Just a few years ago, the Indiana University basketball staff decided to take a chance on OG Anunoby. Attending an AAU event showcasing top-talent in Atlanta, the staff was drawn to a player whose name wasn’t even printed in the brochure for the event. After two years at Indiana, the Toronto Raptors were the ones choosing Anunoby with the 23rd overall pick in the NBA Draft. Much like Tom Crean’s coaching staff, Toronto’s front office is glad that other teams passed on the 19-year-old forward.
With the selection of Anunoby in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Raptors selected a 6-foot-8 forward with unlimited upside and potential, as well as a work ethic to speed along the process. Because Anunoby suffered a season-ending ACL tear in January of this year, he was unable to go through the normal pre-draft workouts, focusing his time on meetings with interested teams rather than getting to show off his skills. The Raptors organization and Anunoby both believe the injury resulted in him sliding down draft boards around the league, with Anunoby saying he believed he could have been a top five pick had he not been injured. Getting selected to the right team and situation is more important than where a player is drafted and prior to hearing his name on Thursday night, Anunoby said he felt good about the Raptors.
“I think it’s unbelievably critical that [Anunoby] connects with the front office and the people in the organization,” Chuck Martin, an assistant coach at Indiana during Anunoby’s two seasons there, said. “One of the biggest differences between college and the NBA, for the most part, there are some exceptions, but in college, the athlete chooses where he wants to go. We try to recruit him, we try to convince him, but ultimately he chooses where he wants to go. In the NBA, you’re chosen. You don't really have much of an option. If this team picks you, it’s kind of where you’re going to go. It’s always a great feeling knowing when that team choses you that you felt great about them prior to the selection, which he did.”
“When he came back from his visits he stopped by my house in Indiana and he was really excited about the meeting with the Raptors,” Martin continued. “He felt really good about those guys.”
When Anunoby heard his name called on draft night, he was calm, cool and collected, managing to keep his emotions in check. That measured reaction wasn’t dissimilar to his reaction after completing highlight-reel worthy plays on the court. After a thrilling block or a thunderous dunk, Anunoby can be seen sprinting back down the court on defence rather than taking time to celebrate the moment.
“He’s from the “Show-me” state,” former Indiana associate head coach Tim Buckley said. “He would rather let his play do the talking than all the other stuff.”
Anunoby was born in London, U.K., and raised in the United States where he fell in love with basketball despite his father’s passion for soccer. He attended Jefferson City High School in Missouri where he averaged 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a senior. Despite this, he came to Indiana an under-the-radar college player, averaging 13.7 minutes per game in his freshman season, but made headlines in the NCAA Tournament in 2016 when he used his defence to help the Hoosiers upset the Kentucky Wildcats in the second round. That defence is the first thing that stands out about Anunoby at this point in his career. A 19-year-old who can guard positions 1-through-5 on the floor generally isn’t available with the 23rd pick. The season-ending ACL injury Anunoby sustained may have prevented him from finishing out his season in Indiana, but it didn’t keep him out of the gym.
“OG was in the middle of things,” Buckley said. “Coaching and talking, he really did it. Initially Coach [Crean] made him do it and then it just became a part of what he was doing. I think that will help his growth in that regard.
“In the locker room and amongst his teammates he was very well-connected to them. He was good at poking at them and really good at poking at himself as far as he can laugh at himself. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
How does a player who was left off an AAU tournament brochure become the 23rd pick in the NBA Draft just a few short years later?
Anunoby had an up-close example of what it takes to be a professional athlete. His older brother, Chigbo, played in the NFL, providing Anunoby an opportunity to see the work ethic needed to make it to the pros firsthand. After a quiet freshman year, Anunoby’s role was expanded in his sophomore season prior to injury. Playing 25.1 minutes per game, Anunoby averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while recording at least one block or one steal in all 16 of his games played.
“When he first started here [at Indiana] it wasn’t necessarily going well for him [in his freshman season,] Martin said. “He wasn’t playing a lot. He had that moment where it was the second game in [the Maui Invitational] where he came out of his shell and he finally started to understand what it was going to take, not only for him to play, but for our team to win. From that point forward he really started to make strides. I think today guys don't get an opportunity to struggle through some things to help them have success. He was willing to stay disciplined and listen to his coaches and follow that process that he was on to become a quality player for us and obviously he became a quality player in college basketball.”
Though Anunoby has just started to scratch the surface of his abilities, he’s already learned to enjoy each first as it comes. This part of his personality — along with the sense of humour that shows up when he is comfortable with you — had both Buckley and Martin raving about coaching him.
“I think he’s refreshing,” Martin said. “And I mean this as a compliment; I think every time he does something amazing it’s for the first time. He’s never done it before so in so many ways he’s surprised that he did it so he just runs back. He’s not used to doing it and that’s refreshing because his upside and his potential is through the roof. He’s just a unique guy that way and he’s got the personality, as people get to know him a little bit better, to really gravitate towards him. He’s got a big smile. He’s really, really intelligent and he’s really, really funny.”
“I think that’s the irony of OG, and I think he likes it that way, the fact that some of that stuff is hidden and it takes time for you to peel back the layers,” Martin continued. “I think he kind of likes the fact that this is a relationship and it’s going to take time, but if you kind of hang in there with him, at the end of the day, it’s going to be a big prize.”