After Knicks-Raptors trade, Precious Achiuwa is taking steps forward in New York

PHILADELPHIA — Precious Achiuwa wasn’t even born yet when his most beloved rebounder was gobbling up boards.

The 24-year-old has to reach back to the 1990s to name his all-time favorite glass glutton: Hall of Fame player and irritant Dennis Rodman. Of course, it’s no surprise Achiuwa has sophisticated taste in rebounders. He’s always had a thing for them.

When he was a kid, he gravitated to the Memphis Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph, his favorite player and a brute power forward who, as Achiuwa says, “couldn’t jump over a few pieces of paper” but would consume any missed shot in sight.

Few people internalized the flight of a basketball better than Randolph, who would eye a jumper and slide over, as if he could predict the future, to wherever the ball was bound to bounce. The process began immediately. Once a jumper left a shooter’s fingertips, he was already positioning himself to grab the miss.

There is something about that psychic ability, the same one Achiuwa admires most about Rodman, that stood out to a young up-and-comer from the Bronx.

“He had really, really high, elite instincts to be able to make those reads,” Achiuwa said.

Now, Achiuwa is showing others how it’s done.

It’s been 10 games since Achiuwa entered the New York Knicks’ starting lineup, filling in at power forward for the injured Julius Randle. And these days, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which he’s not on the court.

He’s played more than 40 minutes a game during this stretch and is averaging 14.3 points to go with 10.3 boards. And while he’s always been reliable on the glass, he’s never pulled down offensive rebounds like this.

The boards are coming in every way. He grabs them because he leaps over an opponent or because he’s already begun his second jump while someone in the other jersey is still coming down from his first. Watch Achiuwa when a shot is in the air, and you can see him attempting his best Rodman or Randolph impersonation, drifting to wherever he believes the ball will carom next.

“It’s just tenacity,” Achiuwa said.

Since arriving in New York, Achiuwa is recovering 14 percent of his team’s missed shots, which would be a career high. He corralled 19 offensive boards over the Knicks’ final two games before the All-Star break. During the win in Philly on Thursday, he picked up four more.

It’s as if, like his heroes, he knows where the ball is going before it ever touches the rim.

“It just really comes down to timing,” Achiuwa said. “I know I’m not the tallest person on the floor. Depending on where the shot is shot from, I’m making a read on if it’s gonna be a long rebound, or I’m reading the ball and seeing if it’s gonna bounce left or bounce right. … I can’t really explain how I can make those reads, honestly. It’s just instinctual.”

Lately, his instincts have become a nightly strength. But Achiuwa was never known for his consistency in his previous stops with the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat. And certainly, he was not supposed to fit so snugly in New York.

He was the fourth name mentioned in December (if he was mentioned at all) after the Knicks acquired him along with OG Anunoby from the Raptors for RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. That deal was the Anunoby trade — or maybe it was the Quickley one or the Barrett one. Either way, Achiuwa was hardly the focal point. Yet, for the past month, he’s honed high-energy qualities that once made him too jumpy and has become one of the Knicks’ steadiest contributors.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau encourages Achiuwa to cover ground defensively. He’ll switch; he’ll venture far from the paint. When the Knicks hosted the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month, Thibodeau matched Achiuwa’s minutes with LeBron James’.

This is not just for show. It’s not a coach saying nice platitudes about a player only to sit him for the most important moments. Heck, since Achiuwa entered the starting lineup, he’s leading the NBA in minutes per game. Thibodeau keeps buying Achiuwa stock, and he’s making a killing.

The coach has grown impressed with Achiuwa’s quick decision-making on offense, which was a question mark during his days in Toronto. The Knicks will use Achiuwa as a screener. They’ll space him to the corner. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Jalen Brunson is improving.

During the Philadelphia game, the 76ers kept trapping Brunson, which opened up lanes for Achiuwa to cut to the hoop. Brunson was finding him. Achiuwa finished with 18 points and 11 boards that night.

