Precious Achiuwa has become a polarizing figure during his first season with the Toronto Raptors, and it likely has to do with peoples’ varying expectations of him coming into the year.
The 22-year-old, 6-foot-9 big man from Nigeria is the main (and, right now, it’s looking like the only) return in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade from this past summer. So, considering that the Raptors technically traded the greatest player in franchise history for Achiuwa, many people had lofty expectations for him entering the season, fair or not.
But it’s important to remember the context surrounding Achiuwa in his first season with the Raptors. After all, this is a player who was not considered a surefire one-and-done college player when he attended Memphis University in 2019, and who was only given the opportunity to thrive as a small-ball center there after James Wiseman ran into eligibility problems and left the school three games into the season. This is a player who averaged just 12.1 minutes per game in 61 games in a hyper-specific role during his first NBA season with the Miami Heat — a COVID-ravaged season that made it hard for anyone to find rhythm, especially rookies.
(In fact, Achiuwa’s story is a unique one, from attending one of Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa camps in Nigeria to playing on his NBA team. I profiled him in more detail here.)
The point is: Given Achiuwa’s lack of high-level basketball experience and how big men tend to take a long time to develop at the NBA level, especially on the defensive side of the ball, Achiuwa has come a long way in a short period of time. The fact that he is already a positive player is promising, and his progression during the 2021-22 season should be viewed in a positive light, even if he is still far from a finished product.
The specific dichotomy that seems to be keeping Raptors’ fans up at night is how Achiuwa is so advanced and developed on the defensive end of the floor and yet so clueless and raw on offence. Watching Achiuwa, it makes sense that the Raptors score 4.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Achiuwa on the floor, yet they also allow 5.8 fewer points, culminating in a net-rating of +0.9.
So, let’s explore the yin and yang of Precious Achiuwa’s game, starting with the offence, moving to the defence, and ending by exploring his long-term fit with the Raptors.
The Yin: Offence
Although I consider myself an optimist — and I am optimistic about Achiuwa and the Raptors — we have to start on offence, because that is the side of the ball where Achiuwa stands out, for all the wrong reasons.
Achiuwa is currently averaging 8.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists to 1.1 turnovers on 41/22/57 shooting splits this season, culminating in a 44.3 true shooting percentage, which is simply not good enough for a big man who primarily rolls to the rim and takes his shots in the restricted area.
In fact, Achiuwa’s 87.6 points scored per 100 shot attempts ranks in the 4th percentile for big men in the NBA, and he ranks in the 10th percentile or worse in effective field goal percentage (42.4), two-point percentage (44.4), three-point percentage (20.5), free-throw percentage (57.4), and shots at the rim (55 percent). Achiuwa does not have good hands when it comes to catching bounce passes or lobs and his touch around the rim leaves a lot to be desired.
While these numbers are uninspiring and show that he is one of the least efficient big men in the NBA this season, Achiuwa has been given a lot of offensive freedom under Nick Nurse and the Raptors, and so his shot diet is dramatically more difficult than it was last season with the Miami Heat, who asked him to simply set screens and roll to the rim.
Achiuwa went from shooting 82 percent of his shots at the rim last season to just 47 percent this season, instead getting opportunities to shoot more from the mid-range (16 percent of his shots last season to 39 percent this season) and from beyond the arc (0 to 14 percent). Plus, Achiuwa went from getting assisted on 73 percent of his shots last season down to 63 percent last season, so some of his drop in efficiency is due to him creating more for himself and shooting from less advantageous positions on the floor.
But it wasn’t like Achiuwa was especially efficient in a reduced role last season, either (55.0 true shooting percentage in 2020-21). And part of the problem is that Achiuwa does not set good enough screens to create separation, doesn't have good hands for a big man that needs to catch the ball from all angles, and he has poor touch around the rim when trying to finish — often foregoing the glass and trying to score with finesse.
The other, perhaps larger issue is that Achiuwa often doesn’t know where to be on the offensive end of the floor when he doesn’t have the ball and he doesn’t read the game quickly enough to make good decisions when he does. Achiuwa will often clog up driving lanes for his teammates with ill-timed cuts or be off on his timing rolling to the rim, forcing the Raptors to reset the offence and take valuable time off the clock. When Achiuwa receives the ball in the short roll with a 4-on-3 advantage, he too often gets sped up and tends to make bad decisions.
It’s no wonder that the Raptors score 4.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Achiuwa on the court, the worst margin among current rotation players on the team.
Fortunately, for those who are willing to be patient with Achiuwa’s offensive development, he has shown promising flashes in almost every aspect of his offence, from his ability to finish with speed, through contact, and with either hand; his handle is better than most big men; he can create his own shot in the post; he is starting to shoot the ball a little bit, attempting 1.2 threes per game after shooting 0 last season; and he has the athleticism and explosiveness to theoretically be a dangerous roll threat.
