Precious Achiuwa has witnessed college basketball, sunny skies along the shoreline of South Beach in Miami and an unexpected transition to Toronto all in the last 19 months.
The 22-year-old experienced an incomplete college basketball season at the University of Memphis due to the coronavirus pandemic coupled with the NBA pushing back the 2020 NBA draft—initially scheduled for June 25 to Nov. 18—and playing in his first regular season game with the Heat more than a month later. Achiuwa didn’t know what to expect.
“Everything happened so fast,” says Achiuwa. “One day I was getting ready for the draft, then training camp and the next thing I know, I’m playing on Christmas Day. I grew up watching basketball on Christmas Day with my family. …I remember talking to the vets on the team and them saying ‘this isn’t how the NBA usually is for a season, but this was all that I knew.’”
Achiuwa joined a Heat squad led by five-time NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and a host of role players that included Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, Goran Dragić, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Miami was looking to make another run toward a NBA title after the Heat made an unexpected surge in the Bubble—defeating Indiana, Milwaukee and Boston—to face LeBron James and the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“When you’re a rookie coming into all of this, everything is new to you,” Achiuwa says. “The way those guys approached the game… they came in and worked in practice, workouts, games… they helped me appreciate the little things about the game.”
Achiuwa, who averaged 5.4 points while shooting 54.4% from the floor and grabbing 3.4 rebounds through 61 games, spent countless hours doing basketball workouts followed by movement drills as well as sprints to help him stay in shape during the long NBA season.
“I wanted to be mentally tough,” Achiuwa says. “You’re not going to make every shot in the workout but being mentally tough, pushing through when you’re fatigued and getting more reps of the same things over and over until it becomes second nature, that’s how you build habits.”
And those habits, the 6′ 9″ forward and center says, stemmed from watching and interacting with Adebayo and the other veterans.
“Bam [Adebayo] was one of the first guys to reach out to me about workouts and telling me what coaches were looking for being that played the same position,” Achiuwa says. “Jimmy [Butler] and the other vets helped me understand how to be a pro and I will forever cherish that.”
Last season, the Heat dealt with tons of injuries and tied for third in the league among teams dealing with health and safety protocols related to COVID-19, leading to an eventual early exit in the playoffs as the Bucks swept them in the first round.
Following the early postseason exit, in conjunction with Miami looking to win another championship sooner rather than later, the Raptors acquired Achiuwa and Dragić from the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal in exchange for Kyle Lowry on Aug. 6.
Achiuwa—who became more familiar with Raptors coach Nick Nurse, the coaching staff, and players on the team in summer league play—says the transition has been different.
But after all, Achiuwa is no stranger to transition as he moved to the United States in the eighth grade after living in his birthplace of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. In Toronto, Achiuwa joins a Raptors squad that will return Pascal Siakam (torn labrum in left shoulder) by Thanksgiving, OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, Dragić (his Miami teammate), Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and the young promising rookie Scottie Barnes.
Although Toronto has faced some hurdles and struggles since its championship season in 2019, Raptors general manager Bobby Webster has winning expectations.
“We’re not going to label anything, but our expectations are always to win, to be competitive,” Webster said during the team’s media day. “There is a core that has won and so we’ll just be fitting pieces around those players. We expect to compete every night and I think we will surprise some people.”
Achiuwa, who brings his work ethic in training and attention to detail to ‘The North’, becomes part of a Raptors’ team with 12 players between 6′ 7″ and 6′ 9″ and a unit that could showcase more zone defense this season. For Achiuwa, it means the opportunity to help his team by crashing the boards, playing solid defense and blocking shots.
“He is big and strong and athletic and kind of plays tough. …He’s got a competitive sense about him when he’s on the floor,” Nurse told reporters during the team’s Media Day on Monday. “He doesn’t just go grab boards; he takes rebounds.”
As the Raptors prepare to open the regular season on Oct. 20 against the Wizards, the forward flashed the idea of showcasing more on the hardwood during summer league action, something he has not done since his days in a Memphis uniform.
“He can take the ball coast-to-coast… he can beat his man from the perimeter off the dribble to the rim, his shooting is coming as well,” Nurse said. “There’s going to be mistakes obviously with somebody learning a new system…but he’s got the tools, the size, the speed to be a really good defender and capable on offense.”
While Achiuwa’s days in a Heat uniform are done, the training and workouts prepared him the moment he has now.
“It was hard coming into the league in a COVID-19 environment,” Achiuwa says. “I was learning on the fly. But the things I learned from Miami; I have applied them to my game now.”
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