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What if they drafted O.G. Anunoby?

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“With the 13th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets select O.G. Anunoby, small forward Indiana University.” Oh, what could have been. Denver could have drafted a lockdown wing to slot in their starting lineup which would give them a piece they haven’t had for a long time. Instead, Denver traded that pick to move back and take Tyler Lydon after Anunoby was taken one spot ahead of them.

The “What If” series continues to roll on here at Denver Stiffs as we’re using this down time to take a look back at what could have been. Some of us are looking at trades. Others are looking at injuries that cut career arcs down. Me, I’m looking at what would have happened if the Nuggets had stuck at their pick and drafted a player from my alma mater. I wanted Denver to take him back then, and I really wish they had taken him now.

Denver has had historically great hit rates in the draft over the last decade. Save a few players here and there, they hit a lot. Even Gary Harris, who never finished his development, has turned into a solid role player. They’ve had to trade multiple rotation players because they didn’t have the minutes for them. This draft though... It was one of those rare misses, and it has been a painful one to watch as every minute this wonderful guy plays comes in a uniform other than that of the Nuggets.’

That brings us to the ultimate question: What if the Denver Nuggets drafted O.G. Anunoby in the 2013 NBA draft over trading back?

How We Got Here

On the clock at 13th overall, the Nuggets drafted Donovan Mitchell, who they traded on draft night to the Utah Jazz in exchange for their first-round pick, 24th overall, and Trey Lyles. Denver saw Anunoby falling down the board past a few teams that could have used him such as the Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks. With the 23rd pick, the Toronto Raptors snapped him up to crush the dreams of many here at the Stiffs’ headquarters.

With Anunoby off the board, Denver’s biggest need was still a big wing that could knock down some shots on the perimeter. So, they went with Lydon out of Syracuse who they viewed as a developmental player that could come off the bench to start his career. With Paul Millsap in front of him, there was no immediate need for him to be ready, but they didn’t take into account the clogged rotation they just created.

By drafting Lydon, after landing Lyles in the trade as well, Denver had six true power forwards on the roster. A player like Lydon needed a lot of seasoning with occasional rotation minutes to get his feet under him. He never got that opportunity with just 96 minutes played across his first two seasons before he was cut prior to the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, Anunoby has flourished in Toronto.

What They Missed Out On

What type of player has Denver struggled with the most this season? Big wings with length and athleticism. What type of player is Anunoby great at neutralizing in a matchup? You guessed it. It’s big wings with athleticism. At 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan, he has the length to keep himself in front of any player, and he came into the league as a defensive-minded player. Coach Michael Malone would have loved to have gotten his hands on him early.

After a couple of years rounding out his game on offense, he was finally blossoming into a commodity that was flying under the radar. For the 2019-20 year, he was shooting 50.7 percent from the field to go with 38.1 percent from 3-point range on 3.4 attempts per game. Throw in the 1.4 steals per game, which were double the 0.7 that he had averaged each of his first two seasons, and he was the perfect role player for every team in the league.

“Gage, Denver already had Will Barton, why would they have drafted Anunoby in the first place?” Simple. Barton had just one year remaining on his deal, and O.G. would provide them a perfect transition player for the post-Barton era. Throw in the fact that Anunoby was a better fit for the Malone system anyway with his cutting ability and switchability on defense, it was a seamless fit.

What Could Have Been

Picture a starting lineup featuring Nikola Jokic at center with Michael Porter Jr. and Anunoby as your forwards. Isn’t it simply glorious and magnificent? I understand if you teared up a little bit. You’re not alone. For all of MPJ’s shortcomings on defense, Anunoby would be there and vice versa. The group would have plenty of shooting, and, as long as the guards weren’t total sieves, you had a solid defensive unit.

One factor to consider is that Lyles never would have joined the Nuggets. Between Anunoby and the other four power forwards, they would have had no need for him. It’s quite possible Denver thought O.G. was going to slip past Toronto, and he would have been the pick. Things would have changed drastically.

With Malone as the head coach, Denver has always wanted to be a defensive-minded team, but they’ve never had the lynchpin to hold the hole thing together. That’s what Anunoby could have brought. His Player Impact Plus/Minus for this year was a whopping +1.41 on the defensive end, and his on/off was +2.14. So, for a Raptors team that’s second in the NBA in defensive rating, he was one of their best pieces.

Anunoby is the type of player that coaches have been searching for since the Golden State Warriors invented their death lineup. He’s long and switchable, but he can still knock down open jump shots. Denver has lacked a player with his skillset long before he entered the NBA, and they don’t have anyone on the roster that could develop into the role he would fill. In a tight playoff series, he’s the type of guy that can get you a stop to end a game. Maybe if you’re playing against Damian Lillard and can’t stop him, you could put O.G. on him. I don’t know. Just a thought.