2020 NBA Draft: Precious Achiuwa is the Ultimate Wild-Card
From a managerial perspective, a weak draft class means it’s likely the perfect time to swing for the fences. If the likelihood of hitting is lower, why not swing harder to see if you knock something out of the park?
If that’s a common perception shared around the league, teams will begin to covet the ball of clay that is Precious Achiuwa.
Playing for Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers, Achiuwa was thrust into a different role than he signed up for after fellow 2020 first-round prospect James Wiseman dropped out of school amidst an NCAA eligibility scandal (which, by the way, was no fault of Wiseman’s).
A lanky 6’9″ forward, Achiuwa slid from the full-time 4 to playing the 5 in some stretches. He moved from versatile forward to anchor and was the Tigers’ linchpin in their switching defense with his overall versatility.
Despite losing perhaps the top talent in all of college basketball, Memphis finished the season with the nation’s most efficient half-court defense. Ahead of traditional powers or elite teams, the Tigers were incredibly stingy. Achiuwa was the do-it-all piece within their system that guided Memphis to that status, plus a 20-win season while salvaging what could have been a disastrous campaign without Wiseman.
Achiuwa is an unbelievable athlete and a hell of a defensive prospect. He can protect the rim, perhaps guard 1 thru 5 and has an over seven-foot wingspan.
But holy cow, this guy’s offensive game is raw.
The reason Memphis only went 10-8 in the American Athletic Conference this season was due both to the high reliance on Achiuwa for scoring and his massive struggles with shot selection, efficiency, jump shots and finishing in traffic. A near seven-footer shooting only 51.4 percent inside the arc, Precious led the team in attempts. His raw numbers (15.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) are nice, but an almost 1:3 assist to turnover ratio was troubling for a team’s lead option.
It’s important to view Achiuwa as a project because his offensive game needs so much work. Any team drafting him needs to create and adhere to a development plan if he is to truly reach his ceiling. It’s unlikely Achiuwa gets a lot of meaningful minutes during year one, if even year two.
But there is so much to like here. A fluid athlete who can handle, guard so many positions and play with great energy is always welcomed and worth taking a risk on.
How Achiuwa controls his long limbs and glides through open space dictates a lot about how he impacts the game in a positive manner. He’s a terrific rebounder, in or out of his area. He thrived while switching on defense and can shut down numerous types of players.
He’s a good weak-side shot-blocker and has shown instincts to do more than that.
Simply put, Achiuwa impacts the game on defense. To deploy him as a one-position defender would be a mistake.
The joy in his style is how he causes chaos as a disruptor with his length and ability to fly about, as well as the instinctual help he provides on plays far too few teenagers can sense. There’s something special about his defensive prowess; it should never be stifled by coaching or scheme.
To encapsulate how valuable Achiuwa’s weaponized athleticism can be, we need to discuss what makes switching defenses so effective.
The point of switching is to neutralize the point of attack and bait teams into mismatch-hunting. Any type of two-man action—be it a ball screen or a handoff—is designed to create an advantage by momentarily blocking the path of one defender from sticking with his assignment. By switching, the defense is basically saying “we don’t care about the contact.”
A pick usually leads to dribble penetration, but if the defense anticipates and changes the assignments to negate the pick, there’s no point in running screens.
Ball screen offense accounts for roughly one-quarter of all NBA scoring opportunities. To change a team’s emphasis in such a common way can be incredibly disruptive.
In order to succeed at swapping assignments, teams need defenders who won’t provide vulnerabilities if they find themselves on opponents with vastly different skills: For example, smaller guards who switch a 1-5 pick-and-roll and find themselves guarding a post player. If the defender in this case can’t at least competently defend the blocks or put up something resembling a fight, switching the ball screen may do more harm than good.
The same can be said of bigs who cannot stop the ball from being penetrated.
That’s where “length” comes in—a buzzword across all basketball landscapes. Frontcourt guys particularly don’t need to crowd the ball when guarding one-on-one. They can stand a step or two back, extend their arm to deter a shot and save themselves some hassle of covering more ground on a drive. The hope is actually to force a jump shot and prevent a drive.
Few guys use their length better than Achiuwa.
Is he capable of moving his feet and sliding laterally with some wing drivers? Absolutely, and he’s proven that at Memphis. But he doesn’t become an over-aggressive bonehead and try to lean too hard on his athleticism, either.
