Rookies on quality teams rarely make immediate contributions. Not major ones anyway. Franchises with serious playoff aspirations seldom have room in the rotation for a 19 or 20-year-old still figuring out the intricacies of the NBA. But the 2017 draft class is bucking that trend, at least for the time being. Across the league, rookies are playing meaningful roles on playoff teams, whether because of injuries to players ahead them in the rotation, lack of depth at their position or because they play a very specific role well.
OG Anunoby of the Raptors is playing an especially surprising role, even for a rookie. He wasn’t expected to be healthy until midway through the season after tearing his ACL in January, and leading up to training camp, it was unclear if Anunoby would play at all this season. But he has so far appeared in every game as a rookie, providing modest production as a backup 4 on a team starved for positional versatility.
Coming out of Indiana, Anunoby probably should have been a lottery pick, but due to his uncertain health fell to the selection No. 23, where Toronto smartly scooped him up. He already looks like a steal. Long, athletic forwards with two-way upside are the most treasured commodities in the draft and most valuable assets in the modern NBA.
Anunoby is a long-term investment, yes, but also a short-term solution at a position of need. He serves a basic but extremely useful near-term purpose. At full health — still not a guarantee for this season — he can guard five positions credibly, crash the boards and finish at the rim. A reliable jumper might not be far away either.
While he isn’t asked to do much beyond defending and hitting open 3s, Anunoby’s feel and instincts have been pleasant surprises thus far. He’s periodically attacked closeouts and slower bigs, sliced to the basket as a cutter and slipped canny passes to teammates. He even busted out this savvy maneuver in the preseason:
The game does not seem too fast or too physical for Anunoby, which could be an encouraging indicator of his health. He has the strength to wrestle with bigs on the block and the quickness to switch onto, and stay in front of, ball-handlers and he comfortably slides between both.
Even with Anunoby in the rotation, Toronto is thin on combo forwards. C.J. Miles and Norman Powell might be too small to hold up at the 4 with significant minutes. Lineups with both Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas have proven untenable in the playoffs. Anunoby is a theoretical stand-in at the 4 in small lineups and might be the only player on the Raptors’ roster with the physical profile to match up with LeBron James (yikes). That’s probably not a battle the rookie is going to win (duh).
But Anunoby’s impact this season is ancillary to his long-term value and potential upside. The Raptors knew that when they drafted him. Anunoby is further along than anyone expected he would be at this point, and Toronto will reap the benefits of their gamble for a long time.