The comparison of an NBA Draft prospect to a current or former NBA player isn’t exactly a novel concept. In the vast and nuanced world of basketball scouting, there is comfort in simply assigning a player an NBA comparison and filing him away in a mental Rolodex. Evidence of this comfort has come in the form of myriad comparisons leading up to draft day that tout Player A as the next Player B, Player C as the next Player D, and so on. On one hand, player comparisons are cliché and oftentimes a lazy form of evaluation due to the immeasurable differences between subjects. On the other hand, and in the case of Ogugua Anunoby (“OG”) and Kawhi Leonard circa 2011 (“College Kawhi”), the combination of similarities between the two players and the scarcity of some of those traits in today’s NBA create a level of personal intrigue high enough to scale any barrier of unoriginality. And while ultimately the comparison itself is a cliché, I can assure you it will not be lazy.
Let’s start with the tale of the tape.
Aside from the nearly identical numbers across the board, a couple of things stand out. The first being each player’s age. Not only is/was each player essentially the same age on their respective draft nights, both are extremely young for their class having played their entire freshman seasons at the age of 18. To provide perspective, Josh Jackson, a former freshman at Kansas (and a projected top-5 pick in this year’s draft) turned 20 in February of his freshman season. While someone being a year older or younger than another player shouldn’t alone tip any reputable scale, it certainly is appealing that both OG and College Kawhi played two years of high level college basketball¹ by the time most prospects their age had only played one.
The most profound attribute from the table is each player’s wingspan in relation to their height. In a modern NBA that thirsts for versatility, players who have the requisite strength/length/mobility to guard up and down the positional food chain are extremely valuable (just look at Kevin Durant and Lebron James playing meaningful minutes at center in this year’s NBA Finals). Kawhi and his preposterous +8-inch wingspan-to-height ratio (W2H Ratio) fit this mold, and his back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards certify his value. Meanwhile, at the height of the OG mystique that started when he burst onto the scene by shutting down Kentucky’s Jamal Murray in the NCAA Tournament last season², OG was reported to have a 7’6” wingspan while standing only 6’8”. This +10-inch W2H Ratio would have been the largest ratio in the DraftExpress database, and would have made scrapping the name W2H Ratio in favor of OG Ratio perfectly acceptable. The only problem was that OG’s wingspan measured 7’ 2.25” at the NBA Draft Combine last month. This exposed him for who he really is – still an elite (albeit slightly less) physical specimen among other NBA-caliber physical specimens.
Measurables are fun to analyze, and drinking after Jay Bilas says the words “wingspan” and “upside” on draft day is always fun. The reality, however, is that length and athleticism on the defensive end are merely elective-type attributes that can only be
optimally deployed after the prerequisites of intelligence, focus, and effort are at least passed. Both OG and College Kawhi are far from mastering these prerequisites, but they undoubtedly have passed. This makes them very similar. It also makes them two of the most feared defensive-minded wing prospects to enter the draft this century.
I realize comparing OG to a future two-time Defensive Player of the Year is lofty, but it is also why I felt the need to dive into every possible defensive facet in order to reach a conclusion. Using a system I developed a few years ago to help quantify defensive performance on both a comprehensive and categorical level, I watched every possession of each player’s sophomore campaign and attempted to quantify their defensive impact. The results indicate that OG actually fared better than College Kawhi overall.
For those not interested in reading the summary of the system, here is a synopsis. An integer is assigned to each instance that a player is accountable for on defense over the course of a possession, game, season, etc. The value assigned for each instance is based on whether the instance had a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the possession, and the degree to which to which it impacted the possession. The total of the values for all instances is called the Defensive Performance Value (DPV). With an equilibrium of zero, the higher a player’s DPV is, the better their performance is deemed to be³.
Although OG fared better than College Kawhi overall, they remain very similar as defensive prospects. Both were rangy, versatile ball hawks capable of single-handily rendering opponents’ offensive possessions dead by asphyxiation. Surprisingly, they accomplished this in different ways athletically. College Kawhi was a wiry, fast-twitched athlete that, at first, appeared to have better feet than OG. Anunoby, however, has a more deliberate, but powerful gait that proved equally as effective. Under the scope of the defensive system, each player’s style yielded high steal rates, cut-off percentages, and recovery rates in off-ball screening situations.
