Anything done against the Rockets, who were playing without several veterans, in the preseason should be taken with the whole damn box of salt. Still, Achiuwa’s enthusiasm about taking advantage of the Raptors’ offer for him to expand his role has been evident since Summer League.
The Raptors actually ran one of their pet dribble-handoff plays for Achiuwa to be the ballhandler, with the second-year big man slithering nicely underneath Daniel Theis for a layup. It seems likely that Achiuwa will be given more leeway in that department, as he is not afraid to take ball from the top of the key. Birch likes to make his decisions more quickly, with his deep-paint floater showing up as a weapon last year.
Achiuwa even knocked down one of his two 3-point attempts Monday, after trying just one in 737 minutes last year.
“That’s the way I’ve played since middle school, high school and college as well,” Achiuwa said after the game. “It’s just something I’m comfortable doing. As long as I’m taking care of the ball, making the right plays, making the right reads and not turning the ball over, it puts us in a good position.”
As Nurse pointed out, Birch and Achiuwa are more similar than not on the end the coach cares about more. Nurse praised Birch’s quick feet, and Achiuwa has shown off his lateral movement, too. If the Raptors are going to be overpowered by the bullies of this league — and they are — then they better be largely impervious to mismatch hunting on the perimeter.
“That’s one of the skills that I have, quick feet, quickness, being able to slide laterally and not just (leap) vertically,” Achiuwa said. “And I use that to my advantage when I’m guarding smaller guys, to keep them in front of me and go side to side with them and cut off their move. That’s one of the things that goes back to versatility, having guys that can do a lot of things, not just on offence but on defence as well.”
Achiuwa is still nailing down the intricacies of half-court defence, and that’s where Birch should have the slight edge. Ultimately, the two should be close to interchangeable, which is the whole idea.
The Raptors led 28-19 at the end of the first quarter but began to crack the game open in the second. Birch was part of it. He put the ball on the floor and made his way into the paint before pitching out to rookie Delano Banton for an open three. A moment later he put it on the floor again and scored on a nice leaner. Another paint touch earned him a trip to the foul line.
Along the way, the Raptors pushed their lead to 48-30 on their way to a 57-38 halftime lead. The game was never close after that.
Achiuwa wasn’t going to go unnoticed either. He helped the Raptors keep their momentum going in the second half by scoring on a one-man fastbreak early in the third quarter, earning a trip to the foul line a minute later and then stepping out for a three — something he and Birch are working to add to their respective repertoires.
Achiuwa finished with 17 points and five rebounds in his 19 minutes while Birch added a field goal and a pair of assists in his 17 minutes as he works his way into form.
But it’s the defensive malleability that Nurse is most excited about, something he didn’t have from his bigs last season.
“You probably saw Precious switching out onto all their guards and just really, really being aggressive with them and there was no issue (keeping them) there out front with him and Khem can do the same,” said Nurse. “Khem’s got really good feet. That’s the biggest thing: you can get out of coverage and get into some of the one through five switching and you saw some of the lineups tonight.”
Ultimately the Raptors season likely won’t hinge on what happens with their centre position — to the extent there even is such a thing anymore. But the combination of Achiuwa and Birch should at least give the Raptors some options and flexibility, which is more than they could say a season ago.
Coming into camp, Birch was a strong favourite to open the season as the starting centre, given his familiarity with Nurse’s system and his fit with the first unit a year ago (in 92 minutes together, Birch and the starters outscored opponents by 23.1 point per 100 possessions). However, the 29-year-old and Montreal native has been away from the team since he and his family tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after getting back to Toronto in mid-September.
Fortunately, Birch and his wife are both fully vaccinated. They experienced minor symptoms – a loss of smell and some fatigue – and his young daughter was asymptomatic.
“If we weren’t [fully vaccinated] it probably would have been worse,” Birch said Monday morning.
He was cleared to re-join the club over the weekend, and while the Raptors are certainly happy to have him back – especially with and sidelined to start the campaign – Achiuwa has seized the opportunity in his absence.
The 22-year-old has been a bright spot in camp. Coming off a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds in Saturday’s loss to Boston, Achiuwa scored 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting against the Rockets.
Playing sparingly as a rookie in Miami last year, Achiuwa was known primarily for his effort and energy on defence and on the boards. The Raptors, who had targeted him in the 2020 draft before he went to the Heat with the 20th pick, believed he could do more. They’ve empowered him to push the limits of his game, same as they did for Birch late last season.
After spending three and a half years in Orlando, 12 of the 13 highest-scoring games of Birch’s NBA career came in his 19 contests with Toronto. He handled the ball more than he ever did with the Magic. He took more threes. Now they’re encouraging Achiuwa to do the same.
“I believe this team is built around versatility, and just looking at the guys on the team, there are a lot of guys that are my size, long arms, can do a lot of things and we just play off each other,” Achiuwa said. “I’m getting comfortable with what the coach wants, and I think that aligns with the way a lot of us want to play.”
Achiuwa’s jumper is still a work in progress, but his mechanics are looking good and he’s feeling more comfortable with it. After only attempting one three-pointer in 61 games as a rookie, he’s already taken eight in the preseason, making two of them, including one on Monday night.
