Photo Credit: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images
One of Toronto’s newest Raptors had an unusual road to the team, but it’s one that brings two well-acquainted people back together, and it could pay off for the team in a big way down the line.
Dating back to March, Toronto Raptors fans have mulled over what the possible return could be on a Kyle Lowry trade. Leading up to the deadline, there was a lot of speculation as to where he could end up, and ultimately, he wound up staying. That is, until he announced his departure to the Miami Heat, in what would eventually be a sign-and-trade transaction.
The trade yielded 21 year-old forward Precious Achiuwa as the main centrepiece in the deal, partly as a return for Lowry’s value, but also to absorb the $19.4 million cap hit on veteran point guard Goran Dragic. Achiuwa was the 20th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft after one season with the Memphis Tigers, and has a connection to Raptors President & Vice Chairman Masai Ujiri through his Giants of Africa organization.
Achiuwa was a participant in Ujiri’s Basketball Without Borders programs growing up in Nigeria, and that experience and exposure helped him become recognized by international scouts. Eventually, when he was just thirteen years old, he and his family would relocate to the United States, where he would go on through the cycle and play for Montverde Academy, well-known for its NBA prep program.
That Precious Achiuwa now comes to the Toronto Raptors to work alongside the man who helped him get where he is today feels like a full circle moment. The truth is, this is only the beginning of their story together.
Achiuwa didn’t have a starring role in his lone season with the Heat, but he was a part of their rotation throughout the season and put together a nice rookie campaign in a bench role for Miami. He won over the fans with his work ethic and energy, and truly personified the infamous “Heat Culture” whenever he stepped onto the court.
Now, in his next chapter, he is expected to have even more responsibility with the Raptors this season. How will he adjust to the pace of a new team in an expanded role? There is plenty of growth opportunity for Achiuwa with the organization in his second year, and it is going to be on him to seize every moment the Raptors hand him.
Key Areas of Strength
Achiuwa’s biggest asset to any team is his ability to defend the ball. It’s one of the primary reasons the Raptors were so enamoured with him both at the trade deadline and as a prospect in a sign-and-trade this past summer.
Achiuwa stands at 6-foot-9, but he has shown the ability to defend one through five on the court. Despite his smaller frame, he grades out as a strong rim protector. From six feet or closer to the rim, opponents shoot 6.1 per cent worse when he is the primary defender, which graded out as the second-highest mark on the Miami Heat last season; even better than his former teammate and All-NBA Defender Bam Adebayo’s mark of -4.7 per cent.
Just look at this play from the Tokyo Olympic Games!
Achiuwa is playing the five in this clip, guarding his then-teammate Adebayo, who is shaded as a decoy at the top of the paint. This is designed to pull Achiuwa out of the paint, and he’s forced to meet Adebayo there to respect his mid-range jumper.
So, naturally, to exploit this, Team USA swings the ball around and gets it to their best player: Kevin Durant. He makes a quick hesitation move and thinks he has a clear path to the basket, until… nope! Precious Achiuwa is not interested. His strong lateral speed allows him to recover quickly, get up against Durant and his behemoth 7-foot-5 wingspan (!) and make the stop.
That is simply elite athleticism, and a small sample size of what Achiuwa brings to the table as a defender. He’s quick enough to keep up with the speedier forwards, and strong enough to block the biggest of big men, and it’s the very reason why is going to be a problem in this league for a long time.
Achiuwa is a smart player, and he is going to only improve as a defender with more playing time and more seasoning. He reads plays well, and he simply has a knack for making the right play on this end. This is the prominent feature of his game, and his strong defensive instincts should have Nick Nurse utilizing his abilities in a variety of lineups.
Hustle & Energy
One thing you can undeniably count on when it comes to Precious Achiuwa’s game: he is going to bring it every single night.
This was one of his big calling cards in his rookie year, as he was a situational player who came onto the court and injected life into the team whenever they needed it.
While Achiuwa still has lots of polishing to do on his overall game, one thing that he can be relied upon for is his ability to change the tempo of a game. Not a lot of players in limited roles can really say that about themselves, but Achiuwa can absolutely stake his claim to it. He can swing momentum with his energy, and as he continues to grow, he will harness it in better ways and figure out how to sustain it for longer stretches.
