Portland Trail Blazers: How does 2020 NBA Draft prospect Precious Achiuwa fit with Portland?

Memphis Tigers big Precious Achiuwa has been linked to the Portland Trail Blazers, as a potential pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. What should we know about him?

Plenty of Portland Trail Blazers observers likely remember a moment right before the NBA season resumption, when Hassan Whiteside hinted at the Blazers’ “changed defense” ― one that would see them step up higher on pick-and-rolls instead of dropping low into the paint. Given their status as one of the worst pick-and-roll defensive teams, there was a collective sigh permeated through the state of Oregon.

Whiteside discussed that plan on Jul. 15th, two weeks before the Trail Blazers re-opened the season on Jul. 31.

That new-and-improved ball-screen defensive philosophy evidently fell through the cracks on the night of Jul. 30th. We never got to see the reaping of its benefits.

This fall, the Portland Trail Blazers will have their first opportunity to atone that problem in the 2020 NBA Draft. One player they’ve been recently linked to is Precious Achiuwa, a Nigerian, one-year big from Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers group. Pegged as one of the best two-way bigs in the 2020 NBA Draft, Achiuwa deserves a closer inspection.

The first thing that comes to mind with Achiuwa is how NBA-ready his physique is. Achiuwa stands at 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, the prototypical size for the modern-day “big.” But his advanced specs (the near 7-foot-3 wingspan and a standing reach of over 9-feet) add to his excitement.

One of Achiuwa’s most redeemable traits is in how excellent he is in pick-and-roll coverage, especially when it comes to switching onto guards. He has an unusual legerity about him on defense, with feet quick. Throughout the season, his reach allowed him to get blocks on shiftier guards hoping to catch him off balanced.

Notice the hand use, quick feet, and soundness of mind. Achiuwa knows if he sends Houston Cougars guard Caleb Mills to the baseline ― an extra defender if he plays his cards right ― his options run dry. That’s a tough cross-court pass doing left, as would a step-back, drifting midrange shot under time constraints.

He has an understanding of his role, too. Despite finishing with the No. 2 ranking in both field-goals made and field goal percentage in the AAC, and averaging 15.8 points per night, he repeatedly told beat reporters that his focus was on defense and energy during last week’s 2020 NBA Draft media availability.

As an observer, I’d feel confident in him guarding 1-through-5 at the NCAA level, and 2-through-5 at the NBA level, until he learns more professional guard tendencies and traits.

When it comes to “Draft talk,” it’s normally a lot of this. Part of what intrigues me more than anything is this: how does he respond to adversity? Does he thrive against pressure?

As many remember, the NCAA suspended Achiuwa’s All-American and five-star recruit teammate James Wiseman on Nov. 20, three games into his season. There was immediate pressure on the rest of the team to produce.

What was Achiuwa do in his first game after the suspension?

Get to the charity stripe 20 times (granted, he went 8-for-20), the highlight of a 20-point, 8-rebound night in 23 minutes of play. From that point on, Achiuwa averaged 16.4 points and 11.3 rebounds, scoring in double-figures in 25 of 28 games, truly hitting his stride in late-December.

You have like a player that understands “feel” and urgency. The move also allowed him to learn more about the nuances of the “5” position, something he said he had never done before before Hardaway moved him.

His offensive game requires polish, but take a listen into how coaches describe him ― one coach said he gave him nightmares, per The Athletic’s John Martin ― and you get Giannis Antetokounmpo vibes. They talked about how it was pertinent to keep Achiuwa in front of them, to build a wall, and to not allow him a head of steam in transition, where he ranked in the 61st percentile (1.06 points per possession).

On tape, he’s shown the ability to score on slower bigs with quick dribble combinations, but can be susceptible to poor shot selection if beaten to the spot by anticipatory defenders. But, we know a guy that can help with that, if they want him on the perimeter. On the flip side, there’s some Julius Randle in him too, in how reliant he is on one spin move.

There’s work to be done on his 3-point ability. He shot 32.5 percent on 40 attempts last season, which makes the comparisons to Moe Harkless and Gerald Wallace much more conceivable. Should he play the modern “5,” you also hope to see progression as a roll man.

But it’s a work in development; we have to remember, when he came to Memphis, he was viewed as a small forward prospect. He’s also an old head by 2020 NBA Draft standards, and we’ve seen Neil Olshey drift away from older prospects in recent years.

Could it be somewhat redundant having defensive-minded forwards in Zach Collins and Wenyen Gabriel already in tow? Perhaps. But if there’s one thing we know about this NBA is that you can never have too many switchable, versatile players on a roster. If the Trail Blazers do take Achiuwa in the 2020 NBA Draft, there would certainly be a reason for excitement going forward.