Precious Achiuwa is increasingly a critical part of the Raptors’ present, let alone their future

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Photo source: The Canadian Press

When it came to girls, early-series Harry Potter was mixed up, bamboozled, run-amuck, and confused. He fell into and out of love at the drop of a wand, and he didn’t know if a girl was interested in him unless his friends basically shouted it in his face. Which more or less made him a not-poorly written teenage boy. Ginny Weasley (spoiler) ended up being a good match, and he was kind of a fool for not recognizing it earlier. She was right there all along! But he was too busy dreaming of his future to think about his present.

Which brings us to Precious Achiuwa. It’s long been clear that he’s a key component of the Toronto Raptors’ future. As the centerpiece of the Kyle Lowry trade, and only 22 years old, and joining a Raptors’ team with no entrenched center, he was always going to walk into a friendly situation in Toronto with room to develop. It didn’t hurt that he attended a Giants of Africa camp when he was young. Masai Ujiri, upon first greeting Achiuwa after trading for him, said simply, “finally. You’re mine now.” With so much athleticism, Achiuwa oozed long-term building block, yet his skill level didn’t seem to shout “current positive player.” Before the season even began, I wrote: “Achiuwa is a project for the Raptors. He has an incredible ceiling, but he’ll need to develop basically every area to reach it. Keep a long-term focus with him.”

And that was very much the case early in the season. Achiuwa looked lost on offense, running to the wrong spots, clogging the lane, cutting at the wrong times, and taking extraordinary amounts of time to make choices when he did catch the ball. To compound the matter, the choices he did make were generally “Leeeeeroy Precious.” He struggled to finish even elementary plays on offense, such as lob dunks. Before the change of the calendar year, Achiuwa had a miserable on/off offensive rating of -3.8, third-worst on the team behind only Svi Mykhailiuk and Dalano Banton.

That was his first introduction to the franchise. To his teammates, his coaches, his fans. In the same way that it’s difficult to befriend someone when you embarrass yourself in a first meeting, it’s difficult for players to shed those initial labels. And his first introduction was a confirmation that he wasn’t ready to help an NBA offense. It was a prior that became a present.

Since that time, things have changed. During his nadir, the emphasis remained on his development. There were flashes, to be sure. But his minutes were meant to enable success in the future, not in the present. I ended that piece with “Maybe one day he’ll even live up to his expectations.” I didn’t expect that day to come later on in the same season. And his coach, at least, has been noticing.

“He’s played a lot of good games here lately,” said Nick Nurse of Achiuwa. “When he’s got energy and is running hard and playing hard, I think a lot of good things happen for him… With the team we have on the floor, he’s going to get some looks from the corner three. We’ve been much more happier on his finishing drives or at least getting himself a little more organized in there… A little more organized and cleaning up his game. It’s either  a catch and shoot or it’s a hard drive all the way which we like.”

Those long periods of thought he took upon catching are gone. Now it’s an instant decision. He’s running to the correct spots on the floor (more often, not all the time). His finishing at the rim has trended upward from an accuracy percentage in the low-50s in October to the mid-60s in December and January, although it’s taken a dip down again in March. He’s now banging in corner triples and is now up to a solid 36.6 percent from there on the season. Many of those very skills that were lacking early in the year are now strengths. Players don’t usually develop at such a wild rate, in a matter of weeks. Achiuwa seems not to be usual. Now, lob dunks are automatic for Achiuwa. Against the San Antonio Spurs, he hit his head on the bottom of the backboard when finishing an alley-oop from Dalano Banton!

It’s not just jumping high and dunking hard that allowed that play. Achiuwa created great contact — an issue for him earlier in the season. He screened low and sealed low, locking the guard high above him. Because he was rolling with an empty corner alongside him, only the guard had an opportunity to disrupt the lob pass, so Achiuwa beat his man not in the air or during the roll, but when he first chose the angle of the screen. Those are the nuanced skills that Achiuwa lacked early in the season.

His defense is beyond nuance. He is Toronto’s premier big stopper. He is the anvil that the rotation- and scramble-heavy defense hammers drivers into, and he’s the only player on the roster consistently capable of forcing misses at the rim as a straight-on defender rather than a helper. His rebounding and second-effort jumps are ridiculous. He had multiple verticality contests against the Spurs, which resulted in no blocks but a huge number of misses from the opponents.

It has reached the point where Achiuwa is no longer Toronto’s prize for the future, meant to be developed slowly and given lots of room to make mistakes. He’s now a critical component of their present. He’s unlocks the defense’s peak performance. He is the best floor-spacer from the center position. He is crucial. Now. This season. He’s had great performances during some of Toronto’s lowest points, one of the only players to not fall off the map when Fred VanVleet sat out. Against the Spurs, he had the second-best plus-minus on the team behind only the inimitable VanVleet. Sure, Achiuwa is going to be one of the core long-term pieces around which Toronto shapes the team. But he’s already built himself into a winning center, suited perfectly to the shape of the team around him. Yes, he makes mistakes still on both ends of the floor. They’re fewer than they were, and they’re also fewer than the other players who play at his position.

Achiuwa frankly disappointed in his early stint with the Raptors. We can admit that now. His performance left fans and media dreaming of the future. But we got so lost in the dream that we missed what was happening right underneath our noses. Achiuwa is already one of Toronto’s most important players.

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