With 50% as an unrefined equilibrium, OG and College Kawhi cutting off 63% and 58% of opponent penetration attempts, respectively, is impressive. Also impressive was their ability to completely negate the offensive advantage from an off-ball screen roughly a third and fourth of the time, respectively (while also limiting their lapses to only 11% and 16%, respectively). Combine these results with their high steal rates and you’re left with major reasons why each player was effective defending at the collegiate level. Want to see what dominance looks like?
Another major reason behind each players’ high level impact is their versatility. Both players were very comfortable guarding point guards in addition to power forwards. OG even spent portions of games guarding (and holding his own against) opposing centers. Here, with the game on the line, OG is tasked with guarding the Naismith College Player of the Year who happens to be 5’11” and lightning quick.
Where Anunoby separated himself defensively from College Kawhi on a quantitative level was with his ability to contest shots, particularly in isolation and help situations. Out of the 62 help and isolation instances OG defended during which there was a shot attempt, foul, or possession change, 61% resulted in positive outcomes for the defense. Of College Kawhi’s 77 instances, only 49% ended positively. Some of this can be attributed simply to results of “make-or-miss” situations. Some of it may be derived from OG’s strength and/or explosiveness.
Note, in the last clip OG’s awareness to reroute his pursuit of the ball handler to contest the shot with his back to the rim. Textbook.
These clips, while dripping with defensive upside, offer glimpses of Anunoby’s shortcomings at this point in his young career. To summarize, OG struggles assessing and reacting to threats from sources other than his man. This includes switching situations, scrambling to shooters, general awareness away from the ball, and help assignments on which he is chronically late. In fact, OG arrived late on almost one in every four help opportunities. His 2.1-per-40-minute block rate may have made up for his tardiness, but he remains far from a finished product defensively.
College Kawhi, on the other hand, showed a similar lack of refinement in help situations, but overall was a more engaged, aware defender.
In the ‘Miscellaneous Off-Ball’ category, which includes all off-ball action other than off-ball screens and help/closeout rotations, OG negatively impacted possessions almost three times more often than College Kawhi on a per-40-minute basis. College Kawhi’s lower steal rate is identifiable within this facet (and is another reason why OG had a higher DPV overall), but the low number of negatively impactful instances off the ball are a better indicator of his superior defensive wherewithal in general.
In the end, although I initially expected Kawhi’s twitchier make-up to help give him the edge over Anunoby defensively, I slowly came to realize that OG Anunoby is simply a better defensive player at the same stage of their careers. Think for a second about how good of a defender Kawhi Leonard is right now. Now read that first sentence again. Yeah…
If OG Anunoby’s edge defensively over College Kawhi is considered slight, Kawhi’s edge offensively over OG is whatever antonym of slight with which you feel most comfortable.
The table may not indicate an immense difference between the two, but a lot of this can be chalked up to dissimilar roles each player had in their respective offenses. College Kawhi was asked to shoulder the Aztecs’ scoring burden, while OG’s role (and ceiling) was more of a complimentary one for the Hoosiers. Illustrative of this is each player’s field goal attempt volume and percentage.
When reviewing each player’s draft scouting report, overall lack of offensive refinement is a common thread. While I consider this to be true after reviewing the film, I also think it’s important to note that, without getting too technical, “there are levels to this shit”. Simply put, College Kawhi was a better shooter, passer, rebounder, and ball handler than OG. Each of the following College Kawhi clips represent skills that OG showed little to no ability to execute at the same stage in his career.
If you weren’t super impressed by these clips, that’s because they aren’t that impressive. College Kawhi wasn’t an impressive offensive prospect. Armed with a slingshot jumper and a basic handle, Kawhi lacked the offensive efficiency and pizzazz that high level prospects normally have. This is why he wasn’t picked until 15th overall in 2011. What College Kawhi did have, however, was a projectable foundation of skills. These foundational skills seen in the clips – the mid-range fade-away footwork, the grab-and-go ability off the glass, the pullback dribble after being cut off, and the assertiveness with which he played – are all nonexistent in the game of OG Anunoby. There are many examples of this during his sophomore season, but one stands out. In the clip below, notice the subtle discomfort OG shows with what should be a subconscious dribble as he gathers to finish. The dribble appears to be anything but subconscious.
