A Sly Kid with a Fanny Pack and a 7'2" Reach: OG Anunoby Is the NBA's New Normal

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2018

B/R

TORONTO — Ogugua Anunoby Jr.—call him OG—walks into an Italian joint in downtown Toronto and squeezes his 6'8" frame into a metal chair not designed for a human his size. As he sits, his hands, dangling a full 7'2" apart from fingertip to fingertip, look like they're in danger of being squashed under the heels of the Ugg slippers he's wearing—the Uggs he wears everywhere except the basketball court.             

Anunoby didn't pick this meeting spot because he's a fan of the restaurant. In fact, he says he's never been here before. He picked it because it's close to the apartment he shares with one of his older brothers, and it's one of the few places outside of his home that he's familiar with.

"I don't go out that much," he says. "After practice, you're so tired."

Instead, Anunoby spends his time the way most people his age do: Playing video games. Streaming Stranger Things on Netflix. Working out. Wandering around in Uggs. Sometimes, he takes naps.

In so many ways, he's a typical 20-year-old. Except few 20-year-olds play crucial roles for one of the NBA's top squads.

In June, the Raptors drafted Anunoby with the 23rd overall pick. Three years earlier, his name was nowhere to be found on the lists ranking the top high school basketball players in the country.

And now? Anunoby had started 48 straight games for the East's top team until an ankle injury kept him out of the last two. And while his 5.9 points in 20.5 minutes per game might not leap off the screen, look deeper—say, at the 11.5 points per 100 possessions the Raptors have outscored opponents by when Anunoby plays, the best mark of any starter on the 45-17 team—and it's clear that he has proven himself to be one of the steals of the draft.

Look at this 20-year-old, with his impossibly long arms and his laid-back Uggs, and you see the epitome of the NBA's future.

On the court, he's a high-flying, three-point-shooting, multiposition-defending super athlete. Off it, he's someone who—pardon the cliche—marches to the beat of his own drum.

That's an exciting position to be in, no?

"The year's been going really well so far," Anunoby says. "The team's doing really well."

Another short answer, though it isn't because he's shy.

In fact, never, ever ask Anunoby why he's shy, or tell him you think he is.

"I don't know why people say that," he says. "If you know me, I'm not shy."

I point out people might say that because of his tendency to make interviews feel like a game of 20 Questions.

"I mean, I'll just say what needs to be said," Anunoby says, completing his response before I can finish chewing a small bite of pizza.

I ask if he has an example. He brings up a game this year in Indiana, when the local media asked if he had received a large amount of ticket requests due to his college basketball connections.

"I said, 'Yeah,'" he says. 'And they were like, 'What'd you do about it?' And I said, 'I asked for more tickets.' And they laughed, and I didn't get it."

Anunoby then pulls out two cellphones—one for Canada, one for the United States—from a teal bag strapped across his hips. It's a fanny pack, and it has the word "SUPREME" plastered across its front. Technically it's a "waist bag," according to the website of Supreme, the billion-dollar streetwear company that's able to transform basic accessories like caps and parkas into sought-after fashion by slapping its name on them. That presumably explains why he's comfortable showing up for an interview wearing something that would typically be found on the waists of park rangers in the Midwest.

Is that assumption correct?

"I'm from England," Anunoby says. I ask if that's the explanation behind the fanny pack. Anunoby smiles and says, "No. We moved when I was three. But that's what I've been telling people. It's more convenient. I say I'm from England, and that's it."

For a second, it sounds likes he's trolling. He isn't. This is just who OG Anunoby is.


In the summer of 2016, then-Indiana University head basketball coach Tom Crean flew to Atlanta to check out an AAU tournament being put on by Under Armour. Specifically, he was there to scout a pair of talented teens on the Tennessee-based Team Thad. But as the game moved along, an unknown long and lanky kid—the one with a headband and Inspector Gadget arms who seemed to get his hands on every ball—caught Crean's eye.

"You could just see there was something about him," Steve McClain, a former Indiana assistant who accompanied Crean on the trip, says. "He had these instincts."

Instincts, but also skills. He wasn't getting buckets on every possession, but more discerning eyes could see the potential oozing out of him.

Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

Crean and McClain wouldn't be the last to see it. Raptors assistant general manager Daniel Tolzman, who was a scout for the team at the time, felt the same after watching Indiana in person during Anunoby's freshman year. He loved how Anunoby processed the game and interacted with teammates. Anunoby didn't dish out many assists, but he seemed to possess a preternatural sense for how and when to swing the ball. On defense, he could guard all five positions—which Tolzman once witnessed in a single possession.

"How's that not exactly what teams are looking for?" Tolzman remembers thinking. He believed Anunoby to be the perfect player for the Raptors, a prospect who could fill their immediate needs but also fit into the schemes they were planning on implementing.

For two years, the Raptors kept tabs on Anunoby—recognizing there was more to him than the pedestrian 6.8 points he averaged per game. Other teams began catching on, too. Another squad perhaps would have snagged Anunoby earlier in the 2017 draft had he not torn his ACL late in his sophomore season.

The injury hurt Anunoby's draft stock. Teams worried he'd be sidelined for the majority of his rookie year. They were concerned the damage might rob him of the explosiveness that made him so tantalizing.

Not the Raptors, though. Heading into the draft, their doctors found no reason to assume Anunoby wouldn't fully recover. He'd spent months leading up to the draft working with Andy Barr, a former director of performance and rehabilitation for the Knicks and the founder of Innovate Performance in Los Angeles, and the doctors liked what they saw.