“We think we’ve got a really young, versatile player,” Nurse said about Achiuwa. “He's got a lot of room for improvement in some areas. I think the main thing for me is getting him out there. I really want to get his minutes up, get him out there so he can get reps. I think that’s the way he’s going to become a better player.”
The Yang: Defence
Achiuwa’s defence is so good that it more than makes up for all of his offensive misgivings.
In fact, Achiuwa is not just a good defender for his size (as an undersized center) or for his age and experience — he is simply already a plus-defender in the NBA. And for a Raptors team that prioritizes defence more than most teams, Achiuwa has earned his 25.5 minutes per game and 20 starts this season (both rank 6th on the team) due almost entirely to his defensive versatility, effort, and execution.
It’s not often that you find a guy who is 6-foot-9 and strong enough to battle in the post with some of the best offensive bigs in the league and simultaneously have the athleticism, mobility and explosiveness to shuffle his feet and stay in front of guards on the perimeter.
As Nick Nurse explains, that rare combination not only allows Achiuwa to guard special athletes like Giannis Antetokounmpo, it also allows the Raptors to play different coverages, including switching 1-through-5 with Achiuwa on the floor, which can be a saving grace when players get caught on screens.
“I think the combination of the way he can move his feet and his size and strength, you know? He can move laterally pretty good. And you need to do that with a Giannis coming at you downhill. And then you need to be able to stand in there and take those hits when he lowers his shoulder. So, he is a little unique in a guy of that size to have such quick feet,” Nurse says.
“It is good to have when your bigs can move. That way… you can do your switching all the way through the lineup. Try to keep the ball in front a little more instead of having to maybe switch one through four and play (other) coverages, a bunch of different coverages with your fives and things like that. So, it has been a pleasant surprise, yeah.”
It’s no wonder Achiuwa is contesting 11.6 shots per game and opponents are shooting just 43.1 percent against him from the floor, a difference of -4.0 percent from what they typically shoot, the best mark on the team. At the rim, those numbers are even more impressive, because even though Achiuwa is not a big shot blocker (0.7 blocks per game), he is quick enough to regularly rotate over and contest 4.8 shots per game there, and is an expert at using his strong frame and long arms to contest shots vertically without fouling, with opponents shooting just 47.8 percent on him within 6-feet of the rim, a difference of -14.4 from their averages, again the best mark on the team.
Achiuwa is also the best rebounder on the Raptors, with a team-leading defensive rebounding percentage of 16.4 and total rebounding percentage of 23.8. That is especially meaningful for a team that depends on its league-best offensive rebounding to score in the half court and yet ranks near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding. In fact, the Raptors grab 2.4 percent more offensive rebounds with Achiuwa on the floor, and they grab a team-leading 3.9 percent more defensive rebounds with him there, so it’s an under-discussed aspect of his game.
Again, it’s no wonder the Raptors allow 5.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Achiuwa on the court, the stingiest mark on the team outside of VanVleet. And Achiuwa’s teammates clearly feel comfortable when he is manning the backline of the defence.
“Achiuwa works so hard and there’s a lot of things we don’t see (with him). Obviously, you see the rebounds and stuff but all the help that he does on the backside, he talks and all that. So it makes it a lot easier for a guy like me,” Chris Boucher says about his teammate.
“If I see somebody driving, I know that Precious is behind, so I can help a lot more. One thing that Precious does well is he doesn’t really take plays off. Sometimes you’re a step late, and that happens because it’s the NBA and a lot of guys are good, but you can see that he makes the effort every time and we need somebody like that. Now that we can switch a little bit more and he’s able to guard those guys too, so it definitely makes it a lot easier with a guy like that.”
The long-term fit
Achiuwa’s name has been thrown around in a lot of trade talk recently, and it's not hard to understand why: At this point in time, Achiuwa is replaceable.
After all, the Raptors would greatly benefit from a starting-caliber center who could put some pressure on the rim as a roller, forcing the defence to make a decision to help off the corners and therefore give the rest of the team added space to work with. They would also benefit from a traditional rim protector, allowing them to play a less aggressive scheme and therefore foul less and rebound better. Achiuwa could be a key piece in the Raptors getting a player like Myles Turner or Jacob Poeltl at the trade deadline.
But I would be very hesitant to give up on Achiuwa so soon. After all, this was supposed to be a development year for the Raptors, and Achiuwa has made major strides, especially at the defensive end. He has so many tools and swing skills — including ball-handling, three-point shooting, and even finishing — that if he puts it all together, Achiuwa could be one of the best centers in the league one day. He is so young and inexperienced and his defensive upside is already so obvious that this possibility is hard to ignore.
Sure, the Raptors could use a more traditional center, providing them with increased lineup flexibility and a win-now roster. But they should try to get that player without moving on from Achiuwa, or else they might end up regretting letting a player with that much upside go.
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