Why Achiuwa’s unexpected rise could change the Raptors’ short-term outlook

Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa celebrates after scoring against the San Antonio Spurs. (Eric Gay/AP)

VICTORIA – Sometimes the answers you’ve been seeking lie in plain sight.

That’s probably an overly simplistic interpretation of the Toronto Raptors‘ relationship with Precious Achiuwa, the team’s intriguing third-year big man, but it’s not all that far from the truth.

Among the club’s shortcomings a season ago were a lack of size, not enough shooting depth and struggles on the defensive glass.

Regardless, the Raptors were able to put together a positive season in 2021-22 immediately on the heels of the ‘Tampa Tank’, where Toronto slid into the draft lottery while riding out the pandemic in Florida.

That part worked out well. The Raptors drafted superstar-in-training Scottie Barnes – a nice foundation piece as they seemed to be shifting into rebuild mode, which included saying goodbye to franchise icon Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade arrangement with the Miami Heat.

And while Barnes has been everything that could reasonably be hoped for in a No. 4 pick – as his rookie-of-the-year award would indicate – the unexpected rise of Achiuwa is another reason to believe Toronto can complete the climb from also-ran to contender sooner than almost anyone would have projected.

Part of the reason was how bad Achiuwa was (offensively, at least) when he first arrived last season. The athletic potential was obvious – only a handful of players at his size (6-foot-9) are as quick and fluid in their movement in any direction on the floor, or as explosive when they decide to leave it.

But until Christmas, roughly, he also struggled to catch, dribble, or shoot inside five feet: at one point he was making just half of his shots from that range, a distance good NBA finishers convert three quarters of the time, or more.

Defensively Achiuwa could contribute immediately. The Raptors were instantly better with him on the floor and per cleaningtheglass.com, Raptors opponents’ effective field goal percentage was 3.2 per cent worse with him on the floor – a difference that ranked Achiuwa in the league’s 92nd percentile, and opponents shot 4.1 per cent worse at the rim with Achiuwa patrolling the paint, which ranked in the 87th percentile for defensive impact.

But even the best defenders have to be able to not muck everything up completely when their team has the ball. And even though he was just 22 years old last year for long stretches of the season, Achiuwa seemed like a lost cause when his team had the ball.

In sum, he was an elite NBA-level talent without the skill to harness it.

But as the season wore on, Achiuwa got more and more comfortable. His improvement came incrementally and then suddenly. In a matter of weeks, it felt like, the second-year player transitioned from failed experiment to potential building block.

As the Raptors organize themselves for the season in training camp with a deep roster and plenty of competition for minutes, a pressing question is whether Achiuwa’s second-half leap was real or imagined; wishful or sustainable.

So far, the sense is Achiuwa is picking up from where he left off.

“[It’s] night and day; night and day as [far as] as who I saw for the first time last year in the gym to who he is today,” was Raptors guard Fred VanVleet’s assessment of Achiuwa after two days of practice.

“You’ve got to give credit to Precious and his work, his work ethic, and his dedication to continuing to get better. He’s found more touch around the rim, which is great to see. I was most impressed with his one-on-one defence on the perimeter. He guarded some of the best in the league better than anyone I’ve seen. I think that’s a valuable asset this year.”

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As much as the player who started last season was a liability for long stretches, the possibility of Achiuwa morphing into another O.G. Anunoby – a big wing who can guard five positions and shoot well enough to keep defences honest – changes the short-term equation for the Raptors.

Players with Achiuwa’s defensive chops – in the Raptors’ first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers he was as capable of standing in against Sixers behemoth Joel Embiid as he was tracking former MVP James Harden on the perimeter – who can shoot 39 per cent from three on nearly four attempts a game (Achiuwa’s post-all-star rates) all while running wild in transition and dominating the paint on defence are rare and valuable.

A team can’t have enough of them in a league where so much of the offensive load is carried by superstars who have guard skills in power forward frames. And if your organization happens to have a surplus of them, the possibility of trading for additional talent from a position of strength becomes tantalizing.

But first Achiuwa has to prove that the final three months of last season weren’t an aberration.

He’s confident that’s not the case.

“I mean every part of my game, in my opinion, has been getting better,” Achiuwa said Wednesday. “That was a big emphasis of mine and still is, just trying to get better all-around when it comes to my game.

“…The second half of the season really made me understand what I’m capable of doing and how much more I could do,” he added. “Just gotta keep doing the same thing, having the same approach to the game, and I took that to my workouts as well. It’s kinda like a vision, you take it and run with it.”

Increasingly, the Raptors are believing in it. Head coach Nick Nurse demurred when asked about the possibility of moving Achiuwa into the starting lineup, likely in place of Gary Trent Jr. and alongside VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes, but he’s as encouraged about what continued growth from the young big man could mean as anyone else.

“I think that he’s improving all the time. I think he had a great especially last half. I’ve already talked about I think he had a great spring, summer, fall so far, and he’s looked really good during the first three practices,” said Nurse. “So you know, I think a good step forward for him is expected by him, first and foremost, which is the most important, and by all of us, yeah.”

The Raptors need size, rim protection and outside shooting if they are going to improve on last season’s surprising surge from the lottery. Achiuwa can offer them all three qualities, and maybe much more.

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