"We had zero reservations about him as a player," Tolzman says.

The Raptors met Anunoby for a formal interview at the draft combine in Chicago in May. Team president Masai Ujiri led the session, while others like Tolzman and head coach Dwane Casey sat in as well.

Prospects typically are coached up before the interviews, which last about 30 minutes, so they come in loaded with all sorts of anecdotes to stress. It's their way of seizing control. That's what the Raptors expected to see from Anunoby that day. Instead, they met the player now wearing Uggs in the Italian restaurant closest to his apartment.

"Everything was one-word answers," Tolzman says. "It was the strangest draft combine interview I've ever been a part of."

Anunoby's method for dealing with the firing squad was to be himself. The Raptors, already smitten, fell head over heels. They drafted Anunoby six weeks later, and in doing so, they added a player who they think could be the difference between them watching the Finals from home again and making their first-ever trip.

The strategy worked out for Anunoby as well.

"I went to the team I wanted to go to. Winning culture, good things to learn from," he says. "There was just a connection with the coaches, front offices. They're friendly people. Similar to me."


In mid-November, Casey approached Anunoby.

"You got Harden," he told him, referring to the Rockets star. The Raptors were slated to play Houston the next day, and handing him one of the league's cruelest defensive assignments was Casey's way of informing Anunoby that he'd been promoted into the starting lineup.

Up to that point, Anunoby had outperformed the expectations of even the most optimistic Raptors observers.

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 8:  Michael Beasley #8 of the New York Knicks is guarded closely by OG Anunoby #3 of the Toronto Raptors in an NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on February 8, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Raptors defeated the Knicks 113-88
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

"Most rookies, even lottery picks, make a ton of mistakes," Tolzman says. "He's a guy that doesn't make many, and if he does, they don't pile on and become a problem."

The Raptors recognized during summer workouts that Anunoby was closer to returning than they thought. As the season approached, Casey discussed with Anunoby the role he envisioned for him. It was a simple but important one.

On offense, he needed to knock down open shots, especially from behind the arc and from the corners. The Raptors were revamping their offense to focus less on isolation plays and mid-range jumpers and more on triples. Toronto hoped Anunoby's solid stroke would ease this transformation.

"We thought by the end of Year 1, he'd be an impact player for us," Tolzman says. "But I expected him to maybe spend some time [in the G League] to work his way back and get some of the rust off."

Instead, Anunoby returned to the floor in the preseason. Within a month, he had established himself as an indispensable piece of the team.

"You don't have to tell him things more than once," teammate CJ Miles says. "That sounds basic, but you'd be surprised how many times you sometimes have to tell guys things, especially younger players."

Those corner threes? Anunoby is drilling 41 percent of his looks from there, putting him in the 60th percentile among forwards, according to Cleaning the Glass. He's launching only 2.8 treys a game, but the threat of his jumper opens up space for his high-profile teammates, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That's part of the reason the Raptors offense is 4.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

"Defenders don't come off me any more," Anunoby says.

When the ball reaches him, it rarely sticks in his hands. His passes are precise and delivered on time.

"It's fun when everyone is scoring," he says.

On defense, Anunoby's job has been simple: guard the opponent's top scorer. Rookies rarely draw such assignments, but Anunoby has thrived despite not being fully recovered from his injury. ("I mean, I'm still athletic, but I was super bouncy. But it's coming back," he says.) Much of that is thanks to his wingspan, height and quickness.

But Anunoby doesn't solely rely on his physical gifts. He spends the night before every game watching YouTube and Synergy Sports clips of his upcoming assignment on his laptop, and he reviews them the following day in the hot tub at the team's training facility. He prefers to watch makes rather than misses so he can learn his opponent's tendencies, the moves to take away. He also studies film of the league's best defensive players, who he initially lists before asking for their names to be off the record because "I feel like I'm giving too much away."

The easy move here would be to go with a cheap metaphor, to trace a connection between him not wanting to reveal those names and not wanting to reveal much about himself. The thing is, his answers are revealing; they're just revealing in a different sort of way.


This, Miles says, is his favorite OG Anunoby story, the one story he must share.

It was early in the season, and the Raptors were returning from a road trip. The team plane didn't touch down in Toronto until around 3 a.m., and Anunoby wanted to know how Miles was getting home. The two have grown close over the year, with the 30-year-old Miles serving as Anunoby's big brother on the team, so Miles has grown accustomed to fielding these sorts of questions.

Miles told Anunoby that his wife was meeting him at the airport.

"And he goes, 'Your wife's picking you up? I should get a wife,'" Miles says, before breaking out into laughter. "He's like, 'I'm getting married in three weeks,' and he kept saying it.

"Now he keeps saying spring 2018."

The rookie's attitude evolved into a sort of slogan for the perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse (and perennial playoff disappointment), Miles says: "We moving different. It's 2018."

A rookie making that kind of impact on a veteran contender's culture is a rare feat. Having the same impact on the floor, though—that's the ceiling the Raptors envision for him, and the ceiling Anunoby intends to reach.

"We didn't draft him to be a role player," Tolzman says. "We drafted him because we loved his upside."

That he's fallen into an ideal situation—playoff team, All-Stars around him—should only help his cause.

"Yeah, you can say that," Anunoby says. He sounds uncertain. I ask if he disagrees.

"I think I can just play," Anunoby responds. "I think I'm just good."

      

All statistics via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here.

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