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Player Review: Precious Achiuwa, a season of non-linear growth

Achiuwa’s up-and-down year was microcosmic of the team – great at times, but not sustained.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Following the success of his second NBA season, and first as a Toronto Raptor, Precious Achiuwa seemed poised for a breakout 2022-23 season. But instead of a Most Improved Player candidacy we got a roller coaster, which in some ways was a microcosm of the Raptors’ season – the sum of the season, to put it bluntly, fell short of our ambitious hopes.

Some of the disappointment was out of Achiuwa’s control, as he was forced to miss nearly two months with partial ligament tears in his ankle. Categorizing Achiuwa’s whole season as a mere disappointment would be untrue. In between the injury and the occasional benching, Achiuwa also achieved career highs and showed promising signs of improvement in his game.

When asked about the team’s quiet trade deadline back in February, Masai Ujiri emphasized the importance of patience: “Growth is not linear.” That quote applies to Achiuwa as much as it does anyone else, and Achiuwa’s growth will help dictate the ceiling of this roster’s core.

Precious Achiuwa is an electric player. His explosiveness and high motor can make a big, often chaotic impact on games – sometimes positively, other times not. Exercising patience with Achiuwa is important for him to shape into a more consistent, mistake-free player. That patience wasn’t always there this year, as Nick Nurse benched Achiuwa toward the end of the season. Then again, that DNP occurred amid a month-long stretch during which Achiuwa never reached double-digit points. In the interest of pursuing a play-in spot, Nurse likely made the right call. In the interest of player development, more minutes could’ve been nice. (But let’s not rehash the merits of the play-in race here!)

One of Achiuwa’s most important improvements this season was his finishing around the basket. His field goal percentage at the rim improved from 63.5% in 21-22 to 72.6% this year, according to Basketball Reference. He shot just 46.5% on layups last season – not good for a player at 6-foot-8, 225 pounds – versus a much-improved 60% this year.

Some of that improvement stems from working on his touch around the basket. But it’s also the result of Achiuwa’s improved craftiness. When catching the ball in the dunker spot, the Achiuwa of yore would often rush and go up with the ball immediately, regardless of how well-positioned his defender was. This year, Achiuwa demonstrated a better feel for timing and using pump fakes to create bigger openings or draw fouls.

Two clips from Achiuwa’s 27-point, 13-rebound performance vs the Trail Blazers showcase Achiuwa’s use of fakes to manipulate the defender:

Achiuwa’s percentages did not improve across the board this year. His three-point percentage plummeted from 35.5% to 26.9%, making the whole Vision 6-9 thing a little more difficult to pull off. Three-point percentages are tied to variance and some luck, so it’s likely that his real shooting ability is somewhere between those two numbers. Achiuwa did improve this year as a free-throw shooter, bringing his percentage from 59.5% to 70.2% on nearly the same volume – an encouraging trend for the hopes that his three-point percentage will resurface.

Whether it does or not, though, Achiuwa is a ways away from being a reliable shooting threat. Achiuwa shot 6-for-31 (19.4%) on open three-point attempts (closest defender within four-to-six feet), and shot a similar 23.5% last season. Achiuwa did shoot 30.6% on 72 “wide open” attempts (closest defender six-plus feet away), and was 42% on those looks last year. Unless he’s left unguarded, an Achiuwa three-pointer is a great outcome for opponents – especially since he’s out of position for offensive rebounds.

Speaking of which! While Achiuwa lacks the shooting prowess to add spacing to lineups with non-shooters (of which the Raptors have many), he does generate extra possessions with his offensive boards. His combination of burst, hustle, and strength allow him to fight for rebounds versus bigger players (like Jarrett Allen):

Achiuwa’s effectiveness depended somewhat on the context of his minutes. When Achiuwa filled in as the starting centre pre-trade deadline, he performed well in his lower-usage role as the fifth option. The two-man lineup stats reflect that, as Achiuwa registered a positive net rating in his minutes with each starter – and a negative net rating with each bench player. Bench lineups with less surrounding talent gave Achiuwa more freedom, but he would sometimes run into trouble trying to do too much.

