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Toronto Raptors

The incredible defensive versatility of Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby in one play

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, we're putting Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby under the microscope.

Context: The most valuable attribute in today's game is versatility, and there's no more in demand currency than the rangy 3-and-D types who can do it all. Anunoby fits the bill to a T and it's one of the reasons he's long been held by the Raptors' brass as an invaluable foundational building block.

That was on full display throughout Toronto's five-game Western Conference road trip prior to the season being suspended, particularly in the opening game in Denver in which the short-handed Raptors (where have we heard that before!) played without Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet. Although the Raptors lost that game by double digits, the fact that they were able to bounce back with four straight wins allows for some leeway in ignoring the result and instead honing in on some specifics - chiefly, the play of Anunoby.

Not only did he score a career-high 32 points, he came up with a career-best seven steals. His defensive versatility showed throughout the game, as Anunoby spent time matched up with various players on the Nuggets, from Jamal Murray and Will Barton to Jerami Grant and Nikola Jokic.

He guarded everyone and his immense potential was rolled up into one single play right from the jump.

The play: Anunoby put his defensive versatility on display on the game's opening possession.

Breakdown: With Ibaka and Gasol both out, Nick Nurse decided to go small with a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Anunoby - two guards in Lowry and Powell with three forwards in Siakam, Hollis-Jefferson and Anunoby.

The Raptors open the game with Lowry on Grant, Powell on Gary Harris, Siakam on Barton and Hollis-Jefferson on Murray, leaving Anunoby with the task of guarding Jokic, who has been the best centre in the league this season with averages of 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game.

After crossing the half court line, Murray passes the ball to Jokic at the top of the perimeter. Murray then makes a cut towards the basket and parks himself at the elbow, where he sets a back screen on Jokic after he gives the ball up to Barton.

Denver's plan? Get Jokic the ball in the post, where he's scored the second-most points in the league this season at a rate of 1.06 points per possession, ranking him in the 83rd percentile.

To avoid a breakdown on the opening possession of the game, the Raptors decide to switch Anunoby onto Murray and Hollis-Jefferson onto Jokic.

Hollis-Jefferson fronts Jokic to take away a simple entry pass from Barton while Anunoby follows Murray back out to the perimeter and uses his long arms to deny him the ball.

Not being able to get the ball, Murray sets another screen, this time for Barton.

What does Anunoby do? Switch again.

Barton then runs a pick-and-pop with Grant, leading to another Anunoby switch.

At this point, the Nuggets are running out of time. They finally get the ball to Jokic in the post, but the Raptors throw a second defender at him, forcing him to kick the ball out to Murray with less than two second remaining on the shot clock.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, Murray knocks down a 3-pointer despite a solid contest from Powell.

Why it matters: Anunoby's offence has come and gone this season, but he continues to develop into the type of defender every team in the league is looking for.

Anunoby proved that he had the potential to be a special defender in his rookie season by picking up the opposing team's best perimeter player on most nights. He got plenty of experience throughout the season, cultimating in him being the primary defender on LeBron James in Toronto's second-round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James put up monster numbers in that series - 34.0 points, 11.3 assists and 8.3 rebounds on 55.3 percent shooting from the field, need you be reminded - but Anunoby did about as well as anyone could've expected him to do given the circumstances.

Since then, Anunoby has established himself as one of the league's few players who can legitimately guard all five positions on the court. It's something Blake Murphy of The Athletic brought to light when checking in on Anunoby's case for an All-Defense team selection this season, noting how he has been the league's fourth-most versatile defender based on data from Krishna Narsu and Patrick Miller of Nylon Calculus.

That versatility showed against the Nuggets. According to NBA.com's tracking data, Anunoby spent most of his time on the court guarding Jokic. That wouldn't have been the case had Ibaka or Gasol been healthy, but Anunoby was able to limit the two-time All-Star to two points (0-2 FG, 2-2 FT) in the six minutes they were matched up together, an incredible feat considering Anunoby was giving up five inches and 52 pounds.

For perspective, Jokic combined to score 21 points on 8-for-9 for shooting from the field and 5-for-7 from the free throw line in the seven minutes he was guarded by other players on the Raptors.

As I mentioned at the top, Anunoby also guarded Murray, Barton and Grant for a decent chunk of the game, as well as Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. - two point guards, one small forward and two power forwards.

Here's how he fared in each of those matchups:

Anunoby's matchup data vs. Nuggets (01/03/2020)
Offensive Player Matchup Minutes Player Points Assists Turnovers FGM FGA FG%
Nikola Jokic 6:18 2 1 1 0 2 0.0
Jamal Murray 2:51 9 0 1 3 5 75.0
Monte Morris 1:29 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Jerami Grant 1:23 7 1 1 1 1 100
Michael Porter Jr. 1:07 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Gary Harris 0:58 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Will Barton 0:51 0 0 0 0 1 0.0
Mason Plumlee 0:31 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Torrey Craig 0:23 3 0 0 1 2 50.0

Anunoby didn't have the same amount of success against Murray and Grant as he did against Jokic, but that's beside the point. What matters is that Anunoby has the ability to guard multiple positions without it ever being a mismatch that teams can look to exploit.

He proved it time and time again against the Nuggets, the opening possession being the clearest example.

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