Instead, his length is his strength in isolations. Even when guys drive, he cuts them off and uses his length to force turnaround jumpers, step-backs and increase the degree of difficulty on the offense. Achiuwa’s athleticism is the very definition of functional.
I also love how he can handle in full-court. There are glimmers of hope he can run the break for others, but in general, to have a seven-foot wingspan that can rebound and then push up the floor is a massive plus.
Achiuwa covers so much ground so quickly, has shown some nice stop-and-go instincts and is an above-the-rim finisher.
How frequently will this scenario present itself? I’d say at least once or twice a game for someone who rebounds with such tenacity.
Without surprise, we move to the offense… We’ve seen many offensive-stunted players string together impactful careers and make some decent money on their second contract. Recently, guys like Andre Roberson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al-Farouq Aminu come to mind.
But very few franchises would be thrilled spending a lottery pick on those guys if that’s as far as they develop.
Beyond their shooting woes, there’s a minimal level of production required for them to be functional on offense. For Kidd-Gilchrist, it was how he would offensive rebound. For Roberson, his backdoor cutting from the corners was a large part of his production in Oklahoma City. Aminu eventually turned himself into a respectable catch-and-shoot threat.
Right now, Achiuwa isn’t at that baseline. He’s not a great cutter, takes some putrid mid-range shots (perhaps out of necessity on a poor scoring team) and is a disastrous 1-for-18 on catch-and-shoots with a defender approaching within five feet.
That said, Achiuwa is close in a lot of categories. He was still above 30 percent as a 3-point shooter. He’s an average finisher who, if he fixes his release point, can become above-average quickly. He’s a wiry big who can handle, but he’s a poor passer.
His off-ball recognization is a large wild card since he wasn’t played off-ball all that much.
Whichever team drafts Achiuwa will need to focus on one or two of these areas quickly, getting him up to speed to where he can at least use his weaponized defense and then continue his development toward a long-term feel on the other end.
Achiuwa checks zero of those four boxes now, but he’s closer than it seems in fixing several of them.
I don’t know if I’ve seen someone with a 7’2″ wingspan get as many shots around the hoop blocked as Achiuwa.
He shrinks himself as a finisher and lacks the core strength to handle contact. That will come, but his body type does lend himself to feeling like a tree in the wind, where his top shakes when the bottom is struck. NBA guards and wings are strong, Achiuwa may struggle to even punish mismatches since he’s so easily knocked off spots.
He’s also not a skilled enough back-to-basket finisher (mainly a patience issue) to even command the ball there.
As a shooter, he needs work. No question there’s some touch showed, but the mechanics are a huge preventer of consistency. Achiuwa changes his mechanics based on where he is on the floor and has a strange backward lean when taking off-the-bounce jumpers.
This is a massively important skill for every prospect but is make-or-break for a guy like Achiuwa. His defensive value comes from putting him at the 4 and letting him cause havoc on any position. If he can’t shoot it at all, will he be effective at the 4 or will he give whatever advantage he creates right back?
In my eyes, whoever you slot at the 4 dictates your style of play. NBA teams need to feel confident with deciding if Achiuwa’s shot is workable enough that he can become a 4-man or whether he needs to add 20 pounds and bulk up to be the switchy, pogo-stick 5 who is more of a finisher.
Overall Analysis and Draft Predictions
One of the reasons I’m high on Achiuwa is because he’s shown some flashes that I just cannot get out of my head.
Sometimes you see something from a prospect that gives you hope, and you cling to them tightly when playing the “what if” game about their future. The one for me: A nifty spin move from Achiuwa at the elbow when involved in a 4-5 pick-and-roll. This is a staple for several teams with impactful bigs and perhaps the most difficult action to defend when you don’t know it’s coming.
It’s one play, but it’s stuck with me for months:
I’m skeptical of Achiuwa being good enough to warrant this role on an NBA floor. But the flash of its potential in a weak draft is almost too tantalizing to pass on.
The jab-and-go to set his man up for the screen. The change of pace leading to the spin. The great footwork and the finish. There aren’t a ton of guys at his size who even show flashes of that fluidity.
For me, Achiuwa is a borderline top-ten selection. He’s deployable in many ways on defense and, with the right shot doctor and offensive role, can be more than just a rebounding, energy big.
It’s likely his draft range is anywhere from 8-to-20, but in a draft like this, there are worse talents to gamble on and fewer guys with such an enticing upside.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.