That greatness can come from modest beginnings is a common trope — look no further than almost any fairy tale. To put that in the language of the NBA, not all star wings enter the league as stars. Of the 11 All-Stars last season who could be classified as wings,1 four — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Jaylen Brown and Paul George — averaged fewer than 10 points per game in their rookie seasons. Three of those four were also more significant contributors on defense than offense.
The Toronto Raptors’ OG Anunoby seems to be following that well-trodden path. He entered the league as his team’s primary defender on opponents’ lead initiators, and he scored only 5.9 points per game — offering far more defensive impact than offensive. Yet Anunoby has stormed out of the gate to the 2021-22 season for the 6-5 Raptors. With team leader Kyle Lowry in Miami and Pascal Siakam, last season’s scoring leader, sidelined with a shoulder injury until recently, the team had plenty of offensive responsibility that needed redistribution. Anunoby seemed a logical recipient of extra shots and other duties due to his incredible efficiency — with a true shooting percentage at or above 60 in 2019-20 and 2020-21 — combined with a low usage rate. Indeed, his shot attempts this season have shot up by more than six a game and his usage rate by almost 5 percentage points.
Now averaging 20.2 points per game, he’s scoring a similar amount as Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Brown and George did in their fifth seasons.2 If Anunoby’s current scoring average holds, he’ll be the 13th active wing who averaged 20 points per game in his fifth season — including Antetokounmpo, Brown and Leonard. Ten of the other 12 who accomplished that feat before this season were voted to the All-Star Game that year.3 In the big picture, Anunoby’s career has followed those of previous rags-to-riches wings. Yet in more specific ways, Anunoby is blazing a path of his own.
If you look closely at Anunoby’s role on the court, he’s not developing in the same way as his would-be predecessors. For Brown or Antetokounmpo, whose entire careers fall within the player tracking era, their success in and use of pick and rolls grew relatively steadily over their first five seasons. Anunoby seemed to be heading in a similar direction prior to this year, but his pick-and-roll game in 2021-22 has instead taken a step backward.
All of Antetokounmpo, Leonard, Brown and George quickly saw handling in pick and rolls take up the plurality of their offensive sets, per Second Spectrum, and all scored far above Anunoby’s current 0.766 points per chance out of such sets by their fifth seasons. It is very early in the season, with Anunoby having run only 51 pick and rolls; therefore, he has plenty of time to improve. But it’s a notable decline for him, and it’s not the only mark of a pick-and-roll downturn for Anunoby. Handling in pick and rolls takes up less than a quarter of Anunoby’s current possessions, whereas it was over 40 percent for Antetokounmpo and Brown by their fifth seasons. Part of the reason Anunoby is scoring poorly as a handler in the pick and roll is because he’s shooting a career low on pull-up jumpers, despite his attempt rate ballooning this year.
That Anunoby has not developed his pick-and-roll game has not proved debilitating to his offensive impact. Even though improved efficiency handling in the pick and roll so often constitutes the vehicle through which NBA players ascend to stardom, Anunoby is choosing his own ride. But it’s hard to pinpoint one area in which his improvements have come. Anunoby is shooting worse from the field and from deep than he did last year. He’s attempting fewer free throws per game this year than last. If those declines mean anything beyond the small sample sizes of an early season, they point towards him adjusting to his new role. Anunoby is averaging just over eight extra touches per 100 possessions, and he’s distributed those touches in a variety of ways.
Anunoby has posted up 31 times already — a top-15 mark on the season, per Second Spectrum. (He ranked 68th in total post-ups last season.) Anunoby seems patient in the post, waiting to see how the defense reacts. If the paint is clogged, he’s still precise in finding interior passes. If he remains defended in single coverage, Anunoby can often overpower defenders and reach the rim.
Even though he hasn’t improved his efficiency as a handler in the pick and roll, Anunoby has expanded his game as a roller. Per Second Spectrum, he leads the Raptors in picks set by non-centers, and the team is scoring more than a point per chance on shots directly involving an Anunoby screen. His frequency of screen-setting is far higher than last season. Furthermore, he was fourth in isolations among Raptors last year, and he leads the team in 2021-22 by a wide margin. He’s by far the most efficient transition scorer in the league among players with 15 such shots or more. Anunoby remains a generalist on the offensive end.
But because of Anunoby’s wide-ranging skill set — and despite his struggles in the traditional haunt of wing stars — the Raptors are far better on the offensive end with him on the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, his on/off offensive points per 100 possessions is +7.7, second-highest among rotation Raptors and by far the highest of his career.4 Even though the means through which he’s scoring isn’t developing in the same way as his archetypal predecessors, he still offers enormous offensive impact — with a larger on/off offensive points per 100 possessions than any of George, Brown, Leonard, or Antetokounmpo in their fifth seasons.
Another commonality between Antetokounmpo and George, if not Brown and Leonard, is they both won Most Improved Player awards, incidentally the year they attended their first All-Star Games. Could Anunoby be on track for the same recognition? Regardless of what does or does not fill his trophy cabinet at the end of the year, Anunoby is already following in the footsteps of giants. He’s just walking the path in a way that’s entirely his own.
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