Precious Achiuwa was the Raptors' most improved player

It was unknown what Precious Achiuwa's role would be coming into his first season with the Raptors. Fast forward to the end of the season and the sophomore is now one of Toronto's most exciting up and coming players. Listen to the full 'Raptors Awards' episode on the 'Raptors Over Everything' podcast feed or watch on our Yahoo Sports Canada YouTube.

Video Transcript

AMIT MANN: So to start, Aaron, now, full transparency, I know exactly what Aaron is saying, his nominations and picks for all of this. So-- and he knows mine. But you can present the people with our most improved player because we both had the same person. Most improved player throughout the season-- sorry.

AARON ROSE: Well, I'll start by saying that this was close for me. There were two guys and I think same for you probably. There were two guys that we were looking at for who could be the most improved player throughout the season as opposed to the most improved from the last season.

And the guy who finished second for me was Chris Boucher. And he was a disaster to start the season. And I go back to that game when the Raptors had nobody against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everyone was in COVID.

And he said his parents, his family basically turned off the TV. He couldn't watch the game. They couldn't watch the game. And it was a disaster for him.

AMIT MANN: Oh, man.

AARON ROSE: And from that, I think it was Boxing Day onward, he was a totally different player. He accepted his position and became, like, one of the Raptors' most reliable players off the bench. And we can talk about that a little bit more later.

But the top guy for the most improved player throughout the season I think I gave it to--


AARON ROSE: Drumroll please. I gave it to Precious Achiuwa.

AMIT MANN: Hell, yeah!

AARON ROSE: And you could put that also in the conversation for most improved from last year. This was a guy who came over from Miami and took, like, one three-pointer all season, didn't make it, was basically, as he said at the beginning of the year, put in a box in Miami, which has a very veteran team, a structured team. And Toronto said, let's see what you can do.

And at the beginning of the season "let's see what you could do" meant he was going to do all of these crazy things. He was going to run end to end with the ball. He was going to dribble. He was going to turn it over. He was to do crazy bad decision making.

And we still saw some of that at the end of the season. And he's certainly not a perfect player yet. Maybe he gets there one day. But he took huge steps forward. And now you could see his decision making was there when he was dribbling with the ball, when he was making moves.

His three-point shooting, he was crazy in the second half of this season. We saw what he did. It was a surprise to me that he ended up going to the Rising Stars game at the All-Star game. I think that gave him some sort of confidence for a guy who's not lacking in confidence.

And when he came out after that, from that point on, he was incredible for the Raptors and probably in the conversation for most improved player heading into next season. If we were to place bets on who that would be, he'd be right up there. So he's my winner. And I think you had him too.

AMIT MANN: Oh, beautiful, yeah. I had him as well. But that's speaking of which, once those projections come out for next season with the Raptors win total, just take the over, make yourself some money. And you're going to thank yourself in April of 2023. But, yes, Precious Achiuwa, wow.

The moments that we had with him at the beginning of the season and the fact that Masai Ujiri outlined that he even went to Nick Nurse at times and was like, what is this guy doing? And it was Nick Nurse, the person saying, give me some time. Be patient because he is going to figure it out. But the flashes were there even in summer league that you saw this really dynamic player who can guard almost anyone on the NBA court.

And his ability to run the floor and the speed in which he can do it, his athleticism, like, there really did show at 6' 8" how many people and how many ways he can affect the game in a positive manner. But it did not start well, of course. The missed alley oops was one of the first thing that came to mind. And that's still something that he has to work on.

And it'd be really cool if Raptors and Fred VanVleet and Precious Achiuwa can find some chemistry there because they could really use some easy halfcourt offense. And that would be a nice outlet for it. But outside of that, missed defensive assignments, like, decided he was going to shoot before the ball even got to him-- he was just like, I'm going to go. I am going to shoot the ball, and you guys are going to have to just figure it out.

And it was kind of like DeAndre Bargnani thing, actually, because we always found that when Bargs was a Raptor, he was deciding to shoot before he even got the ball. And that's what Precious was doing too. But then as the season goes on, he's reading the defense better. He's becoming more patient.

