalf of LeBron James as the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to four straight NBA Finals and won a championship in 2016.
Without the right kind of role player in the right positions, you aren’t winning anything either.
Stranger things have happened but the chances of the 23-year-old suddenly — or even gradually — more than doubling the sparse amount of time he spends with the ball in his hands seems unlikely, even if his skills are clearly progressing.
But that doesn’t make the news that Anunoby and the Raptors reached an agreement on a four-year extension — with a player option for the 2024-25 season — for $72 million any less significant than any of the other deals the team has reached with its key figures in recent years.
It might even end up being more important. He’s already a superstar in his role, the kind of player that can be plugged into any winning rotation in the league and make a positive — and often critical — impact.
At six-foot-eight and 230 pounds he’s proven to be a defensive unicorn — big and strong enough to credibly guard most NBA big men and nimble enough to discourage point guards. And in between, he has shown himself to be as formidable a defender against the league’s alphas that dominate the game from the wings.
No single player stops LeBron James or makes Kawhi Leonard disappear or holds down James Harden — it always takes a team approach.
But without someone that can do enough damage on the ball against the league’s most dangerous players, even the best-laid defensive schemes get blown up.
But what makes Anunoby special was that even while switching through every position on the floor he was still one of the league’s stingiest defenders in isolation situations — just him along against a ball-handler.
According to NBA player tracking data Anunoby ranked 12th in the league in points per possession given up as an isolation defender while holding opponents to just 27 per cent shooting, good for sixth in the NBA.
It’s the kind of play that all-defence team selections are based on.
The eye test is pretty revealing too, as the long-armed Anunoby increasingly showed signs of being able to bully teams defensively, such as when he made six and then seven steals in back-to-back games against Charlotte and Denver, the latter coming while posting a career-high 32 points.
Both outings came during an 11-game stretch before the restart when Anunoby averaged 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game while shooting 56.9 per cent from the floor and 44.7 per cent from deep. He then went 8-of-9 from the floor against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Raptors’ first game of the restart and provided one of the franchise’s all-time highlights with his catch-and-shoot game-winning triple to win Game 3 in the second-round against the Boston Celtics. Down 0-2 at the time, the Raptors were able to push Boston to a seventh game.
Did he think the shot was going in?
“I don’t shoot to miss,” he said, in his trademark less-is-more manner of speaking.
For all of those reasons Anunoby’s deal already can be described as team-friendly, particularly given some comparables.
The Detroit Pistons gave 26-year-old Jerami Grant $20 million a year as a free agent in the off-season and fellow class of 2017 draftees Jonathan Isaac got $80 million over four years in Orlando while the San Antonio Spurs rewarded Derrick White with a four-year deal for $73 million.
The Raptors wouldn’t trade Anunoby for any of them.
Not that it’s bad business for Anunoby. He missed most of his last college season at Indiana with an ACL tear and missed the Raptors championship run after complications from appendicitis in a year marred by the sudden passing of his father.
There is never a bad time to accept millions of guaranteed dollars and Anunoby can be a free agent at 27 years old when the league’s revenues will have (presumably) rebounded after the pandemic.
But the Raptors can look ahead confident that even if Anunoby provides two-way production mirroring what he did in his third season they’ll have a key role filled on a decent contract.
And they did it without significantly eating into the cap space they are determined to preserve for the summer of 2021 so they can add talent in free agency or by way of a trade. Anunoby’s cap hold was on the books for $11.6 million and the first year of his deal clocks in at $16.1 million meaning they only cost themselves about $4.5 million in cap space.
They should still be a player in the market, in other words.
Meanwhile, they can dream on Anunoby’s upside — both as a smarter and more experienced defender and as an offensive player who has shown flashes of being more than simply a catch-and-shoot option. If Anunoby makes progress on both ends the Raptors will have a steal of a deal and Anunoby will be setting himself up for an even bigger payday down the road.
The Raptors may not have the A-List superstar that drives championship teams, but in Anunoby they have the kind of role player that superstars can’t win without.