The Toronto Raptors have a handful of above-average and then some defenders on the roster.
But we all know it starts with a man.
Yes, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Dennis Schroder and Precious Achiuwa would all pass the above-average sniff test for NBA defensemen, some with ease.
But any conversation about the strength of the Raptors defense starts with OG Anunoby.
This was never more evident than in the three games before Sunday’s defeat against a Detroit team whose roster had dwindled due to injuries.
Anunoby returned after a three-game absence and the defense suddenly looked very solid.
Again, we have to admit that the Pistons in their current state are not everyone’s idea of the ultimate test of how their opponents perform defensively this evening.
However, having Anunoby back in the game meant that Cade Cunningham, essentially the only offensive threat left in Detroit with a reputation, had to deal with Anunoby’s persistent pursuit and denial, often suffocating him throughout the night.
Cunningham still managed 18 points, albeit on 17 shot attempts.
Anunoby wasn’t the only Raptors defenseman who was the Pistons’ leading scorer all night, but he was disruptive for most of his night.
The point here isn’t that Toronto’s defense relies entirely on the only team member who also happens to own his own basketball team.
Toronto’s defense won’t become a sieve without Anunoby. The team proved that in its previous game on Friday against an elite Boston offense.
The Celtics still won the game, but Toronto was there the entire time and suffered a 108-105 loss while Anunoby watched from the bench in street clothes.
But with Anunoby in the starting lineup, Darko Rajakovic can immediately contain a problem in the opposing team and at least consider it contained.
We’ve seen this time and time again, whether it’s a high-profile big man in the post or a drifting, whirling dervish coming from all directions.
Anunoby has the game and skills to shut down elite scorers regardless of their position.
With him, Cunningham could get on the scoresheet, but he won’t win the game alone.
Luka Doncic might still score 31 points against you, but he’s going to expend a lot of energy, not to mention 26 shots, to get you that number.
In the same way, Anthony Edwards could give his Minnesota Timberwolves 26 points, but he’ll take 27 shots and give back just as much on the other end and even more when he catches his breath or complains about his last drive, which was by – you got it guessed it – Anunoby was disabled.
Scottie Barnes is in his third year with the Raptors and has already experienced countless lockdown nights in Anunoby. It’s no surprise that when you ask him about his teammate and good friend, he raves about him.
“OG helps us a lot being a physical, strong presence, moving his feet really well and defending really well,” Barnes said. “He guards everyone. He is one of the best, if not the best, defenders in the league. He helps us a lot with how smart he is defensively, how well he can move his feet, how well he can block shots, just being so physical and protecting the key players. So he helps us a lot.”
When asked what the team missed in the last few games because Anunoby was out, Barnes got a little more specific.
““The teams really put in the work and were able to kick it out,” Barnes said. “So his presence helped us. For him to sit on Cade and slow him down and stop him from getting to the places you want to go with that size and length out there, that just helps us a lot.”
It’s a rare skill that keeps the best basketball players in the world from getting where they want to go after a lifetime of learning how to get there, regardless of the obstacles in front of them.
It requires a lot of the strength and physicality that Barnes talked about, but also a desire to be good at a skill that is often overlooked in favor of the high-flying offensive heroics that dominate the highlight reels.
In addition, it also requires a great willingness to forego comfort and sometimes health. It’s not just about punishing the defense. As many times as you knock a guy out of his spot and force him to take a bad shot, he’s going to catch you with his elbow or forearm during that contact. The pain goes both ways.
Anunoby thrives in this environment.
All of this suggests that the man hasn’t gotten his flowers yet. He ultimately earned second-team All-Defensive NBA status last season. But even that’s enough at this point in his career and given who he’s guarding night in and night out.
His coaches know what he’s doing, the local media recognizes him and the players around the league know what a fierce opponent he is, but the accolades are slow to come and Anunoby isn’t afraid to point them out. When the subject comes up, he’s happy to share that he feels the league’s voters have been too slow on defensive pricing to give him what he deserves defensively, but he’s starting to to see more of it.
Chances are very good that it is just the beginning.