With the NBA season being put on hold, we're taking this week to look ahead at some of the biggest X-Factors in the league.
That is, we're putting the microscope on players that might represent a playoff team's tertiary or fourth option but is ultimately a key piece in allowing that team to reach the height of its potential.
Up first is Toronto Raptors small forward OG Anunoby, a player that has risen to the challenge this season and stands to make an impact upon his return to the postseason stage.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Before it even started, we knew this would be a big season for OG Anunoby.
With Kawhi Leonard departing via free agency, Anunoby was set to step right back into the starting small forward position that he had earned by the end of his rookie year, as he showed plenty of promise as a perimeter defender during the 2018 Playoffs.
OG has stepped up to the challenge this season, and then some. He's essentially taken two leaps after a tumultuous second season impeded his progress as a player.
While we might not know exactly when the season will resume, is it safe to say that the best is yet to come for the 22-year-old?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I think that's safe to say.
We were really just starting to see Anunoby hit his stride at this point in the season, especially defensively. You were beginning to see head coach Nick Nurse lean on him more than usual on that end of the floor, taking on a variety of matchups no matter the size, skill or position.
Against the Phoenix Suns, he even used him as the primary defender on near-7-footer Deandre Ayton!
Do you think that recent stretch of trust was because Nurse had to with all of their injuries, or is it something we can expect to see come playoff time, too?
McGregor: While I don't expect to see him guarding too many centres come playoff time, I do think the variety of assignments this season are the ultimate sign of trust. I mean, this is the guy that was the primary defender on playoff LeBron James … AS A ROOKIE. Nurse was on that staff and I think he knows just what OG is capable of on that end of the floor.
Ahead of a five-game trip at the beginning of the year, Nurse told reporters how Anunoby's defensive versatility would be a key to success, and I think this applies even more in the postseason.
During a potential playoff run, he could spend time guarding a group of players ranging from Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert to Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
That's no easy task.
Irving: I think come playoff time when we see him defending the likes of the players you just named, we'll directly point to Toronto's five-game road trip at the start of March and say "that's where OG gained the confidence he needed to make these matchups possible."
He just looked fearless out there. Like he could stop any player Nurse asked him to. And the fact that he's still only 22 years old is insane.
But we always knew he had a high ceiling defensively. Does his offensive inconsistency worry you at all about his development in the future? Or do you think it's just a product of him only stepping up when he has to since there's still so much offensive firepower on this team?
McGregor: I won't say it worries me per se. Well, as long as the consistency is the next focus in his development.
Like you said, the offensive firepower present on this roster means that he's probably the fifth or sixth option when the team is at full strength, which is actually scary to think considering he's again increased his offensive output this season to just under 11 points per game. But consistency is key.
I understand that his role fluctuates because guys on this team essentially take turns stepping up to take over, but when things change up for a seven-game series, you just need to know exactly what you can count on him for. A consistent floor of some sorts.
It doesn't have to be much. Maybe a corner triple plus a strong drive and a trip to the line per game. But it has to be consistent. It helps that his defence can create offence for himself and others.
Irving: There are times where I wish he would be a little more aggressive offensively, especially because I feel like he could be a guy that scores double figures night-in and night-out.
He shoots a solid 38% from 3. He's strong, quick and athletic when he attacks off the dribble. He's a good cutter. I just feel like if he wanted to get involved on that end of the floor every game he could, and it would only make things easier on his teammates.
But I also understand that's not his role and that it's more important for him to exert as much energy as possible on defence, which will in turn lead to offence in transition kind of like you said.
MORE: Anunoby's defensive versatility in one possession
Unfortunately for him, he probably doesn't get the attention he deserves because he's primarily a defender. I think this postseason we could see that change, no matter what he does offensively, if he's consistently shutting down premiere players though.
McGregor: Agreed. He's had some excellent nights on the offensive end this season but in those moments, it feels like his performance is viewed as a one-off and not something he's actually capable of.
Obviously, he won't always go for 32 like he did in Denver but he also won't be held scoreless in over 20 minutes of action like he was against Indiana and Philly this year. In reality, who he truly is offensively is somewhere in the middle and defensively, the sky is the limit.
And that feels like the description of an X-Factor that can sway the outcome of a playoff series.
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