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Anunoby fulfilling promise and Raptors are thrilled

There was a reason why heading into what eventually would become a championship-winning season that OG Anunoby and not Pascal Siakam was the forward most in the Toronto Raptors organization were sky-high on.

Anunoby was getting further away from the devastating knee injury suffered while at Indiana that allowed him to fall into Toronto’s lap at the NBA draft, instead of going in the lottery where he belonged. He had looked good at summer league in Las Vegas and while Siakam had also turned some heads with his off-season work, it was Anunoby who had the Toronto braintrust salivating.

Siakam broke out, becoming the league’s most improved player and helped the club win its first title, while Anunoby had to suffer through a year that was awful for him both on and off the court.

But now the swingman is putting it all together. He’s the defender we’ve seen all year — just about as good as it gets whether it’s staying with shifty guards, or manning up against powerhouse forwards — but since the NBA restarted he has also looked far more comfortable trying to initiate his own offence. He’s attacking the basket confidently and had hit all four of his three-point attempts ahead of Wednesday’s game against Orlando.

“I mean, OG’s really a five (centre) so it wasn’t that much of a mismatch,” VanVleet said.

“He was great for us to be able to go from guarding LeBron (James) to Bam tonight and whoever we play next he’s our primary defender and I think the more he relishes that role the more successful we’re gonna be. At that size and speed and strength, he can cause your (offence) a lot of problems, so we need him to be our primary stopper and that means he’ll be guarding a long list of guys,” VanVleet said.

“I thought he did a great job of setting the tone early and it allows us to switch and fly around and keep our bigs out of foul trouble, for the most part, and keep guarding the rim. So, it just gives you that versatility that we talk about all the time and having different options.”

The Raptors have to be loving what they’re seeing from Anunoby right now. He’s taking a leap right before their eyes, providing flashbacks of a teenaged Tracy McGrady finding his way, or, more recently, of Siakam ascending into an all-star.

There are no guarantees Anunoby will reach the level of either of those players, but if he gets anywhere close, the Raptors will be in great shape.

MAGIC REMATCH?

If the regular season concluded on Monday night, the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic would be heading toward a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff series.

Toronto won that one in five games and any chance of Orlando putting even a mild scare into the Raptors should they meet again was dealt a massive blow when Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL on Sunday.

Isaac, at just 22 years of age, is already one of the NBA’s best defenders and a player who challenges Pascal Siakam more than nearly anybody else in the league. He had averaged 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals this season and is expected to earn all-defensive and most improved player votes.

Orlando was already missing veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu, so its forward options are limited beyond Aaron Gordon and veteran James Ennis.

Ex-Raptor Terrence Ross has also spent about a third of his season at small forward and would likely see more time there.

RAPTORS AT MAGIC TIPOFF

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SCOUTING REPORT

Toronto won the first three games against Orlando this season and has looked good since the games restarted. The Magic also won two straight in the bubble, before taking on Indiana on Tuesday. The loss of star-in-waiting Jonathan Isaac to a torn ACL is a massive blow though.

This is usually a solid defensive group, being instructed by steady head coach Steve Clifford, but Clifford has to be surprised to see the Magic give up an average of 117 points in the two recent wins. Still, he can’t quibble with averaging 130 points scored.

Don’t expect Orlando to score anywhere near as many points against Toronto’s elite defence, particularly since all-star Nikola Vucevic has historically struggled against Marc Gasol.

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Nikola Vucevic vs. Marc Gasol

Speaking of which, Vucevic is one of the most talented big men in the NBA, but when he runs into Gasol, the former defensive player of the year, his game often turns into a mess.

Gasol has the bulk to bang with Vucevic, the smarts and the skill and can also give him some trouble at the other end.

Gasol’s defensive work in Orlando so far has been absurdly good if opponent’s offensive rating while he’s on the floor provides an accurate indication.

DID YOU KNOW?

Ex-Raptor D.J. Augustin has had a steady resurgence as Orlando’s starting point guard. He’s also given his old team some trouble in the past … With Isaac out much more will be asked defensively from Aaron Gordon, who was robbed of a slam dunk contest win in Toronto … Ex-Masai Ujiri draft pick Evan Fournier has led or tied the Magic in scoring in a team-high 22 games this season.

Anunoby flashed a fancy spin move against Anthony Davis in one game and has shown more bounce off the dribble than ever before.

“I mean it helps my confidence knowing I can do it against anyone. It’s just about getting the reps and staying with it and just being confident in my moves and being patient,” Anunoby explained in his improved look.

“I know to help the team by getting to the rim, kickout, finish, just being aggressive and putting pressure on the rim and just make the next play, make the right play.”

Anunoby has certainly been doing a lot of that and, if it continues, an already elite team suddenly becomes an immense problem for any opponent trying to already slow down Siakam, six-time all-star Kyle Lowry, former all-NBAer Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet, amongst others.

But it’s at the other end where Anunoby stands out most.

“There’s a lot of stuff there,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s got a great athletic body, a pretty good mindset to play it, plays hard, takes challenges. There’s a lot to like at this stage at that end of the floor, for sure.”

And Anunoby only turned 23 last month, meaning he should only be scratching the surface of his potential at this point.

“He’s young. He’s got a lot of years to play to get to that point,” Nurse said.

“I wouldn’t doubt him against anybody except for me,” VanVleet joked of who Anunoby could defend.

When he was taking a more serious tone, VanVleet marvelled at the forward’s ability to guard any position on the floor, including centres like Miami star Bam Adebayo, who Anunoby did a nice job against on Monday.

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