Anunoby has proven he belongs on an NBA All-Defensive Team
TORONTO – When a team fails to meet expectations, as the Raptors have this season, its players will inevitably struggle to achieve their own individual goals.
That’s the way things work in the NBA and throughout professional sports more often than not, and it makes sense. Win and there’s plenty of acknowledgement to go around, but losing makes it much tougher to garner that recognition.
With an underachieving club made up of ambitious players, Toronto could learn that the hard way.
After entering the campaign with his sights on becoming a top-five player, Pascal Siakam will likely miss out on his second straight All-NBA selection, costing him the opportunity to sign a super-max extension this summer. The market for pending free agents Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. may not be as lucrative as they once anticipated. Meanwhile, Scottie Barnes couldn’t follow up his Rookie of the Year season with an All-Star berth, as he had hoped, and Precious Achiuwa won’t be in the running for Most Improved Player or Sixth Man, as he was shooting for.
There should be one exception, though. When voters fill out their ballots for the league’s end-of-season awards next month, the Raptors are hoping they will overlook the team’s underwhelming record and reward O.G. Anunoby for his work on the defensive end of the floor.
“You’ve just gotta watch the tape,” VanVleet told TSN. “I don’t know if he’s going to win the narrative award or a popularity contest, but you can put him right up there with all the other guys who are in the [mix]. I’ve got him on the same level. He’s very deserving – not to say other people aren’t deserving, but he’s got my vote for sure. I watch him every night and he’s special on that end of the floor.”
“I’m not sure who’s as versatile [defensively as Anunoby], period, and who’s as effective, even on the winning teams,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s certainly an All-Defensive Team player in my mind, for sure, if not the winner of the [Defensive Player of the Year] award.”
Anunoby is building a strong case for himself. The sixth-year forward has blossomed into one the best all-around defenders in the sport, but unlike most of the players who guard at or anywhere close to his level, he doesn’t have the accolades to show for it – not yet anyway.
The 25-year-old has never made an All-Defensive Team. His past two seasons were each cut short due to injury, essentially taking him out of contention. In 2019-20, the year after the Raptors won the championship, he started 68 of the 69 games he played and was a key part of a team that finished with 53 wins and ranked second in defensive efficiency. Inexplicably, Anunoby received just two All-Defensive votes.
What he has now that he didn’t have then is a track record, a longstanding and well-earned reputation around the league. As an opposing player, he’s not someone you want to be matched up with.
“He’s pretty good defensively,” Oklahoma City Thunder all-star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said after dropping Thursday’s game to Anunoby and the Raptors. “Size, athleticism, he’s smart, good hands. I know him a little bit so it’s a little more fun going back and forth. Yeah, he’s really good defensively.”
Like most lock-down defenders, Anunoby is routinely tasked with guarding the opposition’s best offensive player. What makes him so unique is that on any night you can confidently put him on any team’s star, regardless of their position.
Even in a league that’s becoming increasingly positionless every year, his versatility on the defensive end of the floor is virtually unmatched. By his own admission, he’s most comfortable guarding on the perimeter, but he’s also shown that he can more than hold his own in the post.
“Have you seen his legs? That guy is strong,” Denver coach Michael Malone said ahead of Tuesday night’s game in Toronto, the second time in eight days that Anunoby served as the primary defender on Nuggets centre and the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
“When you look at O.G. guard, whether it is Nikola or anybody else, it’s the strength, the athleticism, the IQ, the anticipation, and [something that] all great defenders have in common no matter how they’re built – mindset. He has a mindset to go out there and shut down whoever he’s guarding.”
According to NBA.com matchup data, the 11 players Anunoby has spent the most time guarding this season are all current or former all-stars and range from dynamic guards (Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Bradley Beal and James Harden) to elite wings (DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Jaylen Brown) to big men (Jokic and Julius Randle).
Over a recent seven-game stretch, Anunoby’s defensive assignments included DeRozan, Beal (twice), Jokic (twice), Leonard and Anthony Davis. He started Thursday’s game on Thunder sophomore Josh Giddey before switching onto Gilgeous-Alexander in the second half. The Hamilton, Ont., native, who scored 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting the first couple quarters, was held to 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting over the final 24 minutes.
