Raptors await full return of 'unbelievable kid' OG Anunoby

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Widely acknowledged as one of the deepest talent pools in years, the 2017 NBA draft saw a host of standout collegiate and international players selected in the first round, but all signs point to Ogugua "OG" Anunoby being the steal of the year.

Selected by the Toronto Raptors with the 23rd pick, the 6'8" forward from Indiana University was a lock to be a top five pick, but an ACL injury in January ended his sophomore season and precipitated his slide down draft boards.

While he has played a few pre-season minutes this month, slowly finding his post-injury feet, he's estimated to fully return in November, with Raptors' fans getting antsy in anticipation.

"He's a big time talent," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey told the media on draft night. "If it wasn't for his injury he would have went higher. He's a guy our scouts targeted and there were teams behind us who were salivating to get him because he is one of the top defenders available in the draft."

The second son of Nigerian immigrants, Anunoby was born and lived in London until the age of four when his family moved to Jefferson City, Missouri. Young OG rapidly became proficient in the major North American sports. From baseball to basketball, the kid with roots in Anambra State played it all and excelled at everything. But he settled on hoops, with his older brother Chigbo going on to play American football professionally.

As a junior at Jefferson City High School, Anunoby initially found it difficult to get on the radar of major college coaches. An appearance at an AAU tournament in Georgia did the trick as Anunoby announced his presence with his play prior to his junior year. (A year in which he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game).

Blair Thompson, Anunoby's coach at Jefferson City, told Indiana fansite Insidethehall.com: "Maybe he wasn't on the radar as a top 100, but I think for him it was just a matter of getting him in front of the right people. I feel like he is worthy of being a top national recruit."

Former IU coach Tom Crean was intrigued by what he saw of Anunoby at the AAU tournament and even more interested after watching video of Anunoby's high school performances. Crean was current Indiana Pacer Victor Oladipo's coach at IU, and also coached future NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade at Marquette University in the early 2000s.

Knowing Crean's history of developing slightly unheralded players with massive potential gave Anunoby comfort in his decision to go to Indiana, but his early experience at IU led to initial pause as the freshman struggled to get minutes from his coach.

As the season went on, Anunoby took matters into his own hands as his hard work, team first mentality, and perseverance saw him receive increased minutes during the Big Ten portion of IU's schedule, which he used to display his defensive ability and draw excitement from teammates and fans with his high-flying dunks.

"I thought I should be playing more. I'd always been slighted," OG told KweséESPN about the setbacks he'd faced since high school which led him to devote extra time at the gym.

"I wasn't ranked very high in high school and coming to IU, I didn't play that much at first. So it's always kind of been like that."

Anunoby's father, Dr. Ogugua Anunoby, a professor at Lincoln University, theorised about the qualities which played a role in his son's rise from under-recruited high schooler to current NBA rookie.

"Something that I think is exceptional about him is his attitude. The way he can focus on his goals, the hard work he puts in, and his determination to succeed." Dr. Anunoby told KweséESPN.

"In high school he was like that, in college he was like that, in middle school he was like that. He knows that talent is not enough. It doesn't matter how gifted you are at the top level. If you want to be a star in your life, to be gifted might not be enough. You have to put in extra work. I believe he knows that and that gives him a chance of doing well."

Heading into his sophomore season, the buzz about OG rose from quiet whispers up to legitimate talk as the Hoosier was named a preseason All-American. Averaging 11.1 points and 5.4 rebounds during the 2016-17 season, Anunoby was doing his part to help the Hoosiers be competitive in the Big Ten... then the injury happened.

A conference game against Penn State in the middle of January saw Anunoby tear his ACL on the final play of the first half.

"How bad was the injury? And is the injury one he can come from? Those were my first and second thoughts," Dr. Anunoby recalled about the moment his son went down injured.

"What I said to him was, 'You don't worry. We'll make sure you have the best care. If you need surgery we'll make sure it's done by possibly the best doctor in the country,' which we did."

Heading into the draft, Anunoby was still considered a late lottery pick despite the knee injury, as comparisons were made to San Antonio Spurs and 2014 finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, and not just due to the similarity in disposition. Anunoby's 7'2" wingspan and ability to blanket opposing players at multiple positions gave NBA GMs visions of a new Kawhi.

NBA draft night saw 22 players fly off the board before the Toronto Raptors stepped up at number 23. Did Anunoby have any idea the Raptors were interested in taking him if he was still on the board?

"I knew they liked me but I didn't know exactly for sure. I knew I was high on their draft board," he recalled about draft night. 'High on their draft board' because of his ability to guard all five positions when needed, and the positional size and athleticism that makes his versatility a weapon for Raptors coaches.

"This gives him a chance to develop, it really does," Crean said about Anunoby on The Vertical's Draft Show. "He is going to get on the court to defend darn near anybody. Is he going to be ready to do that this year? I don't know. I wouldn't bet against him."

As his rehab went on, post-draft, those around Anunoby were more focused on his rehab going properly as opposed to the sole mission of getting out on the court for the Raptors as soon as possible. When NBA training camps opened up in late September, word got around that Anunoby was further along in his rehab than most expected.

Omar Wilkes of Octagon Sports agency and one of Anunoby's agents (along with Chris Emens) told KweséESPN: "Our first priority was to make sure that OG's rehab was not rushed and that it was done properly. We were never worried about him beating the estimated recovery time, we only focused on him making a full and healthy recovery.

"OG's work ethic is incredible and I'm not sure the word 'quit' is in his vocabulary. It comes as no surprise that he is up and running already."

Anunoby's first appearance for the Raptors was at an intrasquad scrimmage in which he played about 16 minutes. After sitting and watching most of pre-season, the Raptors let the rookie get on the court during their pre-season victory over the Detroit Pistons in early October.

Anunoby told Sportsnet afterwards what he needed to adjust to after his return to the court: "Elevation in jumping. Elevation on my jump shot. Just, shooting. And then some things defensively. Reaction stuff."

Raptors president and former Nigerian basketball player Masai Ujiri, also during a radio interview with Sportsnet, later added about Anunoby's debut: "It's going to come slow. He's still trying to get his feet under him. We're going to bring him on slowly.

"He played in the scrimmage a couple weeks ago in Victoria and now he's played in a game and we'll continue to see how he reacts.

"Honestly, he's been practising unbelievable, he's been playing... those kind of injuries, you knock wood, you want him to get through it, and he's done an excellent job this summer.

"Unbelievable work ethic, just an unbelievable kid who loves the game and is very competitive. Hopefully, I think when you look at it with the naked eye, you hope that you've found a talented young player that can grow in our program."

How much can Anunoby contribute this season as he not only tries to return to form after his injury but also adjusts and is eased into the rotation for an Eastern Conference playoff team?

That remains to be seen, but for the quiet young man whose name quite literally means comfort, one expects he will soon be providing discomfort to opposing players unfortunate enough to be guarded by him.

With the Raptors preparing for tipoff against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, Anunoby might play several minutes or no minutes at all. Regardless of how much time he gets when he does take to the court, the Raptors know the potential and the long term possibilities of a player like Anunoby.

As he gets back into form and into the rotation, those who know Anunoby best have no doubt he will continue putting in the work, quietly and without seeking attention, to confirm what most already know, that he is the steal of one of the deepest draft classes in years.