When former Jefferson City basketball coach Blair Thompson first saw OG Anunoby as a middle schooler at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, he mostly saw untapped potential.
"He was just a wirey, taller kid," Thompson said. "But he had some drive to him."
That drive has taken Anunoby from Mid-Missouri to an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors. The 24-year old former Jays star will return tonight to have his jersey retired today at halftime of Jefferson City's football game against Rock Bridge.
"He made his mind up early that he wanted to be a basketball player," Thompson said. "And I think he approached everything on a daily basis with that mindset."
Anunoby wore No. 5 during three years as a varsity starter for Jefferson City and was a two-time all-state selection in Class 5 before playing two years at Indiana and being selected 23rd overall by the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Anunoby averaged 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds as a senior and lead the Jays to a district championship with a 39-37 win against Waynesville.
"I'm glad that Jeff City is retiring that jersey," Thompson, now the athletic director at Pacific High School, said. "As long as it's getting done I'm excited because it needs to be done."
One of the coaches on the other side of the sideline during his high school career was Josh Buffington, the current Jays basketball coach who was at Helias during Anunoby's career.
Buffington's Crusaders frequently had success against the Jays, but in Anunoby's 2013-14 junior season, when the Jays hadn't beaten Helias since at least 2008, the two teams were in an overtime thriller.
Buffington's team won a couple of months back in double overtime, and it looked to be the same story. A Crusader got the ball on the fast break and was going straight to the hoop as the clock was running towards the buzzer.
"Clear space, no one within 20 feet of us dribbling in for the layup," Buffington said.
Then Anunoby entered the picture.
"OG took off in a dead sprint from the opposite free-throw line, caught him, and smacked it off the backboard to block a shot at the buzzer," Buffington said.
The Jays won in double overtime 55-53, handing Buffington one of two losses against Jefferson City as Helias' coach from 2008-18. Both happened while Anunoby was wearing red and black.
"It was a freakishly athletic play and it's just one you don't see in high school sports very often," Buffington said. "Your eyes pop, your eyebrows raise and you're like, 'OK, let's go to the next overtime.'"
As well as his innate athleticism, Thompson said one of the first traits he noticed about Anunoby was his basketball IQ and intelligence.
"Things that usually take kids well into their high school career to really figure out and get good at, he understood those things," Thompson said. "He was ahead of his time, definitely. I think his game as far from a mental aspect was even ahead of his physical abilities."
That was first noticed in middle school but continued to develop before
Anunoby took a big jump during his first year on varsity, but that junior year that featured the big win against Helias was when he took the biggest leap. Thompson said he didn't like using the weight room at first, but after he started using it his mental abilities and freakish athleticism combined with the strength to make him unstoppable.
Layups turned into dunks and his defensive ability improved to the point where he was guarding the opponent's best player regardless of size or position.
These ingredients ended up coming together and creating one of the most successful athletes coming out of Jefferson City in school history before Anunoby blossoming into one of the top young players in the NBA.
"A lot of coaches would dream of having something like that," Thompson said.
Now, that dream player is returning to Jefferson City, getting to reunite with many coaches and teachers including the past rival Buffington who is taking over the reins of his old school and using him as an example for the players in his new program to follow.
"It gives hope to every kid coming out of a small town," Buffington said. "He's worked for everything he got. He's earned all the success that he's gotten."
The town he is returning to also is embracing him and will be ready for his return.
"They're excited to see him," Buffington said. "They're excited to say hi to him. They're excited to honor him because they know how deserving of it it is."