Achiuwa says he has done a lot of growing up since being traded to the Raptors from the Miami Heat in 2021. Thrown into the fray and expected to deliver, he appeared uncertain with the Florida side, with little latitude for error.
In Toronto, the expectations have been different, with the 22-year-old allowed the freedom to be his own person on the floor. A shaky start was erased after the All Star break, as a more confident player emerged, growing into his role within the organization.
After spending this offseason working with his trainers in the gym, and taking time off to travel to Nigeria for the first time in over seven years, Achiuwa says he is in a different headspace now, one that is geared towards winning and hopefully taking the Raptors back to the top.
“I’m in a different type of mindset right now,” he told ESPN. “I’m really focused and I understand what it takes.
“I’m ready to go out there next season and play to the best of my ability and give it my all. Definitely try to win all games and go further than we did this past season.”
That change in mindset is already evident to Raptors coach Nick Nurse, a man with an eye for talent and no stranger to spotting and shaping All Stars.
“Wait till this year because every time I see him this summer on the court, it’s total focus, total intensity,” Nurse said on a Hungarian basketball podcast.
“I mean, something happened to him where he now understands what playing in the NBA is about, and he is on a mission.”
Part of that ‘something’ appears to be the influence of Nurse himself, and the welcoming atmosphere in Toronto.
“That’s a huge compliment coming from him,” Achiuwa said in response to Nurse’s comments. “It’s great. I don’t take any opportunity for granted.
“This is an environment that allows you explore during the cause of the game and that’s really big for me. Just being a versatile, 6’9 player, they allow me explore my game, be versatile and play in different positions and different ways. That has overall helped my game.”
Off the floor, Achiuwa’s relationship with team president Masai Ujiri, who also has Nigerian heritage, has also helped.
Achiuwa said: “He has that Nigerian blood like me and it helps a lot to have someone like that who understands where you come from and the struggles you have had.”
Ujiri has been going back home to help build facilities to facilitate the growth of basketball in Nigeria through his Giants of Africa program, and this offseason, Achiuwa took a similar route home to try to help youngsters.
The forward went back to his hometown of Port Harcourt, where he organized a camp for young basketball players, and a 5×5 tournament where he also played with some of his old buddies.
Not only did he find it inspiring, Achiuwa said it helped reignite his love of basketball: “The camp was a lot of fun! It was amazing, it was fire. It was the most fulfilling thing that I’ve done honestly, over getting drafted, over playing in the NBA.
“Just being able to come back after so much time and the type of embracing love that they welcomed me with was amazing. The kids were really great. They listened, they appreciated everything, they were respectful.
“We danced a lot, we had fun when we played basketball. I just wanted them to get that feeling that basketball is a really beautiful game. We play really, really, really beautiful sport.
“You have to enjoy yourself while you playing the game of basketball and that’s the kind of atmosphere that we created and it made me appreciate the fun of just playing basketball.”
The trip also proved to be an intensely humbling experience for the big man: “Looking at the kids was very humbling. Just to see where I am at, compared to where I came from, which is where they are now.
“I saw lots of talent in the kids. A lot of kids that could really play and have good really good feel for the game. They are really talented, athletic, could jump, could move, could run fast.
“The only thing missing is the right infrastructure in Africa, Nigeria, not just my home town. I feel if we have the right infrastructure, that could help us a lot.”
Achiuwa’s passion for the country is obvious, and showed when he represented Nigeria at the Olympic Games.
One of the highlights – a rarity in recent times — of Nigerian basketball over the last two years was that stunning upset win over Team USA in a pre-Olympic friendly in Vegas. And an iconic moment of that win was rookie Precious climbing high for an emphatic rejection on veteran Kevin Durant.
That high was followed by the lows of logistics issues at the Games, and then a spiral into administrative and political conflict which has set Nigerian basketball back and led to the women’s team being thrown out of the World Cup after the Nigerian government decided to withdraw the country from international basketball.
With all these issues plaguing Nigerian basketball, Achiuwa says he is uncertain whether he still wants to represent the country at this time.
“I’m still deciding on that,” he said. “I haven’t made a decision yet. Right now, I just want to focus on what I am doing and see what happens.”
That decision may be not be made for a while. Nigeria are in danger of not qualifying for the FIBA World Cup, and would need a miracle to do so. That will also compromise their chances of qualifying for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.
But Achiuwa is not thinking that far ahead just yet. For now, he just wants to establish himself as a Raptor starter and take them all the way to the ‘ship.