While his Toronto Raptors teammates were on the most exciting playoff run in franchise history, OG Anunoby was just figuring out how to walk again.
Toronto’s sophomore forward was dealing with the aftermath of a ruptured appendix. As the Raps played through their series with the Orlando Magic, then the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Milwaukee Bucks, Anunoby was easing back to health after an emergency appendectomy.
Anunoby lost about 15 pounds as he managed the pain in the weeks after surgery. Walking while standing up straight was his first challenge, followed by steps on a treadmill. Weeks flipped by, and as the Raps journeyed toward the championship, battling the likes of Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anunoby was working up to a light jog and starting to shoot again.
He worked through the multiple painstaking steps to a return, but his team’s playoff run was moving along at a breakneck pace. He progressed to agility training, and then actual basketball workouts. The team tested him out in contact situations, then eventually let him scrimmage. By the time Anunoby rejoined the team for a real practice, they were preparing for Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
It would have been a tall order to reintroduce Anunoby to game action during the most intense series of the NBA season, although his hustle defence could have been helpful if he could be at his best. The Raptors activated him, but ultimately did not use him in the Finals.
Tuesday’s much-anticipated Raptors season-opener will be his first NBA game in more than six months. Anunoby will still collect a championship ring in the much-anticipated ceremony before Toronto plays the New Orleans Pelicans. Then he will start doing his part to help the Raptors defend that title. Because of the free-agent departures of starters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the team should have key minutes for him.
“He’s making plays and stripping the ball and he looks good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s form in preseason. “I think he really fits now with this team.”
Nurse said he anticipates using the 22-year-old as a primary defender. In addition to guarding small forwards and power forwards, as he would naturally at the small-forward position, they may also employ him to guard point guards or chase shooting guards from screens.
“He’s got a desire to go out and guard people, and he’s got the physical tools to do it, too,” Nurse said. “We need that, as a kind of replacement, and that’s good.”
The Raptors selected Anunoby 23rd over all out of Indiana University in the 2017 NBA draft. They used him largely as a starter in his rookie year, impressed especially by his defensive intensity.
But last season was disjointed for Anunoby. He missed some time because of other smaller injuries, and took some personal time away after the death of his father. He appeared in 67 of the Raptors’ 82 regular-season games – starting in just six – largely displaced by the arrival of the superstar Leonard.
Then he found himself facing an emergency appendectomy on April 12, the day before the Raptors playoffs began.
He had been experiencing headaches and stomach pain, but didn’t think much of it at first. The pain soon intensified, and he couldn’t sleep. He consulted team medical staff, they did a quick test and sent him right to an emergency room.
His appendix ruptured before the surgery. Then an infection complicated the aftermath of the procedure.
He watched the first two games of the Raptors’ opening-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic from his hospital bed. His team lost the first game, and then bounced back to win the second.
“The first game I was really sick,” Anunoby said. “The second game, I was almost out [of the hospital], so I was feeling a lot better, I was energized and we won.”
Still, the pain lingered for a few weeks after the procedure. He said he lost about 15 pounds, along with much of his strength. He reflected on the experience during an interview with reporters this past Sunday. He was seated at the podium in the Raptors practice facility, something the soft-spoken player known for his polite but very short answers rarely did during his first two seasons in Toronto.
Elaborating a little more than he used to in past seasons, Anunoby described what it was like to travel with the team in the playoffs once his health began to improve. He was straddling two worlds – that of a focused playoff team and that of a player fighting to regain his strength and fitness.
“Yeah, I was in film during the morning, they’ll be going through walkthrough of the Bucks stuff and Sixers stuff,” Anunoby said. “And I’ll be on the side, doing agilities and stretches for my stomach.”
He tried to remain engaged with the team, even when his return was well in the distance. What was the biggest thing he learned during that time?
“Just resiliency, being resilient,” he said. “Not getting too down. That’s the main thing.”
While no one knows for sure who Nurse will have in his regular starting five, Anunoby has a good shot to be one of them. His teammates are eager to have him back. They have all raved about his productive off-season.
“You hate to see a guy away from the game. He had a rough year last year,” Fred VanVleet said. “I’m just happy to have him back doing what we all love to do. I’m excited for him to get back out there. He was with us during the end of the year but didn’t play in the playoffs, and you can kind of feel like you’re apart from the group when you’re not in the action. So getting him back in the action and being right there where he left off, I think will be good for him.”
Serge Ibaka provided some veteran support to Anunoby as he worked himself back into shape in the summer.
“Most times, what happened to him last year, if it was most people, they would give up or get a little distracted. He didn’t give up,” Ibaka said. “Now he has to focus on getting back and getting better, and he did all summer, working on his body, working on his game. I feel like he’s ready for this year. He’s going to have a great season.”
Nurse described Anunoby as refreshed both physically and mentally.
“I see him playing with a little bit more of a smile on his face. There’s a little more joy in how he’s moving around out there, and that’s refreshing to see,” Nurse said. “Physically, he’s awesome. He’s slim and trim and strong and he’s active.”