OG Anunoby missed the only shot he took Friday night and finished with zero points for the second time over his last four games. He was held to just over 13 minutes of playing time and didn’t record a single rebound or assist.
Yet if you watched any of the game, especially the first quarter, then you saw exactly why the still-just-2o-years-old rookie is a critical and consistent part of a team that has NBA championship aspirations. Toronto placed a significant bet on an unproven asset and the returns aren’t easy to see. OG does not dunk like Donovan Mitchell, or pass like Ben Simmons. He is not considered one of the league’s top rookies and does not have a media cycle dedicated to him or his father.
Ask those who follow the team however and you’d be hard-pressed to find many rookies they would rather have, especially given the circumstances. It’s rare to find such an impactful player willing to fit into such a veteran role at a young age. While the hope is that OG continues to develop into an elite three-and-D player, there are no expectations for him to become Kawhi Leonard overnight. Instead, the Raptors have depended on him to grow incrementally with one key expectation: Defend the opposition’s best player almost every single night.
That was the case on Friday when OG was tasked with guarding the virtually un-guardable Giannis Antetokounmpo. He flat-out contained him in the first quarter and while the Greek Freak eventually got the last laugh, the effort was astounding from the rookie out of Indiana. At 6-foot-8 and 232 lbs Anunoby is the most physically gifted player on the Raptors. His wingspan seems to grow with each contest and his athleticism is remarkable considering he’s coming off major-knee surgery. He has started 46 straight games and has rarely if ever looked overwhelmed at any point this season. While his offence is still a work in progress, the Raptors continue to be one of the league’s most fortunate teams when it comes to the delicate balance of developing+competing.
Still, that balance is shifting in a direction that puts more pressures on the 20 year old than it does alleviate them. It will not be good enough come playoff time for Anunoby to simply “look good out there” or “show flashes of brilliance”. His effort on the defensive end will need to be more than just “a glimpse of things to come”, it will need to be consistent. Game in. Game out. With Toronto’s tendency to start slow out of the gate when postseason basketball rolls around, it will be important for Anunoby to maintain his energy that he has exhibited all season long. That’s a lot to ask out of a rookie, and yet Toronto has no other option. Norman Powell has been nothing short of a disaster this season and C.J. Miles is hardly a defensive guru.
Regardless of whether it’s fair or not to put the burden of a successful playoff run on the shoulders of a rookie, it’s a reality this team and its fans are going to have to live with.