Precious Achiuwa is a litmus test for the Raptors' priorities

Precious Achiuwa has struggled to find consistency as he battled injuries and role changes throughout the season.

If the Toronto Raptors' season has been a little up and down, Precious Achiuwa’s has been a roller coaster.

The 6-foot-9 forward out of Port Harcourt, Nigeria entered his age-23 season with high hopes. Achiuwa was coming off a breakout campaign in 2021-22 that saw him named a “Rising Star” at All-Star weekend as he averaged 12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.0 STOCKS while shooting 46/39/62 in 25 games post-All-Star break. Plus, Achiuwa’s improved ability to defend the rim and shoot the three was crucial to the Raptors surpassing everyone’s expectations and finishing their season on a 25-11 run, earning the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Achiuwa’s minutes continued to increase in the Raptors' first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. He was as good as any Raptor at defending the dangerous James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll, showcasing his defensive versatility to a national audience and helping the Raptors make it a competitive six-game series.

Achiuwa was supposed to carry that momentum into this season. He was a popular pick to be in the mix for the Most Improved Player of the Year award and develop into the Raptors' starting centre by season’s end. Instead, like the rest of the Raptors, he has struggled to find consistency this season as he battled injuries and role changes throughout.

To start the year, Achiuwa floated in and out of games, struggling to have an impact on offence due to his 3-point shot falling off a cliff (25.9 percent on the season) and his screen-and-roll game still being a work in progress — he struggles to make contact on screens and has to work on the timing of his rolls. More concerningly, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse called Achiuwa out for his defensive miscues and lack of consistent energy, saying that he envisioned Achiuwa playing a lot more minutes than he had been coming into the year.

“He just needs to play better, man,” Nurse said before the Raptors beat the Houston Rockets on Nov. 9. “I’m always talking about playing hard on D and not executing and he’s just having too much inconsistency... I just had a long meeting with him and showed him a bunch of film.”

Like the Raptors' season overall, Precious Achiuwa's year has not gone according to plan. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)
Like the Raptors' season overall, Precious Achiuwa's year has not gone according to plan. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

That same game, Achiuwa injured his right ankle and an MRI later revealed partially torn ligaments, forcing him to miss the next two months and 24 games of action. It was the type of injury that made it impossible for Achiuwa to do cardio to stay fit or play basketball to stay in rhythm, making the process of returning to NBA action even more difficult.

“I've never been out that long ever since I started playing basketball,” Achiuwa said about the hardest part of the injury. “Not being able to be out there and play and be able to impact the play and do something to be able to get wins, it was tough. I had to stay mentally ready and get prepared for when I came back.”

When Achiuwa returned to action in January, it took him about five games before he was back to being the defensive savant that he is capable of, coming up with a career-high five steals in a win over the Charlotte Hornets on Jan. 12. He played as well as ever over the next month, starting 11 games at centre due to an injury to O.G. Anunoby and averaging 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds on 55 percent shooting in 28.4 minutes across 15 games. In fact, Achiuwa has thrived playing alongside the starters all season, posting a +2.4 net rating beside VanVleet-Trent-Barnes-Siakam and a +65.5 net rating beside VanVlet-Trent-Anunoby-Siakam.

But just as Achiuwa was finding his footing and succeeding as the starting centre, the Raptors traded for Jakob Poeltl. Achiuwa was moved to the bench and was asked to anchor bench-heavy groups as the centre (with rookie Christian Koloko in the G League), and it has once again been a learning curve. Since the All-Star break, Achiuwa is averaging 5.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists, and 0.6 STOCKS on 40/33/73 shooting splits in just 16.6 minutes per game.

“I think Precious is trying to be a versatile player and this was asked of him now,” Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri told me when asked about how the Poeltl acquisition affects Achiuwa’s role. “I think he’s going to grow as a player. I think you guys see his growth: he’s slowing down, he’s thinking the game so much better… but these guys will adjust. They’re good players, so they’ll adjust.”

To Ujiri’s point, Achiuwa has also shown incredible flashes of on-ball creation this season, doing things that most 6-foot-9, 225-pound forwards simply can’t. Achiuwa is a ball of chaos attacking the rim, but good things are happening more often than not — and certainly more often than they did last season. In fact, Achiuwa is shooting 46.3 percent on drives this season, up from 38.7 percent last season; he is shooting 53.8 percent on postups after shooting 50 percent from the post last season; and he is shooting 55 percent as the pick-and-roll roll-man, up from 48.8 percent last season. He is also shooting 71 percent from the rim this season, up from just 59 percent last season.

