KRAVITZ: OG is OK; Anunoby is making a name for himself at IU

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Bob Kravitz

When Tom Crean traveled to an UnderArmour AAU tournament in Atlanta in 2014, he had no idea who OG Anunoby was. Truth is, he was down there to watch two of Anunoby's Team Thad teammates: Nick Marshall, now at Memphis, and Jaylen Fisher, now with UNLV. How anonymous was Anunoby? This anonymous:
 
"We get this big book with the players' names," Crean was saying recently. "And his name" – Anunoby's name – "wasn't even in it."
 
But as Crean watched, he slowly found himself falling for this tall, skinny kid from Jefferson City, Mo. Not because he was putting up huge offensive numbers – he didn't often shoot while playing for a wildly talented AAU team – but because he reminded him of a young Victor Oladipo. He not only defended with purpose, but he could defend multiple positions with his 6-8 height and his 7-6 wingspan. 
 
"He's got this headband on, he's pressuring the ball defensively and he's not even in the book," Crean said. "So we checked the stat sheet, we saw his last name and then we started doing some research. We found out he's actually got some relatives (an aunt, uncle and four cousins) in Bloomington. Seeing him in Atlanta, there was this major intrigue, but being on a really good team, we didn't see him shoot it. Then we put the film on from his junior year (in high school), and you see him shoot it. I think we were the first major school to call him, although Iowa saw it in him, too, so I'll give (coach) Fran (McCaffery) credit, too; he recruited him hard. But OG really wasn't on anybody's radar at that time. We saw the upside, though."
 
Anunoby didn't arrive in Bloomington with much fanfare, not like the trumpets that blared for mega-recruit Thomas Bryant, who has proven his ability throughout this Hoosiers' season. Most people thought Anunoby, along with fellow Missourian and recruit Juwan Morgan, would be projects and would take some time before they become rotation players who could contribute. Instead, both have been major influences on an IU team that won 12 games in a row before losing Tuesday at Wisconsin. 
 
Anunoby, in particular, has been a revelation, averaging 6.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game during the Big Ten season, not to mention playing ravenous defense. How big a revelation? I asked Crean if he has a chance to be the kind of player Oladipo was and Troy Williams is, fully expecting him to artificially minimize expectations. Crean got the answer out before I could fully complete the question. 
 
"Absolutely, no question about it," he said. "Both OG and Juwan. Absolutely."
 
Not long ago, nobody around here knew much of anything about OG Anunoby, including the head coach who brought him to Bloomington. Now, everybody does. But most folks don't know much about him beyond what he does on the basketball floor. I'm going to try to change that. 
 
*** 
 
It basically started with a basketball hoop. For days, even weeks, 6-year-old OG had been pestering his father, Dr. Ogugua Anunoby, Sr., to purchase a basketball goal that they could put up in the backyard of their Jefferson City, Mo., home. Some of the backyard was cement, some of it was grass, all of it was a place for OG to hone his skills. 
 
His father, who was born in Nigeria, educated in England and now works as a business professor at Lincoln University, had just one request (no, demand): If he was going to invest in a basketball goal, OG had to commit himself to basketball. He had to work on his game, even at an early age. This couldn't be one of those kids' toys where you play with it for a week and then ignore it forever. 
 
"I was always going to the gym to play, but I wanted to be able to shoot every day, sometimes at night, even if there was snow, I'd clean it off and shoot," Anunoby said. "Every day, I'd come home from school and shoot. I don't remember that conversation with my dad but I could see that happening, him telling me he wanted me to be committed to it. That sounds like him."
 
Oh yeah, that's him. 
 
"He wanted one of those really good ones, like the ones you see at the YMCA, hundreds of dollars," Anunoby, Sr. said. "I told him, if I invest in one, you have to use it and be committed to playing. Honestly, I wanted him to play baseball because there's less of a chance he'll be injured, but he wanted basketball. I didn't know very much about basketball, but I knew this was something he wanted."
 
Then he laughed. 
 
"And I'd say the investment paid off," he said. 
 
Before he could shoot and mimic his childhood hero, Allen Iverson, he had to take care of academics first. Remember, his father is a learned man with a PhD.
 
"A half-hour to an hour of reading every day before he let me shoot," Anunoby said. "Homework and reading. He's really big on reading. I can remember reading Aesop's Fables a lot when I was young."
 
