The Toronto Raptors have a handful of above average and then some defenders on the roster.
But we all know it starts with one man.
Yes Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Dennis Schroder and Precious Achiuwa would all pass, some easily, the better than average NBA defender sniff test.
But any conversation about the strength of the Raptors’ defence starts with OG Anunoby.
This was never more apparent than the three games that preceded Sunday’s blowout with a Detroit team whose roster has been whittled down by injury.
Anunoby returned after a three-game absence and the defence suddenly looked very settled.
Again, we concede the Pistons in their current state are not anyone’s idea of the ultimate test for how that night’s opponents are performing on the defensive end.
Having Anunoby back in the mix though meant Cade Cunningham, really the lone offensive threat of any repute still healthy in Detroit, had to deal with Anunoby doggedly tracking him and denying him and often times downright smothering him all night.
Cunningham still managed 18 points, but on 17 shot attempts.
Anunoby wasn’t the lone Raptors defender on the Pistons leading scorer all night but he was in his face for the vast majority of his night.
The point here isn’t that Toronto’s defence relies solely on the only team member who also happens to own his own basketball team.
Toronto’s defence does not become sieve-like without Anunoby.. The team proved that in the previous game Friday against an elite Boston offence.
The Celtics still won the game, but Toronto was in it all the way through coming up on the short end of a 108-105 loss with Anunoby in street clothes watching from the bench.
But with Anunoby in the starting five, Darko Rajakovic can immediately circle a problem on the other team and consider it at the very least contained.
We’ve seen that time and time again whether it’s a high-scoring big man in the post or a driving, whirling dervish coming from all directions.
Anunoby has the game and the skillset to deny elite scorers regardless of position.
So, with him in the fold, Cunningham may hit the scoresheet but he’s not going to win you the game by himself.
Luka Doncic might still score 31 against you but he’s going to expend a ton of energy, not to mention 26 shots to get you that number.
In the same manner Anthony Edwards might get his Minnesota Timberwolves 26 points but he’ll take 27 shots and give as much back and more on the other end as he catches his breath or laments his last drive stymied by – you guessed it – Anunoby.
Scottie Barnes is in his third year with the Raptors and has had the on-court view of any number of Anunoby lockdown nights. It’s not a surprise he gushes about him when he’s asked about his teammate and good friend.
“OG helps us so much, being able to have a physical, strong presence that moves his feet really well, defends really well,” Barnes said. “He guards everybody. He’s one of the best, if not the best defender in the league. He helps us a lot with how smart he is on the defensive end, how well he’s able to move his feet, him being able to contest shots, just being so physical, guarding those primary guys. So, he helps us a lot.”
Asked what the team missed with Anunoby out the past few games, Barnes got a little more specific.
“Teams, they’ve been really getting to the paint, being able to kick out,” Barnes said. “So, him being there, helped us. Him being on Cade, slowing him down and not let him be able to get to the spots where you want to go, having that size and length out there, it just helps us a lot.”
Keeping the best basketball players in the world from getting to where they want to get after a lifetime of them learning how to get there regardless of the obstacles put in front of them is a rare skill set.
It takes plenty of that strength and physicality that Barnes talked about but it also takes a desire to want to be good at a skill that is often overlooked in favour of the high flying offensive exploits that dominate the high-light reels.
Beyond that it also requires a huge willingness to sacrifice one’s comfort and sometimes health. It’s not all handing out punishment on the defensive end. As often as you knock a guy off his spot and force him into a bad shot, he’ll catch you with an elbow or forearm as you make that contact. The pain goes both ways.
Anunoby thrives in that environment.
All of which is a long way of suggesting, the man has yet to get his flowers. Finally, he reached second team All-Defensive NBA status last season. But even that at this point in his career and given who he guards night in and night out is sufficient anymore.
His coaches know what he does, the local media gives him his credit, and the players within the league know what a fierce opponent he is but the accolades have been slow to come and Anunoby isn’t afraid to point that out. When the subject comes up he’s more than willing to share that he believes that league voters on the defensive awards have been slow to give him his just due defensively but he’s starting to see more of it.
Chances are very good that it’s just the beginning.