Plus, Achiuwa has actually had more success when playing next to a traditional centre this season (despite the spacing concerns) in part because those lineups are impossible to score against. In fact, in the 142 minutes Achiuwa has played power forward beside Poeltl or Koloko, the Raptors are outscoring opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possessions with a defence that would rank first in the NBA.

Those lineups work because Achiuwa is one of the few players in the league that can legitimately guard one through five, allowing Nurse to play him in all types of defensive roles, overwhelming opponents with his size and speed. When players try to isolate against Achiuwa, he swallows them up. In fact, Achiuwa is holding opponents to just 0.66 points per possession in isolation, a better mark than Anunoby (and all but 21 players in the league).

“I've always been a very versatile player,” Achiuwa recently told Yahoo Sports Canada. “... versatility is being able to do everything. I think I'm doing that here. Like you said, rebound, bring the ball up, play the centre, play the four, the three, whatever the case may be. That's all versatility.”

“He can guard one through five, being able to switch onto guards, being able to rebound with bigs. I think it’s just a big force for us,” Nurse said about Achiuwa’s defence. “When he plays with that intensity and that effort on the defensive end, he’s probably one of the best defenders in the league.”

However, Achiuwa has struggled defending at the five this season, especially in bench-heavy units, which is a large part of his recent struggles. The Raptors are allowing 119.2 points per 100 possessions when Achiuwa plays centre, which would represent the second-worst defence in the league, and opponents are shooting 63.5 percent within five feet of the basket when Achiuwa is the primary defender, down from 62.4 percent last season.

At this point, Achiuwa is still a role player who hasn't seen his usage percentage or minutes increase from last season despite that being the expectation coming into the year. Instead, Achiuwa has been asked to buy into a relatively small role coming off the bench by providing energy and defence while helping facilitate the offence as a hub that keeps the ball moving.

For example, Achiuwa hasn’t taken more than two 3-point attempts in a game since Feb. 12 despite shooting 39.2 percent on 3.9 attempts post-All-Star break last season. Part of that might be a lack of confidence in his shot, but part is also the lack of freedom he has compared to last season.

“I think he’s done a great job of kind of playing his role,” Nurse said about Achiuwa. “I think he’s been unselfish, he’s off the ball, he moves it, he’s not trying to force the issue and he’s done that before this year.”

“I think he's just got to find ways to be effective and find what that spot is, just keep it simple,” Fred VanVleet added about Achiuwa’s role. “He's got a tremendous upside, and he'll get to that at some point. But I think for now, just to help his team, just keep it simple.”

This wasn’t the expectation for Achiuwa entering this season. He, along with Barnes, were supposed to take big leaps forward, propelling the Raptors through their internal growth. It’s what Ujiri alluded to in the offseason when asked about why the Raptors didn’t make any big moves. But growth isn’t always linear, especially when injuries and role changes play such a big factor, and the Raptors still believe in Achiuwa and his defensive upside, including eventually at the five.

“It is pretty rare,” Poeltl said about Achiuwa’s defensive ability. “You have to have the talent for it, you have to have the physique for it, and then also you have to care enough. You have to make that your mindset that you want to be a defensive stopper. There's a lot of guys in the league that might have the capabilities for it, but they don't put in the work. So he has everything and he puts it to work and that's why he's great for us.”

“He can win Defensive Player of the Year [one day],” Anunoby added about Achiuwa. “He’s a great defender. He could do amazing things.”

Achiuwa himself says he “naturally enjoys playing defence” and that he “wants to be recognized as a defensive player” first and foremost.

“I said at the beginning of the season that I want to be the defensive anchor of the team and that's something that I really pride myself on,” Achiuwa added.

But with just 15 games left in the season, time is running out for Achiuwa to prove he can be just that. If not, Nurse will have to get more creative with how he utilizes Achiuwa, either playing him more with the starters or alongside Koloko in bench units. Either way, Achiuwa will be a fascinating litmus test for how the Raptors approach the end of the season, with his playing time and role saying a lot about how much the Raptors are prioritizing the development of their young players compared to their desire to win games at all costs.