“(We’ve been) playing together for a while now, getting to know how defenses are playing and getting into our reads faster,” Brunson said. “He’s been great.”

Every once in a while, a gaffe still pops up — a rushed, errant pass or fancy move to the hoop that does not end pretty. But make no mistake about it: This is not the same Achiuwa the Raptors employed.

Maybe that’s because Achiuwa knows where to look — and he’s not glancing into his periphery only on rebounds either.

When the Knicks first acquired Achiuwa, Thibodeau looked at him as more of a center than power forward. In the couple of weeks following the trade, that’s how the coach used him.

Thibodeau turned Achiuwa into a conventional rim-diver, using the big man to set screens, race to the paint and grab offensive boards. The ball never stuck much with Achiuwa, nor should it have. But as Achiuwa has become more comfortable, and as he’s tallied more time alongside a rotating cast of oft-injured teammates, little nuances have improved.

For example, Achiuwa has added a new element to the Knicks’ dribble-handoff game. He’s hardly going through the motions when he heads into one of those actions with a teammate. Instead, like on those rebound attempts, he’s looking where no one else is.

On numerous dribble handoffs, Achiuwa has noticed his defender step up toward him, anticipating that the Knicks big man will give the ball to the teammate curling around him, and has held onto the ball himself, faking the handoff and driving downhill. It’s a good way to find a quick layup, basketball’s equivalent of the quarterback keeper.

“If they’re playing (whoever I’m supposed to hand the ball to) too close and I see whoever is guarding me is trying to switch out, that’s the easy slip to the basket,” Achiuwa said. “I could hand it off and roll to the basket, or I could just keep it because he’s being lazy. It’s just a read thing.”

Now, Achiuwa is getting buckets out of these fake dribble handoffs.

He pulled one off against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. And against the Indiana Pacers after that. And against the Orlando Magic after that. And someone important has noticed.

Thibodeau isn’t raving only about Achiuwa’s physical traits, the athleticism or the defensive switchability; he’s now also pointing to the man’s mind.

Before Thursday’s game in Philly, the coach listed off all the traits that have impressed him most about Achiuwa so far.

“Just probably the all-around offense to make quick decisions, dribble uphill, the fake handoff, the handoff, then get into the pocket quickly,” Thibodeau said. “Screen, get out of the screens quickly, that sort of thing. He can finish different ways around the basket.”

This is not the same way people talked about Achiuwa in Toronto. Then again, this is not the same Achiuwa. Sometimes, a change of scenery can change the results.

“You knew there was versatility to his game,” Thibodeau said. “But we didn’t really understand the dribble-handoff part of it, all those things. And the offensive rebounding is something that we liked from the start. We knew he was very effective with that.”

At some point, the Knicks will encounter a problem that any team would love to have. Randle is hoping to return from his dislocated shoulder during the regular season. Anunoby, who is recovering from elbow surgery, is due for a re-evaluation around March 1. Once those two come back, the rotation becomes crowded.

Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Anunoby, Randle and Isaiah Hartenstein will start. Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanović, Josh Hart and Achiuwa will come off the bench. That would eject Miles McBride and Jericho Sims, who have both proven to be reliable regulars, out of the rotation. And if Mitchell Robinson, who has been out since early December after undergoing ankle surgery, were to play again this season, as the Knicks have said remains possible, then someone else would have to follow.

Considering that Robinson and Hartenstein would soak up all 48 minutes at center and that Randle, Anunoby, Bogdanović and Hart would all jam into the forward spots, would Achiuwa be on the outside looking in, an undeserved casualty of a team that’s as deep as the Pacific?

But we might be getting too far ahead of ourselves. It’s also plausible Robinson doesn’t play again in 2023-24. Or that Achiuwa — because he continues to snag rebound after rebound, because he’s reading the game faster than ever, because he’s delivered just about every time Thibodeau has called on him for the past month — forces the Knicks to change the calculus.

All he has to do is keep his head on a swivel.

(Photo of Precious Achiuwa: Bill Streicher / USA Today)

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