Knicks' OG Anunoby declines player option, becomes unrestricted free agent: Report

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 09: OG Anunoby #8 of the New York Knicks looks on against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at the United Center on April 09, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
OG Anunoby is hitting the free agent market. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

New York Knicks forward OG Anunoby has declined his player option for the 2024-25 NBA season, according to Fred Katz of The Athletic, choosing to enter unrestricted free agency as one of the most intriguing players on the market.

League observers had long expected Anunoby to decline the player option for the final season of the four-year, $72 million contract he signed in December 2020 as a member of the Raptors. Toronto drafted Anunoby with the 23rd pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, with head coaches Dwane Casey and Nick Nurse helping foster his development into one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D wings — a vital piece on Raptors teams that made the playoffs in each of his first three years as a pro and won the 2019 NBA championship in his sophomore season. (Anunoby missed that entire title run after undergoing an emergency appendectomy right before the start of the postseason.)

Under that deal, Anunoby was set to earn $19.9 million next season. In a financial environment in which the salary cap has risen to $141 million for the ’24-25 campaign, he could wind up nearly doubling that salary in the first year of a new multi-year agreement — one with a total value likely to exceed the four-year, $118 million maximum extension that “Anunoby was limited to signing but would not have accepted with the Raptors,” as Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer reported in January.

That lucrative new deal could well come from the Knicks, whose trade for Anunoby helped transform their season.

At the time of the swap, New York sat at 17-14, in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and ranked 16th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. The addition of Anunoby — 6-foot-7, 240 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and an All-Defensive selection on his résumé — provided a mammoth jolt of adrenaline to Tom Thibodeau’s team, as the Knicks won 12 of Anunoby’s first 14 games and began to look like a bona fide title contender.

Anunoby’s individual production — 14.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 34.9 minutes per game for New York in the regular season — rarely leaped off the stat sheet. His overall impact, though, was both immediately evident and difficult to overstate: The Knicks won Anunoby’s minutes in all 23 regular-season games he played for them, outscoring opponents by an eye-popping 21.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Anunoby’s ability to space the floor from the corners — 39.4% from 3-point range on 4.5 attempts per game in New York — helped open driving lanes for ascendant star point guard Jalen Brunson. His ability to take on defensive assignments all across the positional spectrum — he spent significant time as the primary defender on both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey during New York’s first-round playoff win over the 76ers — helped ease the defensive burden on the Knicks’ other perimeter players, allowing the likes of Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo to play more natural roles as help-side havoc wreakers.

And Anunoby’s own individual disruptiveness as a defender — 1.7 steals, 1 block and 3.2 deflections per game after the trade — helped kickstart New York’s transition game, with the Knicks shifting from a bottom-10 unit on the break before his arrival into one that scored at a league-best-level in transition with him on the floor:

All told, the Knicks went 26-6 with Anunoby in the lineup, outscoring opponents by 16.3 points-per-100 in his minutes — a dramatic swing that marks him as the kind of two-way difference-maker that any team with enough money to spend would love to add in free agency. (Like, say, the 76ers team that New York vanquished back in April.)

The complicating factor for Anunoby? His medical record. Since playing 69 games in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, he’s missed 76 games in the last three seasons — including 32 this past year, with surgery to remove a loose bone fragment in his right elbow and a post-return flare-up sidelining him for most of the second half of the season.

Anunoby returned for the final week of the regular season, playing a huge role — and huge minutes — for Thibodeau through the Knicks’ first seven playoff games. In the third quarter of Game 2 against the Pacers, though — in the midst of perhaps the finest performance of his career, with 28 points in 28 minutes — Anunoby lunged on a fastbreak, pulled up with a hitch in his gait and immediately exited the court with what was later revealed to be a strained left hamstring:

Anunoby missed the next three games, as Indiana took control of the series. He attempted to return in Game 7, making his first two shots; it was immediately clear, though, that he just couldn’t move at anything like his typical level, leading Thibodeau to end the experiment after just five minutes and turning Anunoby into a spectator as the Pacers ended New York’s season.

“I just wanted to play,” Anunoby said after the game. “I wanted to try. Like, at least try to help my teammates."

As he left the home locker room at Madison Square Garden for the summer, Knicks wing Josh Hart pointed toward Anunoby and center Isaiah Hartenstein and said, "Those two better come back." With Hartenstein already on the unrestricted market and Anunoby now joining him, we’ll soon find out whether the Knicks can follow Hart’s orders — and how high a price it’ll take to do it.