In The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis devotes an entire chapter to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, including a discussion of the unconscious biases that infect—and affect—NBA decision-makers.
Among these biases, one stands out: the anchoring effect, in which scouts and other front office people attach themselves heavily to the first piece of information they're presented with. Easy to fall into and hard to notice, anchoring plays a role in how NBA draft prospects are perceived—and could impact the future of Indiana's OG Anunoby.
To understand why, let's begin by letting Lewis explain how anchoring works in basketball talent evaluation.
"The mere fact that a player physically resembled some currently successful player could be misleading," he writes. "A decade ago a six-foot-two-inch, light-skinned, mixed-race guy who had gone unnoticed by major colleges in high school and so played for some obscure tiny college, and whose main talent was long-range shooting, would have no obvious appeal. The type didn't exist in the NBA—at least not as a raging success. Then Stephen Curry came along and set the NBA on fire, led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship, and was everyone's most valuable player. Suddenly—just like that—all these sharp-shooting, mixed-race guards were turning up for NBA job interviews and claiming that their game was a lot like Stephen Curry's; and they were more likely to get drafted because of the resemblance."
Similarly, NBA draft boards have been influenced by a "Kawhi effect" over the past few years. After seeing the systematic, impossibly quick development of San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard from No. 15 overall pick to top-ten player, league decision-makers have fallen in love with long, athletic, high-motor, high-character wings, assuming that they have the wherewithal to rapidly improve their shooting and accelerate their NBA careers. Guys like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jaylen Brown, and Justise Winslow have been prized and prioritized despite their offensive deficiencies, in the hopes that their versatile games will blossom once they work with league coaches—just like Leonard's.
Anunoby, a six-foot-seven, 235-pound defensive monster who unfortunately will miss the rest of the season due to a still-mysterious knee injury, appears to be next in line. Since Leonard was drafted in 2011, there arguably hasn't been a prospect as physically similar. And that sets something of an anchored expectation, even if it's wholly unfair.
Players with Anunoby's profile are incredibly valuable in the modern NBA, even if they don't come close to reaching Leonard's heights. The more the league moves toward shooting, small ball, and perimeter play, the greater the demand for certain defensive prototypes. The best way to defend the on-and-off-ball, screen-heavy offenses now in vogue is to have switchable, versatile defenders. Typically, these guys stand somewhere between six-foot-five and six-foot-eight, with long arms, and are not only quick-footed athletes who can cut off penetration from guards, but they also have strong frames that can hold up in the paint.
This basically fits Anunoby to a T. Take a look:
In the three possessions above, Anunoby defends three different NBA prospect-level player types: bigs, wings, and guards. He cuts off their penetration, fights through screens, switches with ease, and pushes bigger guys off the block. It's hard to think of another 19-year-old capable of affecting a game the way that Anunoby can. He has been a major reason for Indiana's defensive turnaround this season, and before his injury he gave the Hoosiers a remarkable number of options on defense. In college basketball, few players can guard every position on the floor. Anunoby is one of them.
Projecting forward, he has Leonard-level, NBA All-Defensive Team potential. Of course, it's the rest of Leonard's game that makes him truly special, and those all-around abilities are what players like Kidd-Gilchrist have failed to match. Currently, Anunoby falls short of previous Kawhi-lites:
The numbers tell the story. Even with a sample of games that includes what KenPom ranks at the 311th-toughest non-conference schedule in college basketball, Anunoby has been asked to do far less on offense than his prototype predecessors. He has the lowest usage rate of any of the players on this list; the third-lowest rebounding rate; and is middle of the pack in scoring against the weakest schedule of the group. His efficiency is great, no doubt—but so much of it has to do with him being asked to do so little. Plus, Anunoby's growth from last year isn't exactly substantial, as he's made just a three-point leap per 40 minutes, is shooting worse from beyond the arc, and hasn't proven himself ready for increased usage.
As far as the eye test goes, Anunoby's offensive game is still rudimentary. The two best parts of his game are taking advantage of mismatches in the post and spotting up for three-pointers. While there are some concerns that his shot isn't going to translate to the NBA because of how far it starts away from his body—his 52 percent career free-throw percentage also raises questions—he has good touch and gets solid rotation on the ball. He also finishes extremely well around the rim off passes from teammates. On the other hand, he doesn't really create anything for himself in the half-court. He has taken only two jump shots off the dribble this season, and did not score on any of his eight isolation possessions or three pick-and-roll possessions.
Basically, Anunoby currently fits the profile of a future NBA role player, and not a budding star. He's a potentially elite defender hampered by offensive limitations that didn't improve after a full collegiate off-season. It would take outlier levels of future improvement to bring him anywhere close to Leonard. And hey, sometimes that happens (see: Kawhi), but nobody should expect it.
They might anyway. Prior to his knee injury, many around the internet had Anunoby as a lottery pick "lock." (Personally, I would have placed him in the draft's top 20, but not the top ten.) Such is the power of anchoring. Given his lack of year-over-year offensive growth, it's dubious to assume that Anunoby will grow into a two-way NBA player. Yet thanks to Leonard's example, he seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt.
His knee injury complicates matters. Indiana is being secretive, and so far has only said that Anunoby will be undergoing surgery next week and will miss the rest of the season. As such, we don't have enough information to know how it will affect his draft stock. If it's just torn cartilage, he'd probably be able to work out pre-draft. So no big deal. If it's microfracture surgery, however, that's a major problem.
It feels a bit unfair to speculate, but the severity of Anunoby's injury will affect his entire NBA future, from whether he decides to turn pro to where he'll end up being selected. If the quiet, under-recruited kid from Jefferson City, Missouri—who still seems to be acclimating himself to his newfound level of fame—decides to stick around to play for a coach with a solid developmental track record in Tom Crean, that would make sense. And if Anunoby is selected anywhere from No. 11 to No. 30 in the 2017 draft after teams get all of the medical information they need, well, that would make sense, too.
Whenever his NBA time comes, Anunoby will be a fascinating test case for the Kawhi effect. He isn't Leonard, but squint a bit, and he sure can look like him. As league decision-makers try to separate anchoring from analysis, what, exactly, will they see?
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