NEW ORLEANS - The Toronto Raptors are set to begin the first of two five-game road trips this season on Friday as they take on the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
The Pelicans have dealt with adversity in the form of injuries and, as a result, have struggled to a 1-6 start out the gate. Still, New Orleans presents unique challenges for Toronto with two prolific wing scorers in Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram, challenges that third-year forward OG Anunoby will take on head first.
Thus is the theme for the entirety of the five-game trip, which gets no easier moving forward, especially for Anunoby, who will be tasked with guarding even more prolific players in Los Angeles, Portland and Dallas.
At the team's morning shootaround, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was asked about the challenges facing Anunoby and asserted to reporters that it won't be easy, saying, "That's usually the way it goes in this league, right? You know, you not only got Jrue (Holiday), you've got Brandon Ingram, who can put up 40 - there's another guy you might have to guard."
From facing Holiday and Ingram in New Orleans, Toronto will travel to Los Angeles for a back-to-back at the Staples center that begins with LeBron James and the Lakers.
OG is no stranger to guarding LeBron, as he was faced with the tall task of matching up with the King as a rookie in the second round of the 2018 playoffs. While James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately came out on top, Anunoby has shown great growth as a defender since then, partly thanks to the lessons imparted upon him last season by Kawhi Leonard, who will be his next defensive challenge on the trip.
For a year, Anunoby served as something of an understudy to the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and told reporters Friday morning about some of the things he learned about Leonard that set him apart as a defender.
"[His] hand quickness, hand strength, his vision and just knowing who he's guarding… [He has the] timing, anticipation and then foot speed to stay in front."
A remarkable characteristic of Leonard as a defender is his seemingly innate ability to feel out plays without losing his balance, a trait that OG shared essentially can't be taught.
"[The key to not losing your balance is] just being good at it. You can do it and you can lunge and be out of position, so just knowing how to do it and being good at it."
This season, Anunoby has been good at a number of things on the defensive end, using his instincts to lead the team in total blocks (12) and steals (10) through the first seven games, while being assigned a range of players on the defensive end.
In today's game, a versatile perimeter defender is a key component to having a successful team, and this trip serves as a reminder of exactly why.
|Jrue Holiday||New Orleans Pelicans||14.2 PTS, 6.0 AST, 4.6 REB|
|Brandon Ingram||New Orleans Pelicans||25.9 PTS, 7.1 REB, 4.3 AST|
|LeBron James||Los Angeles Lakers||26.1 PTS, 11.1 AST, 8.3 REB|
|Kawhi Leonard||LA Clippers||29.0 PTS, 8.1 REB, 5.4 AST|
|Damian Lillard||Portland Trail Blazers||30.0 PTS, 7.1 AST, 5.1 REB|
|CJ McCollum||Portland Trail Blazers||20.9 PTS, 3.6 REB, 3.5 AST|
|Luka Doncic||Dallas Mavericks||26.7 PTS, 9.9 REB, 9.1 AST|
The above list contains players that play a wide-range of positions, but Nick Nurse asserted that Anunoby could very well spend time guarding each of them. The nature of today's NBA is that a lot of teams switch defensively, which requires someone like Anunoby to guard a variety of players, from point guards and shooting guards to small forward and power forwards.
Against a team like the Portland Trail Blazers specifically, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are two guards who score in very different ways, providing a unique test for Anunoby.
Nurse continued, saying that "two totally different coverages and two totally different guys to be able to guard… he's gonna see a lot of things and everybody does a little bit more now with all the switching. Everybody's doing a lot more things defensively, so it'll be good to watch him keep growing."
Anunoby's growth has been a major key to the Raptors' 5-2 start and will again be a key to success during this five-game swing. It's early in the year, but trips like these can have a lasting positive effect. Last season, Toronto went 4-0 on an early-season West Coast trip and finished the year with a 22-8 record against Western Conference opponents - both keys to the team's hot start and positioning in the playoff race to make a Finals run.
A successful trip early on can build major momentum for this Raptors team moving forward, and the defence of OG Anunoby is a major key for them to do that.
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