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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – It took some time, but OG Anunoby is starting to loosen up.
 
Speaking to TSN’s Kate Beirness on the team broadcast following the Raptors’ 117-112 win over San Antonio, the famously reserved fourth-year forward was asked about the outfit Gary Trent Jr. sported on the sidelines Sunday night. It was a bold look – a silk black button up covered in white swirls with matching pants and Aviators.
 
“He saw me wear it first,” Anunoby joked, evoking memories of his appearance on Serge Ibaka’s fashion show last season, when he claimed he was the one who put the former Raptors centre onto scarves.
 
“It’s crazy outside looking in, I always thought he was quiet before I got here, almost you could say Kawhi-ish in a sense in how he carries himself, but that’s not the case at all,” Trent Jr. said of Anunoby shortly after he arrived in the trade from Portland last month. The two have become fast friends.
 
“He’s very interesting. He has interests.”
 
For those that know Anunoby best, though, the biggest change in him has been noticed on the court. That’s where he’s really starting to look and feel more comfortable.
 
“He started out stiff as a cardboard box,” said DeMar DeRozan, who’s final season in Toronto was Anunoby’s rookie year. “Now to see how he handles the ball, how he drives the ball, his post game. I saw him a lot this summer, we worked out a lot this summer, and to see his skill set grow from when I first saw it speaks volumes of how much he loves and appreciates the game. He’s come a long way. He deserves everything that comes his way. I hope he keeps growing. It’s fun to see that, it’s fun to compete against that, and I’m glad I was a part of his career early on.”
 
Anunoby’s versatility and two-way upside was on full display in the win over DeRozan and the Spurs. With Trent and DeAndre’ Bembry nursing injuries, Kyle Lowry getting another rest night, and Fred VanVleet serving his one-game suspension, the Raptors had just one guard available, rookie Malachi Flynn. That shifted Anunoby, a small forward or small-ball power forward by nature, to shooting guard. He’s now started games at four of the five positions this season.
 
It also matched him up with his former teammate and mentor. DeRozan played well, he usually does against his old club. He put up an efficient 19 points and dished out 11 assists. Still, holding one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers under the 20-point plateau is no small feat.
 
If DeRozan was impressed with what he saw from Anunoby on the offensive end, it’s because the 23-year-old simply couldn’t do a lot of those things a few seasons ago. Early in the opening quarter, he came off a screen and drilled a contested three-pointer, one of four on the night. Later, he took a page out of DeRozan’s book, pulling up from mid-range and drilling the jumper. He made a nice pocket pass to set up Khem Birch in the pick and roll, and then threw down a perfectly timed put-back jam late in the game.
 
“We ran a bunch of stuff for him early,” Nick Nurse said of Anunoby, who scored half of his 22 points in the first quarter. “He was kind of turning the corner like he's used to doing and then they were going underneath a lot of screens so I told him to start popping back and shooting the three like a two-guard would. So I thought he did good and he did a heck of a job on DeRozan too. He made it tough on him most of the night.”
 
Having lost to Atlanta on Tuesday, the Raptors were coming in with a record of 1-11 in the second night of back-to-backs this season. But despite being undermanned again, and playing their seventh game in 10 days, they seemed to have plenty of energy.
 
They were forced to play big, but after spending most of the season undersized it was a welcomed change. The Raptors, who are dead last in the league on the glass, out-rebounded San Antonio 54-42. The jumbo frontcourt of Birch, who got his first start in his third game with Toronto, Chris Boucher and Pascal Siakam combined for 29 boards. Freddie Gillespie, who is halfway through his 10-day contract, had eight off the bench. They also got energetic minutes from Yuta Watanabe and Paul Watson Jr., who was making his return after spending nearly three weeks in the league’s health and safety protocols.
 
They had a lot of talent sitting on the bench in street clothes, including three starters, but the 10 players that got on the floor made up for it with their effort.
 
“I got on them a little bit about last night about [the ball] being a little sticky and not [playing] energetic enough on the defensive end,” said Nurse. “And they responded well.”
 
With Chicago dropping its fourth straight contest on Wednesday, the Raptors are within one game of the 10th-place Bulls for the final spot in the East’s play-in tournament. Even still, it’s clear that they would rather err on the side of caution with their veterans than push guys to their limit for a better chance at squeezing into the postseason.
 
Lowry has missed each of the last two games for rest after appearing in just one of the previous seven as the team continues to monitor his lingering toe infection. What was believed to be a minor hip injury for VanVleet kept him out of six games before he served his suspension on Wednesday.
 
How the Raptors are approaching the remainder of the campaign has changed, and how we evaluate them should as well. Win or lose, playoffs or draft lottery, the team is hoping to use this final month for growth and development. They’re hoping that the experience they’re bestowing on their 22-year-old guards, Flynn and Trent Jr., will help expedite the learning process. They’re hoping that a few of these fringe rotation players like Birch, Watanabe, Watson Jr., Bembry and Gillespie will make strong enough cases for spots on next year’s roster.
 
They’re also hoping that their young core can take the next step. Seeing Anunoby continue to blossom in different roles and playing just about every position on the floor, while also becoming more comfortable and confident off of it, is high on the wish list.
 
“We need OG to be that kind of player because I think he’s going to play some wing, some two, some four,” Nurse said. “He’s getting better. His skills are getting better.”​