You’re not going to stop players of that calibre, they’re simply too good. Anunoby’s objective is to challenge them, make them work to get to their spots and limit their touches and shot attempts as much as possible. For the most part, he’s done that successfully.
Despite giving up four inches and more than 50 pounds in the matchup with Jokic, Anunoby held the Nuggets superstar to 12 field goal attempts in on 88.4 partial possessions over the two meetings, per NBA.com. With Anunoby on him, Jokic recorded eight assists to seven turnovers – the same ratio as Durant had in three games and 114.6 partial possessions against the Toronto forward this season.
DeRozan, Anunoby’s second-most guarded player this season, only got five field goal attempts up in 118.3 partial possessions over three games. Durant shot 6-for-18 against Anunoby, Leonard shot 4-of-12, and Beal was 2-for-12. Overall, he and the Raptors held Davis to eight points, the fewest he’s scored in a full game this season, and just seven field goal attempts in Los Angeles last week.
The very best defenders can take over a game on that end of the floor. Leonard would often have those game-breaking stretches during the 2018-19 title-winning season – he’s the only Raptor in the franchise’s 28-year history to make an NBA All-Defensive Team. Anunoby has shown he’s capable of it as well.
With the game tied late in the first half of Thursday’s win over the Thunder, Anunoby denied rookie big man Jaylin Williams at the rim, leading to a Jakob Poeltl dunk in transition. On the next possession, he ripped the ball away from Tre Mann, a very Leonard-like play, which set up another easy bucket for Poeltl. Moments later, he spiked a Lu Dort layup into the stands – it was ruled a foul on Anunoby but, upon review, it looked like it could’ve been clean. All of that was in the span of 45 seconds.
Anunoby ranks second in the league in steals per game, is tied with VanVleet for the league lead in deflections, and grades highly in most advanced metrics. After playing fewer than 50 contests in each of the past two seasons, he’s on pace to appear in 68 games this year. Apart from a wrist injury that cost him about a month, he’s been relatively healthy.
It’s not a question of whether he’s deserving of the hardware. If there’s any doubt about his chances of getting some overdue recognition, it’s entirely the result of his team’s disappointing season.
It’s fair to debate how much team success should factor into individual accolades like awards or All-Star selections, but rightly or wrongly, it’s often a big factor for voters. The league’s coaches, who have good reason to value winning, left Siakam off their All-Star ballots back in February, and despite his credentials, he needed a couple of injuries to get in the game as a late replacement.
If recent history is any indication, the media – who vote on end-of-season awards – also prioritize team success, especially in regard to defensive honours. The last 10 winners of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award have come from teams that won at least 48 games and finished fifth or higher in their conference. Notably, they each played for teams ranked in the top three defensively.
It’s not hard to see Anunoby winning the award at some point before his career is done. He’s good enough to do it, and at 25 and just entering his prime, time is on his side. But with the Raptors on pace for 40 wins and currently ranked 17th in defence, he’s not going to win it this season. It’s not a coincidence that the presumed frontrunners – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Jaren Jackson Jr. – anchor the league’s best defences.
So, what are the odds of him ending up on one of two All-Defensive Teams? Over the past three years, 30 players have been named NBA All-Defence – each of their teams qualified for the playoffs that season and ranked above average defensively. The last time a player from a losing club made it was Jrue Holiday, who was selected to the Second Team in 2018-19 – his Pelicans were 33-49 and ranked 22nd in defence. However, he had already established himself as an All-NBA defender, having been named to the First Team the season before.
A player’s defence can be more difficult to measure than his offensive impact, which means, for better or for worse, pedigree and team context matter. Unless the Raptors can go on a late-season run and improve their defence over their final 12 games, Anunoby may be a tougher sell as a first-timer. Do enough of the voters consider him an elite defender, even if All-Defence doesn’t appear on his resume yet? How will they weigh his credentials with his team’s drop off on that end of the floor?
Anunoby has one very important thing going for him: he deserves it, and at least theoretically, that’s what should matter most.
“People don’t even bring his name up and I think that’s a little crazy,” said VanVleet. “He definitely deserves to be in there.”
“I watch him against some of the best guys [in the league] and I’ve seen him shut some guys out and hold guys. I know what he does for our defensively game plan and our schemes. He’s very deserving and I would love to see him [get recognized].”