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Poised for a breakout season, Raptors’ Achiuwa isn’t lacking for ambition

Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Once it became clear that Kyle Lowry’s fabled Raptors tenure was coming to an end in the summer of 2021, the team had a decision to make.

Renouncing his rights and letting him walk in free agency would have freed up nearly $20 million in cap space to spend on the open market. Alternatively, they had the option to help him get to his preferred destination – Miami, as it turned out – and retain some assets via sign and trade.

Of course, they opted for the latter but it wasn’t a universally popular move at the time. In exchange for Lowry, the Raptors received sophomore big man Precious Achiuwa, who played sparingly as a rookie with the Heat, and the expiring contract of veteran point guard Goran Dragic, who was never long for Toronto. Naturally, people wondered if they could’ve gotten more for the franchise icon.

For the Raptors, the thinking was this:

The 2021 free-agent class wasn’t nearly as strong, or as deep, as once expected. They liked Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen, a restricted free agent, but knew the Cavs would match any offer sheet for the star big man. So, as they saw it, why overpay for a middling centre on the open market when they could go get Achiuwa, a 22-year-old on a cheap rookie contract who they liked in the draft the previous summer, and a movable asset in Dragic?

To give you an idea of what they’re missing out on, Richaun Holmes – a theoretical target had they gone the cap space route – is about to turn 29 and will make more than $36 million over the next three seasons, despite falling out of Sacramento’s rotation last year.

Meanwhile, Achiuwa, now 23, will be the 10th-highest paid Raptor this season, making just $2.8 million. Toronto also turned Dragic and a first-round pick into veteran forward Thaddeus Young, who figures to play an important role with the second unit in his first full season with the club.

But Achiuwa was the centrepiece of the Lowry return and, naturally, his development would ultimately determine whether or not they made the optimal choice. So far, the team and its fans have reason to feel good about what they got for a player – albeit a great one – already on his way out the door.

It took some time to get here. Achiuwa’s sophomore campaign, and first with Toronto, got off to a rocky start – understandable for a young player making the transition to a new team and a new role. The Raptors gave him more freedom than he had with Miami. They put the ball in his hands and encouraged him to shoot it and make plays. It wasn’t always pretty – even the coaching staff would often cringe when he took a couple dribbles and barrelled his way to the rim – but, clearly, the reps paid off.

Something clicked for Achiuwa after the all-star break and, since then, he’s looked like a completely different player. Over the final 25 games, he averaged 12.2 points and shot the three-ball at a 39 per cent clip, up from 7.5 points and 31 per cent over the first 48 games. His transformation wasn’t just limited to his improved jumper. He was more comfortable with the ball in his hands and began to establish himself as one of the team’s best defenders.

Those are skills he feels that he’s always had. He picked up the sport later than most kids, but was a guard before he hit his growth spurt, and then showed that he could handle the ball and make plays in his lone year at Memphis, where he played for the great Penny Hardaway. Finally, he was starting to see that he could do it at the NBA level, and he took that renewed confidence with him into the summer.

“I’m just getting back to how I used to play in high school and college,” Achiuwa told TSN last week. “Of course, I’m also improving my overall game. I’m improving my reads and seeing the floor better. I put in a lot of work, a lot of time watching film, getting more comfortable. Things that I used to do, that I know I can do, I’m just getting comfortable doing them again.”

There’s still work to be done, as Sunday’s preseason season game – a 115-98 loss to Chicago – showed. Achiuwa was the last of the regular rotation players on the floor late in the fourth quarter, giving him a chance to run the offence. The results were mixed at best, with Achiuwa forcing a few tough shots around the rim and missing a couple three-point attempts.

However, for the most part, he’s looked far more poised and under control making reads in the open floor and on the low block. Earlier in that contest, he grabbed a defensive rebound, pushed the ball up court and found Dalano Banton in transition, leading to a three-point play. Against Houston on Friday, he caught the ball in the corner and sold the pump fake. Then, looking like a guard, he used his handle and quickness to blow past his defender and lay the ball in.

“I think he’s getting himself a little more composed,” Nick Nurse said. “He starts fast and blows by and gets in a certain zone and when the traffic gets heavy he seems to be getting himself to a slower pace or tempo where he can maybe make a better decision and maybe make a stronger shot.”

But if you ask Achiuwa what his goals are for the upcoming season, it’ll take a minute or two before he mentions offence, if he even gets there at all. His focus is on defence. Not only is he the best rim protector on an undersized Raptors team, but he’s also one of their most versatile and important defenders overall. He can hold down the paint and battle with some of the biggest and toughest centres in the league, like he did against Joel Embiid in the playoffs, but his quick feet also allow him to hang with guards on the perimeter. The defensive end is where he could really blossom into a special player, and he knows it. He’s not lacking for ambition, either.

“I want to be the defensive anchor of the team,” he said. “Like last season, every team we played I guarded the best or the second-best player. You look at Philly, you look at Dallas, you look at the Clippers, Lakers – all those teams, whoever we played and no matter what the size of the player is, I was the primary defender for most of the game. For me, it’s just being talked about league-wide as a respected defender but also being able to get into that first or second all-NBA defence [conversation].”

If everything goes according to plan and Achiuwa has the kind of breakout campaign he and people around the team are expecting, then he could very well be in the mix for some end-of-season hardware. How about Sixth Man, being that he’ll likely be the first player off the bench on most nights? What about Most Improved Player – an award he would have been in the running for last year if in-season improvement were weighted more heavily?

Typically, when the voters sit down in April and cast their ballots, volume scorers have an edge. Sixth Man often goes to a guard that comes in and puts points on the board in a hurry – guys like Tyler Herro, Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams – while you generally need a big year-to-year jump in counting stats to be eligible for Most Improved Player.

But Achiuwa has a valid counterargument. It’s not that he won’t put up points, rebounds and assists, but perhaps there are more important things than points, rebounds and assists. There are other ways to measure a player’s impact, and that’s how Achiuwa intends to shine on a team with established vets and the reigning Rookie of the Year atop the offensive hierarchy.

“I mean [the accolades are] something that [will] just gonna happen based on how I play,” said Achiuwa. “Control what I can control. Your shots aren’t always going to go in but being able to play defence and bring effort, that’s something you can control every game.”

“I’m very confident in my improvement. I put in a lot of work this summer – so many hours, dedication and diligent work. I’m ready. I’m pumped to go. I’m very comfortable within the game and within myself. So, yeah, I’m ready. I don’t see why [I can’t win those end-of-season awards].”