What’s really impressed his new team is his ability to handle the ball. Not only can he grab a defensive rebound and lead the break, a prerequisite in Nurse’s system, but he’s also shown a knack for putting the ball on the floor and beating bigger defenders off the dribble. Just a few minutes into Monday’s first quarter, Achuiwa took into the post, where he used a spin move to get around the former Celtics centre and finish at the rim. Later, he drove on Rockets rookie Alperen Sengun.
The Canadian big man returned from a bout with COVID-19 and basically re-introduced himself to the tempo and rhythm of the game.
Birch played 17 minutes in short bursts throughout the game as he slowly works his way back into game shape.
As for the final two remaining spots being contested (it’s pretty much accepted that Yuta Watanabe has the third one locked down), Isaac Bonga, one of the first bigs off the bench, made some headway.
“I think Isaac had a really impactful run, really did everything we wanted him to do, played hard and was a factor on the glass and the offensive rebounding,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said.
Bonga has previous NBA experience with Washington.
“From what we’ve seen, we’ve seen, very, very coachable plays hard, makes very few mistakes, does a lot the little things,” Nurse said. “Probably be a good addition.”
Precious Achiuwa, the former Miami big continued to impress with a strong game behind 17 points and five rebounds.
OG Anunoby, continued to enjoy that first option on offence role and pitched in with his fourth game of 17 or more points.
Malachi Flynn, who has had a quiet start to date, got it going a little late in this one from behind the arc and wound up with 15 points in his most productive night of the pre-season.
Birch, his wife and young daughter arrived in Toronto around Sept. 18, ready to prove the three-year, $20-million (U.S.) contract the Raptors bestowed on him in the off-season was a wise investment, and he spent a week working out with a group of new teammates and getting ready for camp.
Then the setback, and no one knows how serious it will turn out to be.
“We all tested positive,” Birch said Monday morning before he made his pre-season debut in Toronto’s 107-92 win over the Houston Rockets at Scotiabank Arena.
“I think my wife had a loss of taste and smell and fatigue, while I just had loss of smell and fatigue, and my daughter was perfect,” Birch said hours before the Raptors’ final home pre-season game. “We’re all 100 per cent fully vaccinated, too, so thank God. If we weren’t it probably would have been worse … It was really good to just have my whole family there with me during that process.”
The three-week setback cost Birch a chance to fight for a starting spot with the Raptors, a position ceded in the pre-season to Precious Achiuwa. But Birch’s skills — he’s a tough rebounder, solid screen-setter and showed a much expanded offensive game at the end of last season, particularly as a three-point shooter — fit perfectly with what the Raptors want to do this season.
In 31 games with the Raptors after being waived by Orlando, Birch averaged career bests in points (11.9) and rebounds (7.6), and extended his shooting range to where he took 31 three-pointers, more than he’d taken in 3 1/2 seasons combined with the Magic. He may have only shot 29 per cent from beyond the arc, but that’s more than sufficient to be a legitimate threat as a floor-spacing big man.
He may not have Achiuwa’s ball-handling acumen yet, but there are aspects of Birch’s game that are undeniably important.
“Between the two of them, they’re going to have to man that (centre) spot,” coach Nick Nurse said before Monday’s game. “I wouldn’t say it’s 24 and 24 (minutes each), but I think plus or minus three or four either way each night — depending on who we’re playing and what’s going on — is probably ideally what we’re looking at there.”
The appeal is obvious. Banton has basically the same frame as Anderson did coming into the NBA, with, a very similar set of skills. He’s clearly a point-guard, but he can rebound and get blocks like a big wing (which he also is).
But judging by how quickly he gets up and down the court, it’s a safe bet no one will ever call him Slo Mo.
The big red flag, and stop me if you’ve heard this about a Raptors prospect before, is that Banton can’t shoot. At least, not yet — let’s see what the famed Raptors development program can do — but a .408/.237/.631 line in college doesn’t provide any obvious optimism.
(For reference, Anderson, despite his rep, put up a .452/.375/.736 line in college, which exlains why he played at UCLA, and not Western Kentucky and Nebraska, and why the defending champion Spurs took him in the first round, not half-way through the second.)
Still, Banton shows enough touch at times to suggest there is a shot-maker in there, somewhere. If there is, then Banton can leverage his major strength, a high basketball IQ, and excellent passing skills and things get interesting.
Banton has shown the ability to make high-end reads in the pick and roll, using his size to see over the defender; in fact he was second in college basketball in assist rate for a player 6’7 or taller. Just behind a fellow named… Scottie Barnes.
Banton possesses that natural ability to see a pass just before the defense does. A great example is in this two-possession sequence in the summer league against Brooklyn.
Banton attacks downhill, and between that momentum and his length, the Nets can’t keep him out of the paint. He makes a nice dump-off pass, and then when the play resets, he immediately attacks again, not waiting for the screen, to totally throw off an already scrambling Nets defense before making another nice dump-off pass.
While Banton is a better athlete than Anderson, with a surprisingly quick step, he isn’t such a great athlete that he can just burn guys; it’s why the previous clip is so encouraging. Banton KNOWS what he needs to do to get his edge, once he’s in the lane, that size and vision is incredibly tough to stop. In college he shot close to 70% in the paint, a ridiculous mark for a “guard”.