Rookie Rising: Young British forward O.G. Anunoby already an excellent role player

After impressing in a bench role over the first 12 games of the season, O.G. Anunoby has started at small forward for the Toronto Raptors for the past 17 games, and has steadily improved over that time.

Month on month, his role, minutes and responsibility are increasing. Given only 17.6 minutes per game in the month of November, Anunoby has increased that to 25.8 minutes in nine December games, in which he is averaging 8.9 points and 2.2 rebounds.

And the crescendo continues. Last night, in a fairly hefty win against the Charlotte Hornets, Anunoby posted 20 points and 4 rebounds, both of which were career highs.

By this point, Anunoby is really quite good already.

It might not be immediately obvious from the 8.9 point and 2.2 rebound December splits, nor from the 7.2 point and 2.1 rebound season averages overall, that Anunoby is this good. To understand quite how well Anunoby is playing relies upon both game tape and more advanced statistics. 

Anunoby’s career-high scoring performance last night came on the back of six made three-pointers in only seven attempts. And while it is early into his NBA career, it is certainly no anomaly to see Anunoby shoot so well from downtown last night -entering the game, he was already shooting 43% from three-point land.

Now shooting 46.6% from that range after last night’s barrage, Anunoby is seventh in the league in three-point percentage. He is behind only Sacramento’s George Hill, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Denver’s Trey Lyles, an anomalous-looking stretch from Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu, splash brother Klay Thompson and Milwaukee’s Tony Snell.

Ahead of even Stephen Curry, then.

Of course, Anunoby is not taking shots with the volume nor the difficulty of an elite shooter such as Curry. But this should not penalise him and the quality of his shooting. Look, for example, at the shots he was taking and making yesterday.

Form like that does not immediately suggest quality three-point shooter, and, having entered the league as a decent-efficiency, low-volume, ugly-release shooter coming out of Indiana, the outside shot was supposed to be one of the most immediate questions for him going into the league. But it seems as though he’s doing a decent job of answering it.

There are intricacies to Anunoby’s three-point game that rarely befit 20-year-old rookies. This is a player who not only knows how to shoot, but when to shoot, when to throw the up-fake before stepping into the shot, when to make the extra pass, and when to sidestep onrushing defenders. He is not just casting them up. He is picking his spots and playing with the court awareness of a veteran.

There is also a swagger and a confidence there. A confidence that, as a shooter, he should be taking these looks without hesitation, and a swagger once he’s made them. 

Nevertheless, despite this three-pointer development, Anunoby is not just a shooter. An NBA calibre physical specimen from day one, O.G. is also an athletic and powerful finisher who picks his spots for finishes at the rim just as he does from outside, and also plays with confidence defensively.

To that end, we turn to the advanced statistics. Indeed, it is precisely for situations such as this that the advanced statistics were invented.

Plus/minus rating is, in essence, a simple capturing of how many points a team scores when that player is on the court relative to the opposition. A plus rating means the team outscores the opposition, and a minus of course means the opposite.

That stat, like most stats, can be the by-product of a team’s overall quality. It is not coincidental that the league’s three best are all members of the Houston Rockets, the league’s best team thus far this season. 

That said, it is in isolation still a tremendous piece of perspective on a player’s individual ability. If a player is good, it will surely be reflected in his team playing better when he is there. And with that in mind, Anunoby’s rating is staggering.

That, remember, is as a rookie.

Real plus/minus is ESPN’s slight tweak to the conventional plus/minus data designed to better incorporate the quality of a player’s opponents and team mates during their time on the court. It in theory removes bias from the more simple data capture, and neutralises circumstantial biases and anomalies that can creep into the simple capturing of the raw data. Put more simply, it is supposed to tell the same story as above, more truthfully.

This, however, does not significantly change Anunoby’s ranking. He still ranks 37th in the entire league, second on the Raptors behind only Kyle Lowry (11th), and ninth in small forwards behind only LeBron James (second), Robert Covington (8th), Otto Porter (18th), Kevin Durant (21st), Paul George (25th), Trevor Ariza (32nd), Thabo Sefolosha (34th) and Jayson Tatum (36th).

Similarly, amongst all players who have played at least 10 minutes of ten games, Anunoby is fourth in the entire league in net rating at +18.6. Ahead of Stephen Curry once more, then.

Even if he is only the next Sefolosha or Ariza – ‘only‘, says Mark so casually – then Anunoby will be a quality role player for a long time.

The dominant thought in the NBA is that non-star wing players should fit into a three-and-D stereotype. Namely, by using minimal dribbles efficiently and working off the ball, they should be capable three-point shooters, able to get open off the ball and constantly be a threat to the defence even without touching it, while also at least holding their own if not excelling defensively. Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver excel as the archetypes for this. Everyone is looking for them again.

Given his above profile, Anunoby is off to a good start at being this, and his better size and physical profile than both of those two gives him the potential to defend all three of the shooting guard, small forward and power forward spots. That said, Anunoby is young enough that he can develop his game beyond this.

If he can improve his ball handling to the point that he is able to create looks for himself, be it off of close-outs, curls or (ideally) isolation plays, a whole new realm of potential is opened up. But if he is going to be mainly a three-and-D player going forward, it looks for all the world like he is going to be a mighty fine one.

In fact, maybe he already is. Rule Britannia.

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