SIMMONS: Raptors quiet man looking to make some noise in new season

Raptors’ OG Anunoby will get an opportunity this season to expand his game just as Pascal Siakam did last season.   Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun

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The mystery man of the Raptors was talking and not saying much, but the fact that he was up there, sitting at the podium, behind a microphone, taking questions is a new place in a new season for OG Anunoby.

He’s the basketball player nobody really knows, quiet and rather invisible, emotional on the inside but hidden from the public’s eye.

Little more than a year ago, before Pascal Siakam emerged as an NBA star, as the leading scorer in the Raptors championship game win against Golden State, the Raptors believed OG was more suited and more likely for NBA stardom.

That’s part of what makes this season rather fascinating as the Raptors begin defence of their unlikely championship. We now know what Siakam is and can be. We know what Kyle Lowry is. We know the difference maker Marc Gasol can be. We know Fred Van Vleet can hit huge shots when it matters most. We know Nick Nurse can coach and play a rather ordinary guitar. We can know Serge Ibaka eats weird food and when motivated changes games.

We know all that.

What we don’t know — what the quiet man doesn’t know — what the fans don’t know yet is what Anunoby will be when he grows up, when he gets an opportunity to start and take advantage of his skills and be healthy and ready, mentally and physically.

And both are so important. A year ago last month OG lost his father, who he was named for. He’s actually Ogugua Anunoby Jr., son of a scholar, brother of a former NFL player. His dad was born in Nigeria, buried in Nigeria, was teaching in England when OG was born in 1997. Before he ever really knew his mom, she died not long after he was born. His dad meant everything to him. And then he got the phone no one wants to receive: His father had passed away in his sleep at the age of 66. Needless to say, young OG was devastated.

Siakam can relate in a way, different as they may be in both skills and personality. Siakam was born in Cameroon, lost his father when he was just 19. A car accident took him. That’s too young to be without a dad. When you have something to say, to talk about your championship or your new contract or your latest injury or just need some advice, you want your father on the other end of the line.

OG needed help to get through last season, before he was hurt, before he had season ending appendicitis, before the Raptors won a championship with him wearing street clothes. And oddly, the more detached he got from the team, the closer, I’m told, he seemed to get to the equally quiet Kawhi Leonard.

Anunoby had just lost his dad. Leonard was a teenager when his dad was murdered. The Raptors have a lineup dotted with tragedy from parents gone too soon. But the distant Leonard befriended the distant Anunoby. What they talked about, who could ever know. But the superstar and the kid bonded somehow and maybe Leonard saw in him what Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey saw in him when they thought he could be the answer to beating LeBron James. They truly believed that at one time.

When asked yesterday what he learned about himself last year, his answer was typically OG. Short and to the point. “Just resiliency,” he said. “Being resilient. Not getting too down.” Anunoby Sr. lectured at university. Anunoby Jr. speaks softly and in short sentences.

Did he require support to get through last season? “Yeah, it helped a lot.”

How inspiring has the amazing growth of Siakam been for him, considering both were late first-round picks, both considered sleepers, both so physically capable.

“For sure (it’s) inspiring,” said OG. “Just trying to work hard everyday like he does.”

His expectations for this season? “Just helping the team win games,” he said, sounding like an NHL player. “That’s the main thing.”

Anunoby averages about 18 words an answer. That’s up from a rookie record of six words. That’s counting the cliches. Now what needs to be up are his real averages — scoring, rebounding, defending. He will make $2.2 million this season in this his third NBA season. Siakam will be paid $2.3 million.

Next year all that changes. Anunoby jumps to $3.8 million. His one-time comparable, Siakam rockets to more than $40 million Canadian a year. If there’s ever a reason to find a way to take the next steps, to do more, to train harder, to demand more of yourself or your team, wouldn’t that be it? First among equals. He could never be the smiling face, kid in commercials, happy to make appearance, fun loving guy Siakam happens to be. That’s not his personality. You can only be who you are.

And knowing who he is, and what it has taken to get this far, Nick Nurse sees the kind of growth a coach looks for in a growing emotional young man.

“I see him playing with a little bit more of a smile on his face,” said the coach. “There’s a little more joy in how he’s moving out there and I think that’s refreshing to see.

“… there’s an opening there with some player departures and there’s some other guys that can really score and create and he kind of just has to take what comes to him out there and he’s going to get those opportunities as we’ve seen. He’s been great. Really, really good.”

Just don’t ask him to talk about it. Time for his play to do the talking.

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