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OG Anunoby, Hype Killer

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?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jamal Murray didn’t see OG Anunoby coming. Kentucky’s star freshman came into the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament on a tear, averaging 23.6 points on 50.4 percent shooting in his last 15 games, including 33- and 35-point demolitions of Vanderbilt and Florida, respectively. There’s no easy way to cover an elite shooter with a lightning-quick release and the ability to get around defenders off the dribble. When Kentucky put Murray in ball screens and forced a bigger and slower defender on him, the defense had two equally unappealing options: either play off him and concede the jumper, or press up on him and allow a driving lane to the basket.

Indiana managed to upset Kentucky, 73–67, in large part because Anunoby, an unheralded Hoosiers freshman, gave them a third way. Indiana threw waves of defenders at Murray, holding him to 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting, and none made a bigger impression than Anunoby, who was able to block the sharpshooter from behind the arc not once, but twice. “I always come into the game confident,” Anunoby said about matching up with elite players. “I don’t care about recruiting rankings or any of that stuff.”

OG was long enough to contest Murray’s shot, and quick enough to stay in front of him. That was the difference between Anunoby and all the other big defenders during the season tasked with slowing down Kentucky’s lead guard: when Anunoby got down in a stance and chased Murray on the perimeter, he covered ground just as quickly as his much smaller counterpart. Anunoby’s older brother Chigbo is an NFL defensive tackle, and OG (whose first name is actually Ogugua) brings an element of football to the basketball court. Murray was being covered by a defensive end–defensive back hybrid, a mobile tank who could eat up space in a matter of seconds while being able to blast his way through screens. It was like someone had slipped a create-a-player from a video game onto the Indiana roster and no one noticed. Anunoby was a superhero without an origin story.

It would have been easy to watch an Indiana game at the start of last season and miss Anunoby completely. He was a freshman ranked outside the top 250 by recruiting services. Indiana coaches had never heard of him before the summer before his senior season in high school, long past the point when coaching staffs start targeting players for their upcoming recruiting class.

“We were watching someone else in AAU ball, and Coach Crean kept asking me about who this guy was. He was playing hard. Getting a lot of rebounds, and deflections. I went and looked at the program and they didn’t have his name on it,” said University of Illinois–Chicago head coach Steve McClain, who led Anunoby’s recruitment when he was an assistant for Tom Crean at Indiana.

In the world of the NBA draft, where the best prospects start getting scouted extensively by the ninth grade, Anunoby might as well have not existed. In terms of his physique, a player like him shouldn’t exist. “You don’t think [OG’s] arms are that long when you look at him,” said McClain. “The measurements aren’t really believable, but then you look at some of the plays that he makes.” Indiana lists him at 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds with a purported 7-foot-6 wingspan, numbers which essentially break the DraftExpress physical measurements database. There are 10 players listed on DraftExpress with arms as long as Anunoby. They are all at least 7 feet tall, and they all play center. None of them play out on the perimeter.

There’s only one other prospect in recent years who has come close to Anunoby’s dimensions and skill set. Bruno Caboclo, who was taken 20th overall by the Raptors in 2014, is also rumored to have a 7-foot-6 wingspan, but he isn’t listed at DraftExpress because no one expected him to be drafted, and he has played 66 minutes in his first two seasons in the NBA.

The Raptors still don’t know what they have in him. At this point in his career, Caboclo remains more a hypothetical construct of what a basketball player could be than an actual player, leaving devotees of extreme length searching for a new avatar capable of harnessing those astounding physical tools. Anunoby could be the one.

What did you try to add to your game this summer?

Worked on everything. I want no weaknesses in my game.

What are your goals for the upcoming season?

Win a Big Ten championship. Win a national championship.

Are there any positions you prefer to guard? Do faster players or bigger players give you more trouble?

I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.

How much do you pay attention to the NBA draft and all the people talking about your game coming into the season?

I don’t pay attention to any of that. I know it’s not important.

Conversations with Anunoby don’t last very long, and it’s not hard to guess who his favorite NBA player is. OG models his game after Kawhi Leonard, on and off the court. Like Leonard, Anunoby doesn’t get too up or too down when he’s playing, keeping his expression blank and treating a show-stopping dunk as if it was as routine as a layup off the glass. He’s a cult figure without a cult of personality. His athleticism does all the talking for him. While most great players are endlessly compared to up-and-coming college prospects, almost no one in recent years has been given the Leonard comparison. Few players have his combination of size, speed, and strength, and even fewer have the chance to match his meteoric rise from obscurity to superstardom.

The plan, originally, was for Indiana to bring Anunoby along slowly. That changed after James Blackmon, the team’s second-leading scorer, tore his ACL in December, opening up opportunities for Anunoby and fellow freshman Juwan Morgan. His playing time almost doubled in Big Ten play, and the Hoosiers suddenly started playing defense, taking Crean off the hot seat as they turned their season around.

“OG has grown up a lot because he learned last December how to really sustain intensity,” said Crean. “He pays attention in film. He gets better in practice. If he continues, because of that size, length, and ability to move his feet, he’s going to be an outstanding player in his own right.”

