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Achiuwa Hitting His Stride

The anticipation coming into this season for what Precious Achiuwa’s wondrous leap last season suggested he could be going forward was palpable. Aside from Scottie Barnes, he has probably been the most hyped Raptor in terms of taking their game to another level.

Perhaps that played a factor in failing to get the engine started from the get-go. It was an almighty struggle for much of the first two games and the pyrotechnics that startled him before his home opener introduction served as a moment of foreshadowing for what followed.

Whether it’s what he did in his rookie campaign with the Miami Heat, the first half of last season with the Raptors, or the first couple games of this season, it’s not about how Achiuwa starts. He teased what he can be for this team with 18 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday and on Monday, as he pulled down a rebound, surveyed the floor, then went left to right with a crossover past Jimmy Butler, it was clear Achiuwa had now hit his stride. Finishing the game with 22 rebounds – the most ever by a Raptor off the bench – to go along with 10 points and a vital block, it’s Achiuwa now providing the fireworks.

“It’s a little bit of an explosion, right?” Nurse said. “Or a lot of bit of one. He’s blessed with a super body and athleticism and power and he should be a near double-digit rebounder for us. He was going after them tonight, that’s for sure.”

It was a common theme in the first half of last season for Achiuwa to miss the forest for the trees. He’d battle for an offensive rebound but rush a contested putback attempt instead of finding a wide open teammate. He’d sky for a defensive board and look to push the ball down the floor with no regard for those in a more advantageous position ahead of the pack. It was almost as if he created his own rule of “my rebound, my possession.”

His decision-making showed growth after the all-star break and, coupled with a huge jump in his three-point shooting, created enough offensive output to truly appreciate his astonishingly good individual defence. It’s the path Nick Nurse and the coaching staff envisioned for him, because with Achiuwa, it is about the forest. This is someone who can give O.G. Anunoby a run for his money as the best individual defender on the team, haul down rebounds like prime Bismack Biyombo, go coast-to-coast, and hopefully knock down enough threes to keep the defence honest. It’d be irresponsible not to provide enough of a runway to have him actualize all he can be.

A big part of getting the best out of Achiuwa when he comes off the bench is pairing him with Chris Boucher. It was a duo that brought a good kind of uncontrollable chaos last season and with Boucher missing the first three games of the season due to a hamstring issue, the Raptors bench suffered in its absence. Achiuwa will be the first to tell you how important Boucher is to him as well, constantly bugging him to return as soon as possible, waxing lyrical about their telepathy in understanding each other’s positioning on the floor and how they feed off each other.

“I’ve always been used to playing with another big body or a bigger body in high school or college,” Achiuwa said. “Having him out there definitely helps and that way I can be a lot more versatile on defence. If I’m guarding a player that’s not a threat from outside I can roam, play a lot of helpside [defence], between the gaps and all that kind of stuff, kinda anchor the defence.”

Toronto struggled with defensive rebounding last season, finishing 23rd with a rate of 71.4 percent. Playing stellar defence and executing schemes to perfection only counts for so much if the possession isn’t closed out with a rebound. The Raptors would know better than most as the second-best offensive rebounding team last season. As Nurse explained further, for a team that is so eager to get out in the open floor not just off turnovers but opponent misses as well, Achiuwa’s superhuman effort on the glass had a pivotal impact on both ends of the floor.

What makes Achiuwa’s monster rebounding night so special is the variety of paths to them. There’s defensive boards he secured after chasing Butler around the perimeter and then rotating onto centre Dewayne Dedmon, staying tight on a lethal shooter in Max Strus before crashing the glass, the more typical possessions where he’s battling one of the best defensive players in the league in Bam Adebayo for position, and finally showcasing the full range of his versatility by acting as a help defender on Kyle Lowry drives before getting back to a big man and beating him out for the board.

“I have defensive goals in terms of being one of those guys that’s talked about across the league,” Achiuwa said. “That kind of plays into the same things I’m trying to accomplish this year.”

On the offensive glass is where you witness letting Achiuwa colour outside the lines in the hopes he’ll learn to rein it in bear fruit. On a crucial possession with just over five minutes remaining and the game tied, Siakam pulled up for a free-throw line jumper over Lowry that rimmed out but Achiuwa secured the rebound deep in the paint ahead of Strus. As Tyler Herro came over to help, he didn’t succumb to the temptation of going back up against two smaller defenders. In fact, with Adebayo also shading over just a tad from the left wing, Achiuwa recognized an open Anunoby in the corner and the result was a three-point lead for Toronto they didn’t relinquish.

“It just takes some time to figure out where to slot him in and let him go,” Nurse said. “He played with tremendous energy, now, that is what I’m trying to get consistent because there’s too much there if he plays hard to not be productive.”

Achiuwa has hopes of being recognized as one of the best defenders in the league, and there are those who believe the best version of him could be in the conversation for a Most Improved Player award. Historic nights like these where he finished three shy of the Raptors all-time record of 25 rebounds in a game set by Biyombo force people to take notice, and for a team that expects to be in a lot of close battles in a conference that’s as deep as ever, his specialty of sticking the landing could go a long way in determining where Toronto ultimately finish.