O.G. Anunoby is the Eastern Conference’s biggest X-factor: How defensive ace transforms Knicks into contender

Since getting traded to the Knicks on Dec. 30, O.G. Anunoby has been one of the most valuable players in the NBA. New York has outscored opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which is the highest mark in the league for any player averaging at least 25 minutes. 

It doesn’t take advanced stats to figure out that the Knicks have been awesome with Anunoby and mediocre without him. They have a 14-2 record in games that he’s played and went 8-10 during the recent stretch he missed due to an elbow injury

Anunoby’s stat line — 15.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists on 51.4 percent shooting from the field and 38.4 percent from 3 —  is solid enough, but it takes a deeper dive to see why he’s made the Knicks a completely different team. 

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O.G. Anunoby’s defense is back 

Anunoby has been a terrific defender in the past. He led the league in steals, made the All-Defensive Second Team and finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. His defense wasn’t quite up to that level for a middling Raptors team at the start of this season, but he’s ramped up the intensity in New York. 

Anunoby is back to being a pick-six menace. He ranks third in the league in BBall-Index’s passing lane defense metric, which measures how often players deflect and intercept passes. Do not be nonchalant with the ball around Anunoby, because he forces even the smartest passers into bad turnovers. 

Anunoby has great help instincts that allow him to be in multiple places at once. He is maybe the best player in the league at timing his digs to swipe down as a help defender while remaining in position to recover to his assignment. If you turn your back to him, he will rip it away. His 1.8 steals for the Knicks would rank third in the league if he qualified for the leaderboards. 

Anunoby has also been an extremely versatile on-ball defender. He’s stopped everyone from post-bruisers like Alperen Sengun to super-athletic guards like Anthony Edwards. The Knicks play Anunoby alongside other versatile wings, allowing them to switch across several positions without giving up advantages.

Anunoby’s rare combination of being good on the ball and elite as a help defender has helped the Knicks skyrocket from the No. 19 defense before the trade to the No. 3 defense after it. 

O.G. Anunoby has been an elite play-finisher for the Knicks

Anunoby has some pretty glaring weaknesses in his offensive game. When he puts the ball down on the floor and tries to create for himself or others, it can get ugly. That is why his fit with the Knicks is so perfect. 

New York already has multiple advantage creators who like to have the ball, so Anunoby’s role has been simplified. He can attack scrambling defenses, and he has done that extremely well. 

More often, Anunoby either catches the ball near the basket for easy layups or spots up for 3s. He has been dynamite at the rim for the Knicks, finishing in the 83rd percentile of players, per Cleaning the Glass, and has canned 44.0 percent of his corner 3s for the Knicks. 

That shooting is vital because it punishes teams for putting two defenders on Jalen Brunson or Julius Randle, which both players have had to deal with for most of the season. The Knicks like to put Anunoby in the opposite corner, opening up shots off those doubles. 

That tremendously enhanced spacing explains why a player who is averaging less than 15 points per game has the Knicks’ offense scoring 9.9 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. 

Anunoby isn’t the best player on the Knicks, but he amplifies the strengths of everyone else around him. He’s already developed into a glue guy who has them looking like potentially the second-best team in the East when he’s available. All of the benefits that he brings should become even more valuable in the playoffs, making him potentially the biggest X-factor in the East. 

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