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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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Sharing the court roughly 60 minutes before tip-off, Toronto Raptors centres Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch got some pre-game work in with a few assistant coaches.

The former launched three-pointers from the top of the arc, while the latter worked on his post moves and simulated pick and rolls from the elbow. It would’ve been a welcome sight for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who spent most of last season searching for an answer at the centre position, an answer that didn’t come until Birch was added to the roster in April.

The Raptors didn’t go out and sign a high-profile big man in free agency this summer. They were unsuccessful in moving up on draft night and didn’t land centre prospect Evan Mobley, who went to Cleveland with the third-overall pick. They don’t have a seven-footer on the roster. In fact, they don’t have anybody taller 6-foot-9.

Still, when you consider the state of Toronto’s frontcourt at this juncture last season, their current situation sure feels like a luxury.

With Achiuwa coming over from Miami in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade, and Birch – who was re-signed this summer – recently granted clearance from the league’s health and safety protocol, Monday’s exhibition contest was Nurse’s first chance to get a look at his new centre tandem. It also offered us a glimpse at how he plans to use the two bigs when the ball goes up for real next Wednesday.

“I think ideally, between [Birch] and Precious, between the two of them, they're gonna have to man that [centre] spot,” Nurse said ahead of his team’s penultimate pre-season game, a 107-92 win over the Houston Rockets. “I wouldn't say it's 24 [minutes] and 24 [minutes] but I think that plus or minus three or four [minutes] either way each night, depending on who we're playing and what's going on, is probably ideally what we're looking at there.”

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 Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher 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 Daniel Theis 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.

It’s a skill that comes natural to Achuiwa, who grew up as a guard before hitting his growth spurt. He’s also seen how the offensive freedom has unlocked Birch’s game.

“I was watching him, just sort of taking notes on what he does, one or two things I can take and add to my game,” Achiuwa said of his new teammate. “I always want to expand my game and always want to learn. I was watching him in shootaround before the game today.”

Birch came off the bench to score two points and grab a couple boards in his preseason debut. He was limited to short stints and looked a bit rusty, understandable after the layoff. While a couple of the young veterans, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, will get the night off in Tuesday’s exhibition finale against Washington, the plan is for Birch to play, as they look to ease him back into game shape.

In all likelihood, Achiuwa has done enough to earn the starting gig, at least to open the campaign. For what it’s worth, Birch said he’s happy in either role. But regardless of who ends up starting at the position, Nurse sees it being a pretty even split in playing time. On Monday, Achiuwa started and logged 19 minutes while Birch played 17 as a reserve.

“I thought it looked good, thought it looked improved,” Nurse said afterwards. “It should enable both of them to play six or seven minutes really hard, and the next guy can come in… It should be a decent combination.”

With the versatility of Toronto’s roster, Nurse will have the option to go small on occasion, but more often than not, one of Achiuwa or Birch will be on the floor this season.

It’s certainly a different dynamic than they had a year ago. In need of replacements for Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors hoped to fill the void with a pair of traditional centres on cheap, short-term contracts – Aron Baynes and Alex Len, neither of whom panned out.

What they learned from that failed experiment is that in this era of NBA basketball, and especially in Toronto’s system, skill, speed and versatility can be more important than size. You need big men that can handle the ball and make plays, guys that can roll to the bucket and catch and finish around the rim, guys that are mobile enough to switch onto perimeter players defensively. Ideally, they can also become credible threats from three-point range.

Now, the hope is a platoon of Achiuwa and Birch can give them what they need from the centre position.

“You saw a little bit of it tonight,” Nurse said. “You probably saw Precious switching out onto all their guards and just really, really being aggressive with them. And Khem can do the same. Khem’s got really good feet. That’s the biggest thing, you can get out of coverage and get into some one through five switching… So that's going to be hopefully what we're trying to get to.”