Anunoby averaged 5.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.7 blocks a game in the Big Ten, but the numbers didn’t do justice to the way he played, or why there’s so much excitement surrounding him coming into this season. The highlights do. The drive and dunk through the middle of the Michigan State defense. The 360 against UT-Chattanooga. The time he caught an air ball and dunked it in one motion against Kentucky. He was a threat to do something spectacular every time he stepped on the court, and he quickly became a fan favorite at Indiana.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Anunoby coming into the season, especially on offense. He wasn’t asked to do much as a freshman; his 17.5 usage rate was only sixth-highest on the team. Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams were the two primary options on the perimeter, while fellow freshman Thomas Bryant, a projected 2017 first-round pick, demanded double-teams in the post. Indiana played fast, put a lot of shooters on the floor, and moved the ball. Anunoby got a lot of open shots within the flow of the offense.

Indiana needed Anunoby to be an energy guy who played defense, and made the occasional open shot, so that’s exactly what he did. He was an extremely efficient player, albeit in a very limited number of attempts, shooting 56.9 percent from the field on 3.4 attempts per game and 44.8 percent from 3 on just under one attempt per game. There’s only so much you can take away from a grand total of 116 shots over the course of a season beyond the fact that he didn’t disqualify himself as a potentially good shooter. If he can maintain percentages anywhere near those in a bigger role, he would be a very interesting prospect.

Maybe the most intriguing part about watching the film from his freshman season is how much he played within himself. He had a good feel for when to attack and when to move the ball, and he almost never tried to do too much. He rarely created his own shot, having spent most of the season attacking closeouts, but he showed an excellent first step and the body control to slice through traffic, anticipating where the defense would be.

“I think one of OG’s great characteristics is that he never gets sped up,” said Indiana associate head coach Tim Buckley. “He plays at his tempo and his pace and I think that’s very important to be able to play at a high level. It’s why he had a taste of success last year and will have even more success this year.”

He has looked good in the exhibition season, with 41 points on 16-of-20 shooting (going 7-for-11 from behind the college arc) in 53 combined minutes in games against Hope College and Bellarmine. “A guy like OG can do a lot of things out there,” Bryant told the Indianapolis Star after the game against Bellarmine. “He can take you down low, stretch you out to the 3-point line, shooting it really well. He just takes advantage of what the defense gives him, or what the offense gives him.” While the numbers against vastly inferior opponents are essentially meaningless, they do reflect the bigger role Anunoby will have in the offense. With Ferrell and Williams gone, Indiana is going to ask much more of him.

He’s spent all summer in the gym preparing for this, working with the Hoosiers coaching staff on every aspect of his offensive game, from ballhandling to shooting to decision-making. Versatility is one of the mantras of the program. Indiana put its big men in perimeter drills, and it put its guards in interior drills.

“They do the best job in the country at skill development every day,” said ESPN announcer Fran Fraschilla. “There’s a relentless amount of time spent every day 12 months a year, when legal. I watch 50 practices a season and few teams put that much time into skill development. Crean is a fanatic about the details.”

Within the program, the most hopeful comparison is Victor Oladipo, another unheralded recruit who made his mark his freshman season as a defensive-minded role player before turning into a full-blown star by his junior year. Oladipo turned himself from a player who relied on his athleticism to one who won on skill, but the extent of his development is unusual, even at Indiana. The career path of Williams, an über-athletic swingman who never quite put it all together in his time in college, is just as realistic an outcome for Anunoby. There are some striking similarities in the advanced statistics of all three players from their freshman season:

Anunoby spent most of his freshman season at power forward, but a player with the speed of NBA guards and a wingspan longer than most NBA centers can be utilized in an almost endless amount of ways. Crean has had him guarding all five positions during exhibition season, and he has the physical tools to do that in the NBA as well. With the league moving toward positionless lineups that switch screens at every opportunity, a player with Anunoby’s physical tools is the gold standard. He could be the biggest player on the floor in a small lineup, or one of the smallest players on the floor in a big one.

“When you can shoot, when you can pass, when you can move without the ball, you can play a lot of spots,” Crean said during the exhibition season. “But you’re really not gonna be on the floor for a large amount of time if you can’t guard at a high level. And OG can guard at a high level.”

Everyone within the Indiana program raves about Anunoby’s work ethic and maturity, and those intangibles might just be the biggest thing in his favor as he continues to develop. He doesn’t seem like a guy who is going to let the hype get to him, or get distracted by all the noise that surrounds an NBA prospect in college.

At the moment, NBA teams don’t really know what to make of him. DraftExpress currently has him at no. 16 in its mock draft, but that could either be way too low or way too high, depending on how he handles the increased offensive responsibility this season. He’s a blank slate, and his limited game action means decision-makers can project whatever they want onto him, either positive or negative.

Indiana starts its season on Friday with a game against Kansas in Maui, which will pit Anunoby against Josh Jackson, one of the early front-runners to be the no. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Jackson is widely considered the best athlete in a stacked freshman class, and Anunoby is every bit his equal athletically. There may not be another matchup of two guys with their size and speed going at each other all season. Anunoby will be the underdog, but he’s not going to be intimidated by Jackson, or his pedigree. Once the two step on the court, none of their recruiting or draft rankings will mean a thing. He will be facing off against the latest one-and-done superstar, except this time, his name will be in the marquee, too. We know who OG Anunoby is this time around. We’re about to find out what he can become.