James Wiseman was going to legitimize college basketball in Memphis.
The seven-footer, ranked the number one high-school recruit by ESPN for the 2019 class, had accepted new coach Penny Hardaway’s offer to be a Tiger.
Expectations for Memphis shot up. They escalated even further after Wiseman’s 28 and 11 debut against South Carolina where Wiseman added in three blocks and two assists for good measure.
Two games later it was all over as Wiseman was ruled ineligible because Hardaway (as a booster), had given the Wiseman family $11,500 to help them move from Nashville to Memphis.
What does this have to with the Toronto Raptors?
That Memphis team still managed to go 21-1 and leading the way was the #17 ranked recruit that year — Precious Achiuwa.
Achiuwa led the Tigers in scoring, rebounds, and blocked shots — picking up the pieces for a team that many ruled out after Wiseman left.
Achiuwa ended up as the AAC player and rookie of the year, and with Memphis ranked for half the season he might have helped push the Tigers into the NCAA tournament — if the Coronavirus didn’t cause it to be cancelled.
Achiuwa then spent his first NBA season in Miami after the Heat picked him #20 overall (the Raptors were rumored to be interested in trading up for Achiuwa, or to grab him with 29th pick that ended up being Malachi Flynn).
Miami has a player-development crucible that is arguably the equal, or even superior, to the Raptors, which bodes well for Achiuwa’s development of good habits. Especially given he played behind Bam Adebayo — whose game represents a best-best-case scenario for Achiuwa as he develops.
In Miami he carved out a bench role as a back-up big, before a late season trade for Dwayne Dedmon pushed him to the fringes of the rotation for the playoff bound Heat. Achiuwa still managed to put up per-36 averages of 14.8/10.2 with 1.4 blocks.
While Goran Dragic is the more familiar name, there is no doubt that Achiuwa was the marquee return in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade. Since Masai Ujiri has had contact with Achiuwa for years, based on Achiuwa’s involvement with Ujiri’s Giants of Africa initiative and the Nigerian National Team, it’s safe to say that aside from the Heat, nobody knows Achiuwa’s potential better than the Raps.
So, what sort of potential does the 6’9” forward bring to Toronto?
Achiuwa is the latest in a plethora of 6’7” to 6’9” Raptors who can fly up and down the court, and jump out of the gym. Almost regardless of who he’s matched up against, Achiuwa will have an athletic advantage — simply put, dude’s got hops.
That athleticism allows Achiuwa to beat his man down the floor and keep the ball alive on the offensive glass, where his multiple-jump ability allows him to beat other big men for rebounds. According to Cleaning the Glass, as a rookie, Achiuwa snagged almost 11% of the Heat’s missed shots, a mark that puts him in the top quarter of bigs in the league.
What’s most exciting about Achiuwa offensive game? I’d say this:
There we see the best of Achiuwa. His quick hands let him grab a deflected ball, and he has the fluidity and balance to turn it up court and then finish around a couple of opponents. He’s not guard-like (or Scottie Barnes-like) with the ball in his hands, but he has real flow for a bigger player.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, most of Achiuwa’s offensive strengths can be connected to his athleticism. He’s not yet a particularly instinctive player in the half-court, with his off-ball movement very much a work in progress, and no real bag of post-moves. While he has some handle, he’s still more or less a straight-line driver. His shooting also needs work; Achiuwa hit just 32.5% of his three-pointers in his lone year in Memphis, and missed the only three-pointer he took in Miami.
Most concerningly, is that while Achiuwa took 83% of his shots at the rim, he hit those shots at only a 60% mark — one of the weakest results for big-men in the league. Despite those hops, Achiuwa struggled to get clean looks.
Overall, it added up to a player who was one of the weakest in the NBA at scoring, sitting in just the 16th-percentile in terms of points scored per 100 shot attempts for bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Achiuwa will get some put-backs, finish some lobs with authority (although perhaps give those back by the fact that at this stage he doesn’t set the type of screens that give his ball-handler much of an advantage), and get fans out of their seats with the occasional coast to coast finish, but in the half-court, he’s likely to be part of the Raptors offensive problems, not the solution.
Simply put, he’s a project, but if the handling and shooting continues to come along, the notion of a Bam Adebayo-lite type player is definitely in play.
At 6’9”, 225lbs with a 7’1.5” wingspan, Achiuwa fits perfectly with the sort of rangy defender that has become the Raptor archetype. Unsurprisingly, Achiuwa’s athleticism plays out here too, as he has nimble feet mean that allow him to hang with perimeter players, at least long enough to help the Raptors scrambling defense get back into position.
On the interior, Achiuwa has the potential to be a high-end shot-blocker. He was already above average for bigs as a rookie. Again, his ability to get off the floor more quickly than his opponent allows Precious to react to the play and get his hands on the ball. As a defensive rebounder he leverages those same abilities to help end possessions — he was also above average as a defensive rebounder in his rookie season.
Given time to get stronger and better understand the game, and there is the potential for Achiuwa to be, if not elite at both rebounding and blocking shots, then clearly in the upper echelon.
He also has a relentless motor. That’s a factor on offense as well, where he’s always a threat to outwork an opposition big man for position or a loose ball, but it makes him even more imposing on defense where he’ll make multiple effort plays.
Like on offense though, Precious is relatively raw on the defensive side of the floor. He’s stronger as an on-the-ball defender then a help defender right now, fouls a lot, and despite his quick hands is worse than the average big at getting steals.
All in all, Precious will be another long, fast, active defender that coach Nick Nurse can use to try to break the opponent’s will on that end of the court. It’s likely that his defense will outstrip his offense in the short-term, but given how Toronto hopes to play, that’ll likely be fine with Nurse.
To my mind, Achiuwa is one of THE most interesting Raptors, on a team absolutely filled with interesting dudes. If you’re wondering what to watch with Achiuwa, I think the key signs of progress would be to see if he becomes more instinctive on both ends of the court, and can start making higher-end reads with the ball, and without it.
An Achiuwa who can do what Pascal Siakam did a couple of years ago — beat his man down the court for easy baskets, show flashes of some on-the-ball juice and hit the odd shot in the midrange — would be very exciting. If he can do that while surviving at the centre position against some of the bigger fives in the league? That’s amazing. If he can do all that and make some higher-level reads as a facilitator from the elbows? Then the Raptors’ brain-trust will be doing cartwheels.
I wouldn’t bet on a full Simone Biles performance by Ujiri, Bobby Webster and co., but by the end of the season those who wondered why the Raps decided they’d rather have Achiuwa as the centre-piece of a Lowry deal, than, say Kendrick Nunn, or a soon-to-be restricted Duncan Robinson, are going to realize that Ujiri, Webster and co. made another canny decision.