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Player Preview: Precious Achiuwa, ready to turn heads

A possible Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Achiuwa has come a long way since being a second line in the Kyle Lowry trade. It also looks like he’s ready to go further.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

To outsiders, the Toronto Raptors are playing a different game when it comes to roster construction — the simplistic perception is that means there’s a lot of similar-sized guys doing the same stuff.

You know the story. Big wing forwards, ability to play defense at the position of highest need, multi-tool offensive players who thrive on the glass. This was the winning formula for the Raptors last season and, given most of the roster is a hold-over, it’ll be the formula again in 2022-23.

This is more than just a collection of guys who do the same thing, though. Each individual in Vision 6’9” — Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher, OG Anunoby, Thad Young, Dalano Banton, Otto Porter Jr., and the man we’re hear to talk about today in Precious Achiuwa — each has a specific skillset and upside, and some are more exciting to talk about than others.

The untapped potential of Precious Achiuwa puts him at the top of the list for me.

Sure, the easy answer is Scottie Barnes. A Rookie of the Year that could seemingly go anywhere with his game, Barnes is a sure bet to be an All-Star calibre player at some point in the next few seasons. Achiuwa, though, is not as much a sure thing and did not carry that sort of expectation heading into his first season in Toronto. The unknown is more exciting. The mystery box could be anything, people, even Scottie Barnes!

Even as a known commodity, Achiuwa has progressed significantly. Coming over in the Kyle Lowry trade, Precious was a chin-stroking question mark next to Goran Dragic (we know how that worked out), and observers weren’t quite sure how fast his development could keep up with the rest of the Raptors.

Those questions were answered in 2021-22. Let’s take a look back at the flashes the 23-year-old has already shown, what Achiuwa brings to the table this season, and why this is the guy who will have more fans saying “where did that come from?” while watching the Raps this season.

Shutdown defense

In Nick Nurse’s switching defensive schemes, where any one opposing player can have a different tall human in front of them at any given time, the demand is high on players like Achiuwa.

As Jay Rosales pointed out in his player review over the summer, Achiuwa spent almost equal amounts of time guarding guards and forwards last season and was effective against each. While his initial assignment can be some of the league’s premiere names — Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James — there’s very little reason to talk about one-on-one defense when it comes to anyone on the Raptors. The proof is in how you recover, how you can move side-to-side when put on an island, and the space you can extinguish when helping.

Precious has done it all extremely well.

Coming into this year, Precious has clearly set high expectations for himself. In preseason interviews, he’s touted his ability to defend and wants to improve.

We have seen what his toolkit is and it has All-Defense written all over it. In 2021-22, Achiuwa carried an individual defensive rating 106.7, second to Chris Boucher among rotation players. He gobbled up a defensive rebound percentage of 18.8 and was part of a beastly duo of offensive rebounders besides Boucher, marking an offensive rebound percentage of 7.5. In the preseason, he’s led the team in rebounding overall with 6.4 boards per game.

This is the foundational skill of Precious Achiuwa and one we should expect to see every game throughout 2022-23. If Gary Trent Jr. is indeed the fifth starter for the Raptors, Achiuwa will be asked first to be a utility defender off the bench, sizing up Toronto’s lineups and guarding anyone on the floor.

There’s more on the table, though.

Offensive confidence

While defense will be Achiuwa’s bread and butter this season, maybe even to the tune of being an All-Defensive Team candidate, the flashes that excite people are on the other end of the floor.

Achiuwa was one of six Raptors to average double-digit scoring in the preseason (11.4 points per game) and is fresh off a 2022 playoff run where he made a play that became the offseason talking point for Raptors fans.

That blazing flash of confidence should have people salivating to this day, especially since Achiuwa will continue to play in lineups where his shot is available to him.

The Raptors aren’t a heliocentric team by any stretch, but defenses have typically put a lot of attention on Pascal Siakam, leaving Achiuwa to catch and make decisions with space outside the three-point line. The above two clips show that he is growing in confidence — both in terms of execution and decision-making. While his three-point percentage was miserable in the preseason, along with the rest of the team, Achiuwa is going to have a lot of open shots and chances to break defenders off the dribble. If we see him creating buckets on a regular basis early in the season, the entire floor lifts on a Raptors offense that may often be stuck in the mud.

The jaw-dropping highlights are one thing, but the measure of Precious Achiuwa in 2022-23 will be by his consistency.

Building on a foundation and passion for defense, which he appears to have already, with decisive, consistent offense is the ideal scenario for Achiuwa this season. There are some flashy names in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation around the NBA, including the Golden State’s Jordan Poole and Miami’s Tyler Herro.

If the Raptors punch above their weight, though, there’s no reason a two-way force like Achiuwa shouldn’t be considered right alongside them.