OG is a typical Indiana basketball story, except he didn't grow up in Indiana. Actually, he was born in London, then moved to Missouri when he was four years old. But when he was six, he fell head-over-heels in love with the game. He would routinely go on YouTube and watch his favorite players, especially wing players like Tracy McGrady. And man, he loved Iverson. You wonder why he wears No. 3? That's why. 
 
"I used to want to have braids and everything," OG said with a laugh. "But it never happened and never will. When I was younger, I thought it would be cool, but now I realize, nah. My dad wouldn't like it, anyway. Wouldn't like it at all."
 
Anunoby was hardly a prodigy, wasn't a five-star recruit in high school. Good player, not a great player. He drew some interest from Division I schools before his junior year, but then broke his wrist and the interest dwindled. That, though, changed after Crean saw him in that UnderArmour tournament in Atlanta. 
 
"I remember seeing Coach Crean there, and I kind of knew he'd be there because they were interested in Nick (Marshall) and Jaylen (Fisher)," Anunoby said. "I was really happy when they started to show interest in me because I followed Indiana, especially when they had Victor (Oladipo) and Cody (Zeller). And I'd been to Bloomington a few times to visit family there. They were also interested in Juwan (Morgan), and we've known each other since the sixth grade, so he'd talk to me about Indiana all the time, what a great place it was. I just love all the tradition, and I really liked coach Crean. I like how big and important basketball is here."
 
Anunoby also noticed how Crean and his staff helped develop Oladipo, an unheralded recruit when he came to IU, along with Troy Williams, another wing player who has flourished since stepping foot on campus. 
 
There weren't a lot of people who believe Anunoby or Morgan could have the kind of instant impact they've had, not the way they expected (and knew) that Bryant would be a difference maker. But both have developed quickly, especially after James Blackmon, Jr.'s season-ending injury created more minutes for the young guys. 
 
"You know what's happening with OG, we're starting to expect a lot more out of him," Crean said. "He may not have had the numbers, but we're looking at him not as a freshman. So I guess that's the greatest compliment I could give him. We're as nit-picky with him as we are with the older guys because he's capable. He's smart. His energy is a little mysterious sometimes because he doesn't always talk and he's not as vocal as he needs to be, though he's playing hard. 
 
"But what he's done, and we started to see this in practice right before the Big Ten season, and it coincided, obviously, with the injury to James, it was a good time for him to play, because he got on the court. He can shoot the ball but he's on the court because he can defend numerous people and you can do a lot of different things with him. As we continue to get better and as he continues to get better, we're going to be able to do more switching. He's guarding more guards. He has to guards guys like Yogi (Ferrell) and Rob (Johnson) every day in practice, so that makes him better."
 
Said Ferrell: "OG's awareness, you could say, has gone up tremendously, and that's what we talk about a lot is on the court and being aware of what you need to do offensively, what you need to do defensively. I think that's sky-rocketed for OG. Definitely was a quicker turnaround than I think people thought. But I think that's the process of ourselves and the coaches being on OG because we knew his potential. A guy with a 7-6 wingspan who can jump out of the gym. We saw his potential being as high as it can be. And I feel like OG has definitely stepped up in that way for us."
 
I asked Anunoby the required question about the transition from high school to college, and he was typically limited in his response. "The details matter here," he said. And the transition to college life, to independence? "Nah, it's been fine," he said. 
 
Anunoby is a smart kid who just doesn't say a whole heck of a lot. His teammates will tell you he can cut up like anybody else on the team, but with reporters, he keeps his guard up – for now. Players were blown away when he won a Maui Classic-sponsored dance contest out in Hawaii against players from other teams, but beyond that, he's happy to remain somewhat private and economic with words. 
 
"You may think he's quiet, but he isn't, believe me; he loosens up," Crean said. "Now we've got to get him to talk more on the floor. He's playing hard, but he doesn't always look like he's playing hard and he's definitely not saying a lot. Like Troy, you can feel his energy. Oladipo, you could feel his energy. But OG is getting better in that area and he works extremely hard. I mean, he's constantly in the gym."
 
Two years ago, almost nobody knew about Anunoby, the skinny young man with the headband. But this kid with his backyard hoop and his basketball dreams and his loving, demanding father, now everybody is getting to know him.