Achiuwa scored just 0.58 points per possession (6.3 percentile in the NBA) in his 31 iso attempts, and turned it over (19.4% of isolations) almost as frequently as he scored (29% of isolations). His mix of size, speed, and handle is seriously exciting, but he just hasn’t reached the level where he can consistently create advantages with the ball.

Where Achiuwa does show off that exciting skillset is attacking closeouts. Achiuwa is at his most dangerous when his defender is catching up to meet him on the perimeter. He loves leveraging a shot fake or jab step into his quick first step and blowing by the closeout, often leading to big dunks or, encouragingly, nice dumpoff passes to cutters.

Given Achiuwa’s shooting woes, the opportunities to attack closeouts mostly came from teammates who could collapse defenses and draw the attention of Achiuwa’s man, plus decisiveness by Achiuwa. Enjoy this decisive dunk on Walker Kessler:

His knack for attacking closeouts, plus his improved shooting at the rim, helped Achiuwa bring his field goal percentage on drives up from 38.7% in 21-22 (194 drives) to 49.4% this season (140 drives). The one glaring issue was Achiuwa’s 13.6% turnover rate on drives – the second-highest of all players with 100+ drives. Achiuwa can slice through defenses when an advantage is there, but still needs to cut down on mistakes when the defense forces him to plan B.

Achiuwa is dynamic as a finisher on fast break opportunities. Give him some open space and Achiuwa will take over with his breathtaking athleticism. Part of what makes Achiuwa unique is his ability, at his size, to dribble the ball and take his own rebounds coast-to-coast. It makes for some tantalizing highlights – but his decision-making there can be erratic as well, leading to some poorly-timed passes or forced layups against good contests.

That’s why he ranked last on the Raptors with 0.91 points per transition possession (min. 30 possessions), finished with the team’s worst EFG% in transition (50.8), and turned it over more in transition than every Raptor except Scottie Barnes. With more reps, Achiuwa will hopefully cut down on those errors.

Achiuwa was one of the players most affected by the Raptors’ deadline acquisition of Jakob Poeltl. His minutes per game dropped from 25.5 in February to 13.2 in March as Nurse embraced having a true center on the floor. But while the fit may seem clunky, the Achiuwa/Poeltl pairing yielded promising results this season. The two only played together in nine games, so the sample size is small, but lineups featuring Poeltl with Achiuwa were a +22 per 100 possessions in 82 minutes.

That might come as a surprise, given the inherent lack of three-point shooting in a lineup featuring both Achiuwa and Poeltl. But despite the lack of spacing, Poeltl’s skill as a passer generates more looks for Achiuwa when he’s actively cutting off the ball. Achiuwa is most effective as a finisher at this point in his career, and being paired with a passing big like Poeltl gives Achiuwa more angles and opportunities to finish plays.

More importantly, Achiuwa and Poeltl work well together on defense. The pair’s combined length, quick feet, and shot-blocking instincts make them a nightmare for opposing offenses trying to break into the paint. They’re also both versatile enough to switch against actions involving larger wings and bigs (plus Achiuwa has no trouble defending quicker guards).

Lineups that pair Achiuwa with a center might be the optimal way to utilize him. At 6-8, he has trouble finishing against rim protectors and doesn’t have the size to truly be one. But Achiuwa is a tremendous perimeter defender against every position. While he’s undersized for a center, he has the athleticism and feel for rotating as the help defender, and is excellent at contesting and blocking inside attempts without fouling. On field goals within 6 feet from the basket, opponents shot 2.9% worse against Achiuwa versus their season number.

Achiuwa’s greatest strength as a player is likely his defensive versatility – he is capable of singlehandedly ending possessions. It’s that All-Defense upside that makes him such an intriguing player.

Here’s Achiuwa in his ideal defensive role as the help-side roamer, making a great read:

Ultimately, Precious Achiuwa’s 2022-23 season was, like the Raptors’, defined by its ups and downs. But while his mistakes can be frustrating, this was just Achiuwa’s third year in the NBA. He can learn how to cut down on those errors and hopefully become a more consistent player. His upside remains exciting as ever because Achiuwa possesses traits, especially as a defender, that simply cannot be taught.