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Achiuwa’s imminent return should help Raptors’ ailing defence

Precious Achiuwa Toronto Raptors Danuel House Jr. Philadelphia 76ers Precious Achiuwa Danuel House Jr. - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Just watching Precious Achiuwa’s Wednesday afternoon workout would have made most people tired.

In an empty gym following Toronto’s practice, of which he was also a full participant, Raptors assistant coaches put Achiuwa through an extensive series of full-court drills for nearly an hour.

With general manager Bobby Webster looking on, the third-year forward worked up a sweat, taking the ball from baseline to baseline, driving on stand-in defenders and trying to finish through contact. All the while, he would mix in some shooting and try to find opportunities to take a quick breather. It was the kind of session that required it.

“It was serious,” an exhausted Achiuwa said afterwards. “Just ramping up. It felt good though.”

After missing the last seven weeks with partial ligament tears in his right ankle, Achiuwa is nearing a return. Depending on how he responds to the intensity of this latest workout, he could be in the lineup as early as Thursday night when his team hosts Memphis, though Friday against Phoenix seems like a safer bet.

Ultimately, Toronto’s medical staff will make the call but considering they were initially targeting a January return date, getting him back this week would be a nice way to ring in the New Year.

Achiuwa sustained the injury while driving to the basket in a win over Houston on Nov. 9. He had to be carried to the locker room, and while he was relieved when the initial X-ray came back negative for a fracture, the recovery time for a severe sprain can also be significant, as he learned. He had to wear a walking boot for the first 10 days before beginning to rehab his ankle and, eventually, ramping up his on-court work over the past couple weeks.

Going nearly two months without playing competitive basketball is not something he’s experienced since picking up the sport, so this has been a challenging stretch in more ways than one. To cope and pass the time, Achiuwa has taken up cooking and read three books while he’s been out. But the hardest part has been watching from the sideline as his team struggles.

“It’s rough,” said Achiuwa. “It’s tough, watching and feeling like you could be out there contributing, helping the team in the smallest way possible.”

Coming off a 124-113 loss to the Clippers on Tuesday, the Raptors have now dropped 10 of their last 14 games. Over that span, the two most glaring concerns have been their shooting, or lack thereof, and defensive slippage. Whether Achiuwa’s return will help solve the former remains to be seen – he made strides as a shooter last season but was hitting just 18 per cent of his three-point attempts before the injury. However, they could certainly use his presence on the other end of the floor.

Five of the team’s seven-worst defensive performances of the season, by defensive rating, have come over the last eight contests. Without a true centre on the roster other than rookie second-rounder Christian Koloko, who has struggled recently and hurt his knee late in the Clippers game, they’ve been getting exposed at the rim. That’s where the seven-foot Ivica Zubac did most of his damage on Tuesday, finishing with 23 points and 16 rebounds. Over the next three games, they’ll face Steven Adams, Deandre Ayton and Myles Turner when they visit Indiana next week.

Not only is Achiuwa Toronto’s best interior defender, he’s quick and versatile enough to rotate out onto shooters and guard smaller players on the perimeter, which has also been part of the problem recently.

“After I go back and watch the tape, there isn’t enough pace or energy in the way we’re playing defence,” Nick Nurse said on Wednesday.

“I think that for us, the defence is fairly simple, but it does need to be done at a work rate that isn’t simple. And getting it set up is a big issue – guarding the initial actions, guarding the ball, being in and then being able to get out, contesting and then keeping them off the glass.”

After enjoying a breakout second half to his sophomore season, and first with the Raptors, Achiuwa came into his third NBA campaign with lofty ambitions. He wanted to establish himself as one of the league’s premier defenders, while also making a run at its Most Improved Player and Sixth Man awards.

Instead, the 23-year-old big man got off to a slow start. His offensive production was down, but the bigger concern for Nurse – who challenged Achiuwa publicly before the game in which he got hurt – was that his defence wasn’t up to par.

“The team could use some more defensive effort,” Achiuwa said. “I think that’s something I could provide right away. So that’s my biggest focus coming back, trying to help the team defensively.

“I feel like I’m in a good place right now. Just ready to come back and continue playing how I need to play.”

Naturally, it’ll take him some time to shake off the rust and get his rhythm and conditioning back after missing nearly two months. The plan is for Nurse and the coaches to monitor his minutes closely and limit him to shorter stints at first. He’ll also have to ease his way in, as ankle injuries can reoccur.

He’ll reclaim his role as a reserve, at least initially. Nurse has always liked his fit with the second unit alongside fellow sparkplug Chris Boucher. With Boucher slumping – he’s played just nine score-less and shot-less minutes over the past two games – the hope is that they can rediscover the chemistry they built last season and feed off each other once again.

However, if the plan is to continue bringing Gary Trent Jr. off the bench – as they have in nine of the last 11 games he’s played – then there could be an opportunity for Achiuwa to earn his way into the starting lineup. Over the past few weeks, Koloko, Thaddeus Young and, most recently, Juancho Hernangomez have served as the fifth starter next to Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who missed Wednesday’s practice and is considered day-to-day with back spasms.

The case for Achiuwa to start at centre while Trent brings instant offence off the bench is a compelling one, as it was going into the season. But before you make it, let’s see how quickly Achiuwa can get up to speed and whether he can pick up where he left off late last season.

“What we’re hoping to get him to is kind of [where he was in] the second half a year ago, a force in a lot of areas and a strength off the bench,” Nurse said. “He’s gotta get out there and play. It’s gonna take some time, like it does for most guys. Get him out there, get him in shape and get him in rhythm, first and foremost.”

Don’t expect a whole lot from him right away, but for a team that’s lacked depth and been undermanned for most of the season, Achiuwa’s imminent return should give the Raptors a much-needed lift and their head coach a few more options heading into the New Year.