The offensive fouls went down because he had better adjustments on the fly. OK. So now the defense is collapsing on me. Where's the open man? It wasn't always like, go, go, go. I think he was just really trying to figure this out. And he was given the autonomy.

Nick Nurse said it, was like, yo, go out there and be someone and try and figure things out. This was what the season was for. And seeing his maturation as, I guess, a pick-and-roll player, as a defender, his focus-- because I remember so many times during the early stage of the season where, like, he just he didn't have the focus. One that comes to mind is against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. He was fixing his hair.

And Jordan Poole got loose. And he hit a three over him. That's the kind of stuff that was happening. It's, like, not the Raptors' identity. And also it just shows, like, this is part of the evolution of Precious Achiuwa that he had to understand, especially after that last season, like you mentioned, where he didn't get a lot of playing time, it's like, this is what you got to do, especially with the Raptors.

You've got to be locked in from the get go to get playing time. And he figured it out. And one thing that comes to mind here is I was looking at basketball index. And they have this stat around on-ball defenders and who are the best in the NBA.

And he was actually ranked top five at the end of March in that category. It's, like, looking at on-ball defense, off-ball chasing, and ball handling slash screen navigation, and the pick and roll. He was a top-five player in that.

And then you factor in that he is also the person who's guarding Joel Embiid. So you have a very versatile defender who can guard Ja Morant and also Joel Embiid at a very capable level. That is insane. And you think about his work throughout the season, like you had mentioned, 23% from three up until January 15, afterwards 40%-- astounding progression from a player, right?

And there was a case late in the season where I went to practice, and I saw him working on his three-point shot. And he was getting, like, legit pissed at himself because of how many shots he was missing. And he was working with Mike Springer and Earl Watson, two guys who deserve a lot of credit for their development roles within the Raptors.

And that's his work, man. He was hitting those transition threes he was hitting against the 76ers in that late April game. He was hitting those shots. Like, those are the things that he was doing on the offensive end of the court. And when he says he trusts his work, it's because he really does put all the work in to become the player that he is now. And you think about what he's going to be next season. It's going to be crazy because he's going to work.

AARON ROSE: Yeah. And Nick always talks about the difference between, like, OK players to good players to great players is how often are you doing it? Are you good two out of five nights? Or are you good three out of five nights? Or are you good four out of five nights?

It's really hard to be a "five out of five night" player, you know. That's the top players in the league. How consistently can they do it? And I think he talks about that. Nick talks about that in a game sense. But I think we saw in Precious, at the beginning of the year, he'd have the ball in his hands, and he'd make the wrong decision three out of five times, four out of five times.

And by the second half of the season, he wasn't perfect. But four out of five times, he was making the right move. He was shooting when it was the right call to shoot. He was putting it on the floor and driving on his defender because they had to respect his three-point shot.

AMIT MANN: Joel Embiid.

AARON ROSE: Whenever he was doing--

AMIT MANN: Joel Embiid was getting it.

AARON ROSE: Right. And he went-- he went right by Joel Embiid. He would either shoot that three, or he'd go by him because he had to respect that shot. And again, it wasn't perfect. But four to five, five out of six, he was making the right decision. And when you can do that over game after game after game, next season and the year after that, we're talking about a guy who could be really special. And that's just on the offensive end and, as you mentioned, one of the best defensive players we saw in that series.

He could go up against Joel Embiid every night and also switch onto James Harden. And Harden might not be the guy he used to be. But he's still sort of a really pesky offensive player. And he can make young, immature players-- like, make them look like a fool. And having a guy that can defend one through five-- you know everyone says that. But he's a guy who can actually defend one through five. That's exactly what the Raptors want to do.

AMIT MANN: If you look at Precious now, what are some things that come to mind that you think he needs to work on this summer to get to the next step? Because there's-- I mean, his toolbox is huge right now. But what are those three things that you're like, get better at these for next season?

AARON ROSE: Well, I think it's that three-point shot. Make sure it's the second half of the season three-point shot. And we've seen that with other guys. Pascal Siakam comes to mind, where you have a great three-point shooting season. And then for whatever reason, it falls off.

