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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – One of the things the Raptors have always liked about OG Anunoby is the stoic and even-keeled demeanour that fans have come to know and appreciate him for.

He’s understated but friendly, quiet but measured and mindful. He doesn’t waste words but he’s got a quick wit and dry sense of humour.

What stood out from the moment Toronto’s front office first sat down with him ahead of the 2017 draft – where they selected him 23rd-overall – is that he’s not easily fazed or shaken, a quality that’s already been helpful early in his NBA career.

As a rookie he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the playoffs and held his own. In his sophomore year he endured personal tragedy and a series of professional setbacks with positivity and grace.

With his third season underway, the 22-year-old is faced with a new challenge. He’s reclaimed the starting gig vacated by the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, and will share the frontcourt with Pascal Siakam – a player who took an enormous and almost unprecedented step forward last year, inadvertently (and probably unrealistically) setting the bar for Anunoby.

The Raptors aren’t asking him to fill Leonard’s shoes or replicate Siakam’s breakout season, that simply wouldn’t be fair, but expectations on the young forward have never been higher and neither has the pressure.

True to character, Anunoby has dealt with it in stride and now, four games into the new campaign, he’s excelling in his expanded role.

In just over 34 minutes per contest – a 14-minute increase from last season – he’s averaging 12.3 points (up from 7.0) and 7.3 rebounds (up from 2.9) while shooting 54 per cent from the field (up from 45) and 44 per cent from three-point range (up from 33).

“Certainly he’s done great work physically on his body,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s moving great, jumping great, etc. I think he’s got a really refreshed mindset as well. He looks to be really happy out on the floor. I mean he’s not out there giggling and laughing and stuff but he’s playing with a sense of ‘man, I really want to play and I’m really gonna make good plays and I’m really gonna play hard and I’m gonna play the right way.’ ”

Anunoby spent the first few weeks of the summer getting his strength and conditioning back following the emergency appendectomy that cost him his entire postseason and 15 pounds in the recovery process. Once he felt like himself again he really focused on growing his game.

The early results have been encouraging. His jump shot looks more consistent and compact than it did last year and he’s shown an improved ability to react when the defence closes out on him, either by swinging the ball or putting it on the floor and getting to the rim.

Still, his best work has come on the defensive end, where he’s always possessed elite potential.

In Saturday’s win over Chicago, Anunoby set a new career-high with four blocked shots, including an emphatic rejection at the rim to rob his AAU mentor Thaddeus Young of a dunk.

A couple nights later, in Monday’s win over Orlando, he recorded a career-best five steals.

Through the first four games on the season, Anunoby has totalled six steals and nine blocks, which puts him in elite company.

Over the last decade, only seven players have opened a season with at least six steals, nine blocks and 40 points in their team’s first four games (prior to this year): Anthony Davis (who did it four times), Rudy Gobert, John Wall, Josh Smith, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard. (Andre Drummond has also accomplished that feat this season).

All seven of those guys have made an NBA All-Defensive team (they’ve got 17 selections between them) and four have won Defensive Player of the Year (seven times combined).

“I think he’s really engaged on defence,” said Siakam. “He really wants to learn. He takes pride in playing defence and having fun playing the game the right way. It’s definitely good to see. After a tough year last year, just coming in this year and getting some minutes, and the way he’s playing with confidence, it’s really good to see. We hope he continues that.”

Anunoby lists Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen, Draymond Green and Leonard as defensive influences. You can see a bit of all those guys in his game. He’s got the size of Artest, the athleticism of Pippen, and the versatility of Green. As for Leonard, Anunoby says he picked up a lot from his former teammate last season, both on and off the court.

He learned patience and how to trust his instincts, especially on defence. He also noticed how Leonard prepared for each game.

After a couple years of experience under his belt, Anunoby is surely seeing the game differently – how to read passing lanes and know when to leave his man and help at the rim. That he’s finally healthy and physically able to do things he couldn’t do as a rookie – when he was still recovering from a torn ACL – or last season also helps. However, more than anything else, he credits his preparation.

“It’s just knowing schemes, following the game plan and watching film,” Anunoby said Raptors practice on Tuesday. “Just being prepared.”

Working with the assistant coaches, Anunoby watches film of the opposing team and his likely matchup in the morning before each game. Specifically, they’ll look at that player’s tendencies – how they function in the other team’s offence, where they want to get to on the court, their isolation moves, among other details.

“I think each year I’ve gotten more detailed, learned more,” Anunoby said.

Anunoby has taken meaningful steps offensively but his upside on the defensive end remains limitless. Thanks to his versatility, size and skill set, the Raptors think he can capably guard four positions, and they’re going to give him every opportunity to prove it this season.

On most nights he’ll be assigned to guard the other team’s best perimeter player, something that Leonard – a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner – wasn’t even asked to do much of last season, as they looked to lighten his workload.

For the Raptors to have a successful season and exceed expectations as a team, post-Leonard, they’re banking on internal growth. They need Siakam to take yet another big leap and become the franchise player they’re now paying him to be (so far so good in that regard). They need Fred VanVleet to pick up where he left off in the Finals.

However, much of their fate this season – and beyond – will be determined by Anunoby’s continued progress. His coaches and teammates know how important he is and how special he can be, particularly on defence, so they’re encouraging him to push himself even further. One teammate has been especially vocal.

“I know everyone wants it and expects it from me, but Serge [Ibaka] is in my ear constantly about it,” Anunoby said.

“I talked to him after the game [in Chicago] and I said those kinds of plays, he can do that every night because he’s got size and he’s got athleticism,” said Ibaka, following Anunoby’s four-block performance. “I told Pascal the same thing, I said when me, you and OG are on the court at the same time I think there’s no way other team’s players can drive in the paint and go finish under the basket easily. It’s good to see that in OG. I’m going to keep telling him, I’m going to keep being on him – he needs to focus on that because I’m sure he can help us a lot if he focuses on that and keeps doing it at a high level. I think he can do it.”​