Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked a fairly straightforward question on Wednesday afternoon as his team prepared to take on the San Antonio Spurs.
What are you trying to get out of your team for these last five weeks, the reporter asked.
Typically a question like this would prompt an answer about trying to win games and make the playoffs. Even in the bleakest of times this season, Nurse has remained steadfast in his public desire to eke out every last drop of playoff hope from his sub-par roster. But on Wednesday, his answer was somewhat different. It was an answer you might expect from a coach like Minnesota's Chris Finch whose team is more focused on the future than the present.
"I’m trying to get this team, the players individually, to develop," Nurse said.
In his answer there was no mention of the playoffs.
This isn't to say Nurse isn't trying to win games. There's no question that both he and the Raptors on the court are certainly doing everything possible to stay competitive as was evident against the Spurs. But it seems as though the organization's focus has shifted. They appear to be taking it easy on some of their star players in order to allow their younger, less experienced players to develop.
Of those players, nobody is more important to the future of the Raptors than OG Anunoby. The 23-year-old Anunoby has already shown he can be a defensive stud, but questions have always lingered about his offensive skills. That's something the Raptors are trying to change.
"We're still trying to grow OG and his offensive repertoire," Nurse said earlier in the week.
Wednesday night was a perfect example of just how far Anunoby has come. Toronto shifted him down to the shooting guard spot and it forced Anunoby to adapt, playing a little bit more on ball as one of the Raptors offensive facilitators.
While his pick-and-roll usage was nice to see, it was his pull-up shooting and dribble penetration that really stood out.
Since the Raptors traded away Norman Powell on March 25, Anunoby's offensive usage has changed significantly. His pull-up shooting numbers have doubled from 1.1 attempts per game to 2.4 attempts and 30.1% of his attempts are coming after at least three dribbles compared to just 16.6% prior to the trade deadline, per NBA Stats.
"We need OG to be that kind of player because I think he’s going to play some wing, some two, some four," Nurse said. "He’s going to be coming off screens, he’s going to be setting screens and when he’s setting them he’s going to get hit on the roll so he’s got to make the next quick decision to go on."
At times, Anunoby can still be a little clunky, as Nurse said. It wasn't too long ago that he was almost exclusively a catch-and-shoot player, relegated to stand-in-the-corner duties who just tried not to fumble the ball too much as former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan remembers well.
"He started out stiff as a cardboard box," DeRozan said Wednesday night. "Now to see how he handles the ball, how he drives the ball, his post game. I saw him a lot this summer, we worked out a lot this summer, and to see his skill set grow from when I first saw it speaks volumes of how much he loves and appreciates the game. He’s come a long way."
But those days are nearing an end and ideally, the Raptors want to have a group of versatile wings two through four who can essentially play every position at both ends of the court. Toronto already knows what Anunoby can do that defensively, but it's his offensive growth as a guard that should have the Raptors truly excited.
If Nurse is true to his word, he'll continue using Anunoby as an on-ball scorer and keep forcing his young star outside of his comfort zone. So far Anunoby has shown some significant progress on the offensive end and it's time to see what else is buried deep in his bag of tricks.