So make sure he's consistently shooting and maybe get those attempts per game up. Make sure that decision making is there. And then I think the big thing for me-- and I asked him about this-- was he might be a guy who is the starting center every night or is playing significant center minutes.

And I asked him, what was it like going up against Joel Embiid, you know, six nights in a row or whatever it was? And he's like, it was exhausting. And that is tough. He's like, that's a 300-pound man, a 7-foot guy. And it is exhausting. Now, there's only, like, a handful of guys in the league who look like Joel Embiid.

AMIT MANN: Two, really, yeah, just them two, kind of.

AARON ROSE: Now, there's some others. Like, Samuel Adams is a big guy. And-- or Steven Adams, excuse me. And Jonas Valanciunas is a big guy. But the Raptors are willing to give up size in some of those matchups. But against those two big bigs, the Raptors are going to have to do it with schemes.

But if he puts on the weight, and he gets bigger to defend those guys, you know, two or three guys in the league that are like that, well, is it going to hurt his ability to defend guys like Ja Morant or James Harden? And there's sort of a push and pull. Does he get bigger to defend centers? Does he get smaller to defend guards?

And I think what he has right now is a great balance of the two. And it'll be interesting to see if he comes back. If he's exhausted because he's going up against the biggest bigs every night and can't handle that, then that's a problem. But he also has to stay true to the Precious Achiuwa the Raptors have fallen in love with because he can defend one through five. And that's an interesting give and take that he'll have to sort of figure out moving forward next season and probably through the rest of his career.

AMIT MANN: No question. And I mentioned, I mean, it's Embiid. It's Jokic. And I guess Jonas Valanciunas. Those are the three guys that come to mind who at least have, like, the offensive game that you have to respect as well. Like, a Rudy Gobert, for instance, I mean, we love to-- we love to rip on Rudy Gobert, a person of his size.

But you'd have to guard him in the same fashion like you have to do with a Jokic or Embiid or so forth. So it's only few players that the Raptors really have to scheme against. And those are the guys that are going to give Precious Achiuwa, specifically, a bit of a headache. But as Nick Nurse outlined so many times, it is about a team defense to get that job done.

But at some point, it does fall on the player who's mano a mano. And Precious Achiuwa is going to be that guy in a lot of cases. Scottie Barnes probably also is another person. And, I mean, this is kind of off topic, but I would like to see the Raptors get one bigger body to fill in that Khem Birch kind of role, just like that 10- 15-minute person who you feel like, OK, we can put him out there against some of these bigger guys, and it's not going to be such a mismatch.

Scheming is great. But it would be nice to have, like, I mean for lack of a better person in mind, like, a Mason Plumlee, you know, someone who can just-- who's a bigger body, who's got some athleticism, who can run the floor a little bit. And it's just going to be like 10, 15 minutes. I think that'd be cool. That's my opinion.

Things that come to mind for me for Precious is working with Fred VanVleet, getting in the training room, and get on that-- get on that alley oop, right? They really need that chemistry to happen. They didn't even try it much in the second half of the season because it wasn't a stable source of offense. And a lot of turnovers would happen from it.

Precious would get stuffed by the rim. Maybe Fred's pass would go a little bit array, whatever. I think that's something that-- I mean, over the course of the training camp I'm sure that's going to help, but, like, finishing around the basket as well. That's another thing, 3 to 10 feet, he finished at 33%.

That little hook shot can be really, really--


AMIT MANN: Yeah. --really beneficial for him. Get on that. Take that Scottie Barnes program because he is so good down there with an array of moves. And they've got a similar height so just, yeah, work on that, and also the catch and shoot threes, like you had mentioned.

Having a center who can hit threes at a decent clip is such a weapon. And it's going to make things so much easier for everyone on the Raptors. Fred VanVleet as a pick-and-roll partner, OG Anunoby, Pascal, like, all these guys are going to benefit from his gravity as a shooter. And if it has to be respected, then now we're going to have those situations with Joel Embiid where you have to respect--