At this point you may be wondering what can OG do on offense. Well, he can do this.
If you had to watch that twice to make sure it wasn’t a clip from Slam Ball, you are not alone. In all seriousness though, that’s not quite the only thing OG can do. The only other foundational skill he possesses other than the ability rebound is his spot-up shooting ability and the aggressiveness with which he pursues his shot. To illustrate, here are four clips of OG hitting shots he makes only 31% of the time.
While his release point is low and his percentages are below average, his confidence combined with refinement of his otherwise okay shooting form should lend itself to improvement as he ages. It certainly did with Kawhi. Working in Kawhi’s favor, however, was a respectable 76% free throw percentage in college. OG’s ugly 52% mark doesn’t help his projection given the strength of the correlation that exists between free throw shooting and long-term perimeter shooting ability. This is not to say OG is doomed offensively. It is simply to say that he has a long way to go.
With their games dissected and diagnosed as of their respective draft dates, the final step is turning what is known into what will be. In other words, projecting the future performance of each prospect.
I’m going to start by going out on a limb and projecting College Kawhi as a Finals MVP, two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and perennial All-NBA player by the age of 26. It’s just a hunch I have.
OG is tougher to project because I haven’t seen him play six years in the NBA, but also because of other factors. First and foremost, his skills are about as raw as a Pittsburgh style steak. Will this limit his ability to create and make his own shots in the NBA? Will this limit his ability to simply make open shots? The answer to these questions for Kawhi is an emphatic “no”, but he showed an array of foundational skills that helped him create scoring opportunities in college (unlike OG). He also was fortunate enough to learn from the world renowned shooting coach, Chip Engelland, during his time in San Antonio.
The second factor that is key to Anunoby’s projection is his body. Much has been made of the basketball prototype that is Anunoby’s body, but he tore his ACL on January 18th. On the surface, this shouldn’t hinder his career long-term, but his susceptibility to future injuries will certainly be heavily scrutinized leading up to the draft. Further, OG’s weight may be something to monitor as well. Weighing 210lbs as a freshman at Indiana, the 19-year-old Anunoby is now listed at 235lbs, which is probably an understatement considering he weighed 234lbs at the end of last season. Because he is more explosive than he is quick, I think OG’s weight should merely be maintained. This will allow him to keep the “PG” box checked under the ‘Positions Defended’ section of his resume. Admittedly, the monitoring of OG’s weight pales in comparison to his knee rehab and skill development, but his brother, Chigbo, is an NFL nose tackle after all.
The comparison between the two players more than lived up to the hype from a defensive standpoint. Anunoby performed better than Kawhi at the exact same stage in their careers, and if he can regain full health from his ACL injury there is no reason why he can’t eventually continue that type of play in the NBA. From a comprehensive standpoint, however, there isn’t much of a comparison. Kawhi is much more advanced as a player at the same stage, and I think anyone who has watched OG play basketball can agree that he won’t be averaging 20+ points per game in his NBA career let alone the 25+ points Kawhi puts up every night. Nonetheless, projecting to be on Kawhi’s level at anything is a noteworthy accomplishment if the projection is ultimately realized. As always, only time will tell.
1 – Any Steve Fisher coached team gets an upgrade to high-major in my book.
2 – OG went from being unranked in his senior class’ Top-150 prospect rankings by Rivals.com to potential lottery pick in less than a year. When he decided to stay in school after his breakout freshman campaign, hyperbole surrounding his freakish body began to swirl in advance of Indiana’s 2016-17 season.
3 – The former Kentucky players are included for reference points to show just how impactful both Kawhi and OG were in college. Neither Booker or Lyles were particularly impressive collegiate defenders, but the gap between them and Kawhi/OG was immense.