Why O.G. Anunoby is probably not Kawhi Leonard
Jonathon Tjarks is a great basketball writer, writing lucidly and with brevity about the college and pro game. His writing is impressive and convincing. Certainly better than me. Let’s make no bones about that. Indeed, this piece about O.G. Anunoby is no different.
However, the lead changes the way read it:
“Indiana’s surprise phenom from last March is back, and this time, there is no evading the spotlight. He has the length of an NBA center, the quickness of a point guard, and he doesn’t care what you think about his draft stock. Is it too early to be making Kawhi Leonard comparisons?”
It’s no longer just an excellent, well observed, deservedly optimistic write-up for an exciting young player. Rather now, it’s also part of the unfortunate basketball genre of “Lazy Comparison Pieces.” Which even more unfortunately eventually become part of the basketball group-think that preys on us all.
Now, almost two months into the 2016-2017 season, we can see if the argument holds water.
The Way In Which Leonard and Anunoby Are Different
As Tjarks points out, there are similarities between the two players: their athleticism, their length, their multi-position defensive ability. However, where the article fails as a comparison piece is by not looking at the skills that make them very different. Not just now, but what makes now 19-year old sophomore, O.G. Anunoby, of the Indiana Hoosiers very different from different from then 19-year old sophomore, Kawhi Leonard, of the San Diego State Aztecs.
That skill is dribbling. Without the ability to dribble Kawhi never would have progressed from off-the-ball finisher to on-the-ball initiator. A difference, depending on which metric you prefer, probably worth about 3 to 5 points in plus-minus. Give or take. In other words, the difference in Kawhi merely being very, very good and Kawhi being exceptional.
Indeed, it’s Leonard’s dribbling ability that allowed him to grow from the ultimate Three, D and B player into quite possibly the games best player not named Lebron. (B either means Borscht or Boards, tell me which. I won’t call you a liar. Rebounding is the aspect of early Kawhi’s game that most consistently gets overlooked, perhaps one of two key aspects of his uniqueness as a perimeter defender who could convert from deep. The other being is ability to play both up and down positions.)
A Closer Look at Anunoby’s Progress
That’s not to say Anunoby has no dribbling ability. He’s clearly improved with his ability to drive and turn the quarter, at least against weaker defenders. For example, there were 4 or 5 examples in a recent game vs. Delaware St. that showcased Anunoby’s ability off the dribble.
1) A one or two dribble straight line drive in which he got the corner on an overly relaxed defender. Lay-up.
2) A steal near half court which resulted in a transition opportunity. Two dribbles and an And-one.
3) A semi-broken play in which no one bothered to guard him. The result, there straight line dribbles and an Anunoby lay-up.
And 4) With around seven minutes left in the game, perhaps the most promising play in which Anunoby, catching the ball on the move behind the three-point line beats a smaller defender with an inside-out dribble and ends up finding Freddie McSwain for the score.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1S2vcIsYN7Q&w=560&h=315] [All four plays are featured in this highlight package. I apologize for embedding youtube clips and not being a master of the gif. Check around 1:30, 3:10, 3:45 and 4:20, or watch the whole thing and be impressed by what, even in a highlight package, stands out as an obvious ability to read and react on both offense and defense.]
Dribbling. Vision. Decision-making. And the ability to execute. That’s the kind of play that shows real progression from where Anunoby was at a year ago.
Yet, we’re still miles away from where Kawhi Leonard was at the same age and stage, at least in terms of dribbling the basketball.
O.G. Anunoby vs. Kawhi Leonard, A Battle of NCAA Shooting Statistics
In Kawhi’s Age-19 sophomore season at SDSU, Kawhi was the primary initiator, with DJ Gay or Billy White being distant seconds. For those of you who didn’t watch Leonard at SDSU, this fact, if not explicitly proved, is at least intimated by SDSU data we find at hoop-math.com.
Namely, if we look at the Unassisted Scoring data, inside, middle and out. Lots of unassisted scores in all areas in most cases means the player was responsible to carry his own offensive load.
Though something you will notice, besides the immense amount of talent on this SDSU team (NBA superstar, Kawhi Leonard, and borderline, perhaps-note-quite NBA players in Malcolm Thomas, Jamaal Franklin and Billy White) is indeed how predicated this team was on individual offense. No one shoots off the catch, not even deep jump shots. Leonard, Gay, and Thomas all made at least 40% of their successful attempts from three unassisted. Billy White, nearly 70%.
Get To It Already
So let’s compare the shot data for OG Anunoby and Kawhi Leonard (with numbers once again coming from Hoop-Math.
Here we see clearly, even if he’s not very efficient doing it, almost everything that Kawhi accomplishes is on his own merits. 75% of his made baskets at the rim. Over 80% of his two point jumpers, of which he shot a plethora. (And at a reasonable percentage, considering the heavy burden.) Even 50% of his three point makes.
Now, ten unassisted three-pointers isn’t a lot. But’s it’s a lot more than the one Anunoby has. And 53 unassisted mid-range makes for Kawhi completely obliterates Anunoby’s total of five through his first year and a half. Even were we to pro-rate Anunoby’s numbers to 360 overall attempts, he’d still be 40 unassisted mid-range makes short of Kawhi. That’s because Kawhi not only had the ball in his hands more often, but was asked to carry a heavier load of the offense.
That’s not to say that Anunoby isn’t an excellent prospect. He is.
Just looking at the numbers from Sports-Reference, there’s a lot to like. Efficiency. Rebounding. Enough passing relative to usage to be pretty sure he’s not a ball hog. Low turnovers numbers. If we look elsewhere, a better than 1:1 assist to turnover rate that tends to indicate intelligence. This fact only adds to the picture his strong defensive numbers begin to paint for us, of a player not only with athleticism, but with read-and-react ability on the court.
Watching Anunoby, we see he’s potentially great on defense, both on the ball and off. Not just that, on both the interior and perimeter. That’s a rare package. Something like the one we see in Kawhi, or Draymond Green, or Lebron or Giannis.
Indeed, due to Anunoby’s 6’8″ frame and 7’6″ wingspan, along with strength and quickness, he’s one of the few guys we could imagine not only matching up against a Lebron, a Giannis, a Ben Simmons a few years down the line but potentially causing some issues for his opponent. Beyond that, there may even be a real catch-and-shoot ability from distance. (Though the free throw numbers are worrisome. )
However, without serious progression as a dribbler and initiator, the player we’re talking about is at best Kawhi in year one and two. A Top 10 to 25 guy in the league, but not one of the few players that could legitimately carry his team to a championship. And at worst, a bigger, stronger version of Handles McDaniels, a player who has so far failed at the NBA level, despite excellent college numbers as a junior in some ways reminiscent of OG Anunoby, in large part because he has never learned either how to dribble or shoot.
Should Anunoby’s perimeter skills not continue to develop, his potential to play Power Forward on offense gives Anunoby NBA outs that a player like McDaniels will never have. However, unless we restrict our views to potential on the defensive end of the court, it’s still too early to include Anunoby in the same sentence with Leonard. Even then, Leonard’s ability on that end is so far above basically every perimeter player of his generation not named Lebron, Iguodala, Wade, Chris Paul or Tony Allen, it’s perhaps a bit premature.
- Image thanks to Sporting News