Toronto Raptors

OG Anunoby is Toronto’s man of mystery

OG Anunoby emerges from the damp, warm comfort of the locker room and surveys the breezy hallway with eyes both electric and half-lidded. He crouches lower, revealing a nest of permanently tousled hair, to better hear a Toronto Raptors staffer above the din of gathered media and players milling about. He’s pointed toward a waiting reporter and Anunoby strolls over casually before extending a long hand in greeting. He asks how I’m doing, then presses his back into a column to make himself more comfortable. Or perhaps to hide his 6-foot-8 frame from view. At the very least, he appears relaxed, never letting on if he resents what happens next.

Anunoby has a reputation for dealing with media out of necessity, not preference, and his answers are best described as curt. He’ll sometimes ask for clarification, giving the impression that he means to give a more thorough response, then delivers the most succinct answer possible. There are times when he simply shrugs his shoulders, grinding out the barest hint of a smirk suggesting that the question is one that he finds unanswerable. The Raptors attempted to package this as something playful; social media posts focus on Anunoby as a hidden voice asks about an upcoming matchup, and the video ends abruptly before he’s had a chance to respond. Still, it’s well into Anunoby’s unexpectedly impactful rookie season and there’s a story there waiting to be told.

Just a few years ago, he was a relative unknown. He was playing in an AAU tournament in Atlanta when he was spotted by Tom Crean, the former head coach of the University of Indiana men’s basketball team, who watched in awe as the athletic marvel dominated his peers. The potential was unmistakable but identifying the player proved more challenging. Anunoby had been a late entrant in the competition and his jersey was left blank, his name left off the tournament’s program. Crean eventually tracked down Anunoby to Jefferson City, Missouri, relentlessly hounded him for about a week and offered him a scholarship before anyone else had a chance. Anunoby appreciated the confidence Crean had shown and soon accepted.

He thrived in Bloomington for the Hoosiers. His talent was raw but he had instinct and tenacity, and the athleticism capable of making those intangibles count. The NBA seemed a likely conclusion. Then, a knee injury cut his time at Indiana short. He entered the 2017 NBA Draft with promise, as well as questions about his ability to fully recover from the torn ligament in his right knee. The latter persisted and Anunoby slid further and further in the draft, all the way to Toronto, who took a chance with the 23rd pick, optimistic that the Raptors’ depth would provide Anunoby the cushion he’d need to heal and develop and eventually have a role. He didn’t need it. Anunoby appeared in 74 games as a rookie, starting in 62 of those.

Former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey didn’t worry about Anunoby’s ability to adjust. Even if his overall explosiveness wasn’t at the same level as it was at Indiana before the injury, there was a maturity well beyond his 20 years. “He gives us a toughness that we lacked,” said Casey at the time. “He has no regard for an opposing player, understands how physical he can be. He’s exactly what we need.”

And so, on a team that wanted to escape the shadow of past failures and find an edge to loosen LeBron James’ stranglehold on the Eastern Conference, Anunoby had managed to fit in perfectly. All within a year of having suffered a major injury, of working his way back to health, of sliding down the draft and losing an opportunity to put up bigger numbers on a team with lesser expectations. But I wanted to hear about that unlikely path from Anunoby himself, reputation be damned, and, with the unexpected pleasantries out of the way, I ask him whether he ever had doubts that he’d be able to accomplish what he has accomplished so far.

“No.”

As beads of sweat began to form, I followed up because surely there was more to this. Something about long, restless nights, or about grueling therapy sessions that slowly began to pay off? No doubts? Really?

“Yeah.”

And that was it. I stammered my way through another half-dozen or so questions in disbelief. Anunoby answered them, too, in his own inimitable, unreachable way, but I was no closer to understanding his story than I had been minutes earlier when I shook hands with this living testament to verbal frugality.

Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

When I next spoke to Anunoby, it was months later and much had changed for the Raptors. They had lost again to James and the Cavaliers, in a demoralizing series sweep. Then they acquired Kawhi Leonard for fan-favorite DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl (a note, perhaps of some importance: of the times Anunoby has been asked about the loss of DeRozan, he has frequently made it a point to mention Poeltl lest anyone forget he, too, had been shipped to San Antonio). Anunoby lost some time due to a nagging wrist injury and he lost his starting job to Pascal Siakam, who has taken a colossal leap in his third NBA season.

It had been a summer of growth for Anunoby, too. Sitting in the courtside seats of gym outside Orlando, he told me he worked on “a little bit of everything.” When he shot the ball now, he stopped “thinking about other things,” and his release did seem more fluid. He admitted that he felt more comfortable offensive — a string of four games in November during which he averaged over 15 points per game seemed to support his assertion. His defense, too, was as solid as ever. When I asked him about coming off the bench, he paused before saying it wasn’t an issue. He added that he still saw himself as a starter that simply comes off the bench.

