25-under-25: OG Anunoby at No. 11

25-under-25, Toronto Raptors

How can OG Anunoby take the next step as an offensive threat, without sacrificing the defensive intensity that’s made him so essential to the Toronto Raptors?

As he enters his fifth season, OG Anunoby is trying to become something that may or may not actually exist. The idea of a two-way wing holds an outsized place in our imagination — the player with the capability to deliver at an elite level at both ends of the floor, not just in a single high-leverage possession but again and again, for 75 possessions a game and 82 games per year. It’s a well-sculpted mythology but there are precious few tangible examples right now.

By the estimation of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus there were just two players last season that delivered an impact of at least plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions on both offense and defense — Joel Embiid and LeBron James, each very different types of unicorns. The season before that, there were just five — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, LeBron and Kyle Lowry. Not a single player hit those marks in the 2018-19 or 2017-18 seasons.

That’s a somewhat arbitrary numeric line I’m drawing but it represents, roughly, the impact of a top-15 player in the league whose contributions are balanced between offense and defense. And there just aren’t very many of those guys, especially on the wing. Even the guys who we mentally use as the template — the Jimmy Butlers, Kawhi Leonards and Paul Georges — only hold up if you’re able to compress their entire careers into some sort of non-linear, temporal anomaly.

Take Jimmy Butler for example. By the estimation of Real Plus-Minus, he peaked as a defender in the 2013-14 season, when his defense was worth plus-3.75 points per 100 possessions. That was his third season in the NBA and the first time his scoring average broke double-digits. Real Plus-Minus estimated his offensive impact that season to be minus-2.03. The next season he broke 20 points per game for the first time, his defensive impact plummeted and for the first time his offense was more valuable than his defense.

This same pattern has roughly held for Leonard, George and countless other young wings who nudge up against stardom. They earn minutes and carve out a niche for themselves as a special wing defender. But as they are given more offensive primacy and opportunities to develop as a scorer, they slowly let off the throttle on defense until it is the other half of the game that truly defines them, even if we never let go of that memory of them as outlier defenders on every possession.

Can OG Anunoby be a two-way star for the Toronto Raptors?

This is the journey that OG Anunoby is on. Even as a rookie it was clear he had the potential to be a special wing defender and he’s largely lived up to that promise in each of the three seasons since. The seven players he spent the most time defending last season reflect his versatility — Julius Randle, Ben Simmons, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson and Bam Adebayo. And in those kinds of matchups, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimated his impact to be worth plus-1.22 points per 100 possessions, about the same as Patrick Beverley and Marcus Smart, an indication of how effective he was.

But Anunoby hasn’t just been blossoming as a defender. Last season he hit career highs in points and assists per minute, along with 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. He finished the year averaging 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game, shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 39.8 percent on 3-pointers and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line. His career-best true shooting percentage last year (60.5) also came while a career-low 51.0 percent of his 2-pointers were assisted on.

Anunoby was still very much a complementary scoring threat, playing off Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell for the Toronto Raptors. But he’s on that Paul George/Jimmy Butler trajectory, nearly tripling the number of isolation and pick-and-roll possessions he saw per game, growing towards more of a lead creator role and doing it without sacrificing anything in efficiency. Playing as part of a four-headed offensive monster with VanVleet, Siakam and now Gary Trent Jr. may depress his scoring averages but I feel confident saying he’s ready for more responsibility and if any of that trio were to miss time with injury it wouldn’t be a shock to see him lead the team in scoring and break the 20-point barrier for the first time.

The question then, is what that means for his performance at the other end of the floor. Can he bring the same passion and intensity to banging with Jokic and Zion in the post when his potential to drag them away from the basket and attack them off the dribble at the other end is of more importance to the Raptors’ scheme? Will he have the same fervor for bodying LeBron and the same relentlessness chasing DeRozan around screens when he’s applying the same strategies to them at the other end?

Anunoby is ranked this high because he’s established what his hypothetical ceiling is at each ends of the floor. But we’ve seen again and again, that even the most talented players in the NBA can’t reach both at the same time. Everything bit of energy expended, of which Anunoby has plenty, is a sacrifice, a choice not to spend it on something else. When you can literally do anything on a basketball court, you are defined by your choices more than your limitations of talent and skill.

I can’t wait to see what OG Anunoby chooses.

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