TORONTO — The moment seemed innocuous enough.
OG Anunoby sprinted into the paint to grab a rebound against Penn State back in January, and when he planted his right foot, his long right leg buckled under him like a bent rubber boot.
The torn ACL ended Anunoby’s college career with the Indiana Hoosiers, and sent his draft stock plummeting. But the morning after the Toronto Raptors nabbed Anunoby 23rd overall, the 19-year-old preferred to look at the tumultuous last few months as if “everything happens for a reason.”
The six-foot-eight combo forward made his first appearance in Toronto on Friday before departing for Los Angeles to continuing to rehabilitate his knee with Raptors sports science guru Alex McKechnie.
His length, athleticism, and defensive versatility made Anunoby one of the most intriguing prospects in the draft, and the 19-year-old believes, had it not been for the knee injury, he would have gone “maybe top five.”
“Obviously if he doesn’t have that injury, I don’t think we have a shot,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said moments after the draft.
Anunoby spoke to reporters for a brief five minutes on Friday. Thrifty with his words, he answered several questions with a simple “yes” and “no.”
His brother Chigbo, who’s older by nine years and came along with Anunoby to check out his new basketball home, did some of the speaking for him.
“I know his demeanour is kind of the same throughout, but trust me, he is happy,” Chigbo said. ”He was relieved when Toronto called his name. That was where he wanted to be.
“This injury might even be a blessing… . He fell to a great team, a great organization. A team that might not have been able to take him if he was healthy. Everything might have played out ultimately.”
Anunoby was born in London to Nigerian parents. The brothers played several sports growing up, including soccer. They’re both huge Arsenal fans.
“He was a great wide receiver. He played baseball too,” said Chigbo, a defensive tackle who’s been signed by several NFL teams, including Cleveland and Minnesota, but hasn’t yet played a regular-season game. “He did everything but he chose basketball. I believe whatever sport he would have chosen he would have made it. That’s the kind of athlete he is. He picked what he wanted and he took off.”
Anunoby arrived at Indiana unheralded, ranked outside the top 250 by NCAA recruiting services. The snub was a constant motivation.
“I always carried a chip on my shoulder to prove I was better than people thought,” said Anunoby. “Make them regret it.”
Anunoby, who models his game after Kawhi Leonard, has the speed and agility to keep pace with guards plus the size and strength to bang with bigs, an enviable diversity that had Raptors coach Dwane Casey comparing him to P.J. Tucker. Anunoby emerged as a star of the 2016 NCAA tournament, particularly when he held Kentucky’s star guard, Canadian Jamal Murray, to 16 points in the Hoosiers’ 73-67 upset over the Wildcats.
“I felt like I could it in high school, I could do it in college, I think I could still do it now,” Anunoby said. “I think I’m athletic enough, strong enough, and smart enough to defend every position.”
The knee injury was a devastating blow, but his work ethic is paying off. His doctors have said he’s a couple of months ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation.
“He’s one of those kids who lives in the gym,” his brother said. “Whenever he goes back home to (Jefferson City, Miss.), he’s in the gym three times a day. He wakes up early in the morning at 5 a.m., and goes to the gym. He would have janitors open the gym for him. He would be in there by himself before the coaches arrived. Go to the Y shoot by himself. Have me or whoever rebound for him. Go again late at night and wake up next morning and do it all again.”
Anunoby has graduated to running on the anti-gravity treadmill. He said he’s also able to do some ball handling, passing, box and single leg jumps and some squat work.
“We don’t want to rush it and bring him back too soon,” Casey said. “But we’re confident, and Alex is confident, that we can get him going pretty soon.”