It’s easy to understand why the hype for OG Anunoby has grown. On the biggest of stages last season, Anunoby shined brightest, silencing Jamal Murray as his magnum opus.
However, for as good as Anunoby was and likely will be, the 2016-17 Indiana Hoosiers aren’t going to be led by just him, nor can they afford to be. Thomas Bryant will play a very important role on this team alongside Anunoby and, together, the duo will determine just how high the Hoosiers’ ceiling will be.
Replacing your top two players, especially when both are NBA-caliber players, is never a simple task for any college program. Even the Dukes, the Kentuckys and the North Carolinas struggle at times doing so.
Rarely, however, do you have two plays of the ilk of Bryant and Anunoby, both ranked in the top 20 prospects by Draft Express.
The challenge awaiting both of them is that the jump from good role players to great leaders is not an easy one.
We saw this in 2013-14. After the mass exodus of the Hoosiers’ roster, namely Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, most fans thought the Hoosiers would be able to rely on the likes of Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey and the team would be fine with the likes of Noah Vonleh ready to step in.
In the end, though, Ferrell wasn’t yet ready to carry that load, Sheehey showed he couldn’t be The Guy and Vonleh wasn’t as ready to contribute as many thought.
Herein lie the challenges awaiting Bryant and Anunoby. Ferrell and Williams leave big, big shoes to fill both statistically, but more importantly as leaders. Williams, for better or worse, could create shots for himself and others when the offense stagnated. Ferrell developed the persona as the guy to take the big shot (look no further than the game at Iowa).
On paper, this team and roster are better than the 2013-14 one. However, if Bryant and Anunoby aren’t ready to make the leap to be The Guy, this team’s fate will hardly be better than their predecessors.
Having said all that, the early indications for Bryant and Anunoby are anything but alarming. Even dating back to the end of last season, the duo looked ready to take hold of the reins.
Bryant, went not saddled with foul trouble, had some of his biggest games down the stretch for the Hoosiers, including a 19-point performance against Kentucky. He never shied away from contact and or a battle down low and certainly matured as the season went. He embraced the spotlight in the tournament, outplaying fellow big man and future draftee Skal Labissiere of Kentucky.
Anunoby, meanwhile, benefits from a calm demeanor that has rightfully drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard. No matter the moment or the stage, Anunoby was never rattled. In one of the biggest road games of the year at Michigan State, Anunoby had one of his loudest performances with a pair of huge dunks.
His first tournament tournament games, first in the Big Ten tournament then in the opener of the NCAA Tournament, Anunoby had his two biggest scoring outputs of the season. And against his toughest foe of the season, Anunoby shut down Murray in a way that caught the attention of everyone watching.
The challenges awaiting each are clear. For as impactful as Anunoby was, it was rarely seen in the scoring column. Only five times did he score in double figures last season, and never more than 14 points. With Ferrell gone, the scoring load will need to be carried by someone (or more likely multiple someones).
To his credit, Anunoby has flashed a scoring touch that looks unlike anything we saw from him last season as he’s gone scoring 41 points in the two exhibition games with 7-of-10 shooting from three. To put that into context, he made just 13 threes the entirety of last season and only attempted 29.
For his counterpart, Bryant’s issues are also well known. The big man struggled with foul trouble. Seven times last season from the start of conference play on did Bryant finish a game with at least four fouls. Six more times he had at least three fouls.
Fouls are to be expected by big men. However, with Collin Hartman out with a mysterious injury, De’Ron Davis returning from his own injury and no other true back-up to his spot, Bryant must stay on the court.
His other biggest challenge is something easily chalked up to being a freshman, but Bryant has to play under control. At times last season, the big man would get moving too fast either physically or mentally and make a bad play.
Again, though, to his credit, Bryant looks to be an improved player in exhibition play. He had just five fouls in the two games while scoring 26 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
For Indiana to have title aspirations, which this roster is certainly capable of, the Hoosiers will almost certainly have to rely on Anunoby and Bryant to be The Guys.
If they aren’t ready, we could be in store for a long, frustrating season.
If they are ready for the task, though, the Hoosiers are going to be one of the best teams in the country come March.