There is no statistical way to measure hustle and energy, but Achiuwa has plenty of it. So long as he’s willing to put in the work to sort out the finesse in his game, his motor will take him the rest of the way.
Raptors Insider Stat Prediction
2020-21 Stats: 12.1 MPG, 5.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 54.4% FG, 0.0% 3FG, 50.9% FT
This is going to be an adjustment year for Achiuwa, and while the statistical jumps may prove to be conservative estimates, the stat sheet is also not where he needs to impact the game to have a successful year. So long as Achiuwa can continue on his trajectory as a do-it-all, toolsy player who can come into the game and make his presence felt on the defensive end, he is going to do just fine under Nick Nurse.
His overall stats should jump simply from having a bigger role and playing more minutes overall, but one area that might dip is his efficiency. This is going to come from the fact that he is going to be expected to at least take a three-pointer or two per game, and his shooting is a work in progress.
Overall, as long as things continue to move in the right direction, it should be a productive season for Achiuwa. There will certainly be some growing pains in terms of the shooting, but his barometer for success hinges on the other side of the ball, as he will be tasked with anchoring the defense on a young second unit that is expected to feature fellow sophomore Malachi Flynn, as well as rookie Scottie Barnes.
Inside & Outside Shooting
As noted above, Achiuwa shot 50.9 per cent from the free-throw line in his rookie season. He also did not attempt a single three-pointer last year. Suffice to say, shooting is ultimately what will make or break his development offensively.
In the Summer League, he shot 2-of-4 in a three-game sample size, but the fact that he shot any is encouraging on its own. If he’s willing to put the work in, the coaches will give him the green light to work at it and get in-game reps. The Raptors see this as a development year, and Achiuwa should have plenty of opportunities to work on his shooting.
The free-throws are a different story; while the three-pointer hasn’t necessarily been incorporated into his game before, Achiuwa is known to be bruiser in the paint, and his speed against opposing big men means he’ll likely draw a lot of fouls. In this regard, he simply needs to improve.
Free-throws mostly come down to focus, so if he can harness this while working on his shooting form, there’s no reason he can’t gradually get to where he needs to be on this front. Plus, he’ll have a good role model in OG Anunoby, who went from a 62 per cent free-throw shooter in his first year all the way up to a career-best 78.4 per cent last season.
If Precious Achiuwa wants to truly make strides in his overall game and become a complete player, it ultimately begins and ends with developing a shooting touch. Without it, teams will simply pack the paint and send him to the free throw line, and if he’s unable to make them pay for that, it will be a struggle offensively.
It doesn’t mean he won’t be able to contribute without a shot, but it makes things that much more difficult on everybody else. This will undoubtedly be his biggest objective this season, and one Raptors fans will be eyeing keenly.
Consistency & Confidence
Coming to a new team is always an adjustment, no matter who you are or what you do. Coming to a new team with completely elevated expectations and much more responsibility is a whole different animal. In this regard, Precious Achiuwa has a very big challenge ahead of him; however, it’s one that he is absolutely going to be ready for.
After playing just 12.1 minutes per game last season in Miami, Achiuwa is due for a much bigger boost this year. His role was also much smaller with the Heat, as they leaned on veterans in an attempt to repeat their 2020 NBA Finals run from the Orlando bubble. This season will be a change, as Achiuwa is going to be relied upon nightly to make an impact for his team.
Achiuwa is going to need to be prepared for nightly battles, and that means maintaining top conditioning and ensuring there are no peaks and valleys. His role is the steady defensive anchor who brings boundless energy and forces the opposition to adjust to how hard he’s playing. It’s easier to play hard in spurts, or in spot minutes, but Achiuwa is going to have to do this for twenty minutes a night or more.
So long as he continues to find a way to bring that energy nightly, and expand his overall game in a meaningful way, Precious Achiuwa is going to fit in just fine. His relentless style of play is going to have Raptor fans swooning for him almost instantly, and the team is going to prioritize his shooting development throughout the season.
As one of the team’s newcomers, Achiuwa is going to have a lot on his hands this upcoming season, but the upside is tremendous. He really is that guy, pal. Trust me.