There was more, about learning from DeRozan (and Jakob, too), about developing a relationship with Leonard and appreciating the efforts of Nick Nurse, the team’s new head coach. These were all answers, of course. Perhaps a little more revelatory than they had been in my previous encounter but still only answers in the strictest sense. He seemed anxious to join his teammates, to lose himself in the familiarity of the work. Anunoby held his shoes as he sat next to me, then put them down, then picked them up again, almost as if waiting for me to release him from the bonds of my prying questions.

With time running short, I asked why his answers are always so short. He stared quizzically at me, then replied, “It depends on the questions I’m asked. You’re asking me good questions so I can talk. Usually, they ask bad questions.” It felt like vindication, a show of approval that I hadn’t expected. Emboldened, I asked about his tastes off the floor. Music (“Young Thug. Travis Scott.”) and video games (“2K. FIFA.”) made the cut, but cinema (“I don’t like movies that much.”) did not. And while these helped complete the puzzle, I began to feel like I was prying. I walked away after shaking hands and left him to put his shoes on and escape to the practice floor.

I spoke with C.J. Miles, then, to ask him about the young wing player that he was helping to mentor. Or, at least he was before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies later in the season. About the aversion to speaking, Miles laughed and said, “That’s not true,” the implication being an obvious one, that Anunoby feels more comfortable with the teammates that he travels with and spends almost all his time with. “That’s just him,” he added. “He’s a personal guy, more of a 1-on-1 person. If you’re around him, you get to experience the ‘OG Effect.’ If you’re not…well, I feel sorry for you.”

What is the ‘OG Effect?’ “He’s a clown, sometimes, and he’ll just mess with the group,” explained Miles. “But he can have serious conversations, too. Maybe with a reporter like you, you wouldn’t know that he’s joshing you but he has one of those sarcastic, dry sense of humor. It’s hard to put into any words what he’s like. He’s just a character. And some days you get a different character.”

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler /NBAE via Getty Images

Months passed. I spoke with Anunoby, again, this time in Charlotte, where he was set to play in the Rising Stars Challenge that is a part of the All-Star weekend of festivities. Sitting at a pedestal with a microphone and camera staring back at him, it was a setting antithetical to the type of interaction that Anunoby purportedly prefers. The nuances of his character aren’t easily revealed in this setting as dozens of reporters jockey for position, shouting questions over each other in the hope that they might get a player’s attention. A brief moment of eye contact could be an opening. Being louder than the reporter next to you is an advantage. True to form, Anunoby eschews the microphone in front of him and turns to whoever asks the question he has chosen to answer.

In the time since I last spoke to Anunoby, he has become less of a factor in Toronto’s success. Siakam’s growth and Leonard’s impact — even if it comes less frequently than Raptors fans would like — has made Anunoby superfluous. There are flashes, like a 22-point outing in mid-February before departing to Charlotte, that he says are something to build on. But there are more often struggles. “Just ups and downs,” he says to me before a bellowing reporter to his right captures his attention momentarily.

The easiest explanation is that Anunoby is still just 21 years old and learning. He has also been grieving throughout the season, after his father, Dr. Ogugua Anunoby, Sr., passed away in September. It is, according to people who cover the team, something that is rarely discussed publicly. And it dawns on me, too late, that even as I subjected him to a barrage of questions in late November about movies and music and a personality that is rarely revealed publicly, that the shadow of grief darkened everything about that conversation, as it surely and unfortunately should. On the cusp of the holiday season, Anunoby, who lost his mother as a toddler, would be spending that time without the parents that so many take for granted.

There is no part of Anunoby’s contract that forces him to provide long, rambling responses under any circumstances. But there was something about his unwillingness to do so that drove me to push and prod, ignoring the humanity that we often seek from our interactions as reporters. There is so much content on this sport we choose to cover, to follow and to love, that we can sometimes forget that the stories we try to tell, whether with words or videos or over a beer at our favorite watering hole, are just our attempts at helping us connect with these players — these people — on a deeper level.

This is a story that has gathered dust for over a year. In that time, Anunoby has gone from a crucial part of the team’s future success to an occasional afterthought. There are some among the Raptors fan base that look at Siakam’s development as a reprieve from wondering if Anunoby might have been forced into action too soon. The team’s front office originally thought he might need a cushion to heal from a surgically-repaired knee. He has that now, even if he’s using it to heal from something far more difficult to quantify.

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The Raptors have long been judged by their postseason success or, specifically, their lack of it. The acquisition of Leonard puts the team on a definitive timetable, and a need to go deeper in the playoffs to convince him to re-sign with the team later this summer. With the yoke of LeBron James’ presence weighing heavily in Los Angeles, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to take that risk, even if meant giving up on DeRozan (and Jakob, too). But with Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as one of the league’s best players and the Milwaukee Bucks primed to take over the East in James’ absence, a new obstacle might simply have replaced another for Toronto.

Anunoby might play better this season and beyond. And if you are looking for a sign that he’s able to, in some way, move on from his grief, there’s a video of him alongside teammate Serge Ibaka, that shows Anunoby smiling, dancing and singing. It’s also one form of success, anyway, even if there’s no trophy to help commemorate it. The mystery of Anunoby doesn’t mean as much as it once did and there’s a freedom in that smile that resolves it more completely than words ever could.

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