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Why Achiuwa’s unexpected rise could change the Raptors’ short-term outlook

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VICTORIA – Sometimes the answers you’ve been seeking lie in plain sight.

That’s probably an overly simplistic interpretation of the Toronto Raptors‘ relationship with Precious Achiuwa, the team’s intriguing third-year big man, but it’s not all that far from the truth.

Among the club’s shortcomings a season ago were a lack of size, not enough shooting depth and struggles on the defensive glass.

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Regardless, the Raptors were able to put together a positive season in 2021-22 immediately on the heels of the ‘Tampa Tank’, where Toronto slid into the draft lottery while riding out the pandemic in Florida.

That part worked out well. The Raptors drafted superstar-in-training Scottie Barnes – a nice foundation piece as they seemed to be shifting into rebuild mode, which included saying goodbye to franchise icon Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade arrangement with the Miami Heat.

And while Barnes has been everything that could reasonably be hoped for in a No. 4 pick – as his rookie-of-the-year award would indicate – the unexpected rise of Achiuwa is another reason to believe Toronto can complete the climb from also-ran to contender sooner than almost anyone would have projected.

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Part of the reason was how bad Achiuwa was (offensively, at least) when he first arrived last season. The athletic potential was obvious – only a handful of players at his size (6-foot-9) are as quick and fluid in their movement in any direction on the floor, or as explosive when they decide to leave it.

But until Christmas, roughly, he also struggled to catch, dribble, or shoot inside five feet: at one point he was making just half of his shots from that range, a distance good NBA finishers convert three quarters of the time, or more.

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Defensively Achiuwa could contribute immediately. The Raptors were instantly better with him on the floor and per cleaningtheglass.com, Raptors opponents’ effective field goal percentage was 3.2 per cent worse with him on the floor – a difference that ranked Achiuwa in the league’s 92nd percentile, and opponents shot 4.1 per cent worse at the rim with Achiuwa patrolling the paint, which ranked in the 87th percentile for defensive impact.

But even the best defenders have to be able to not muck everything up completely when their team has the ball. And even though he was just 22 years old last year for long stretches of the season, Achiuwa seemed like a lost cause when his team had the ball.

In sum, he was an elite NBA-level talent without the skill to harness it.

But as the season wore on, Achiuwa got more and more comfortable. His improvement came incrementally and then suddenly. In a matter of weeks, it felt like, the second-year player transitioned from failed experiment to potential building block.

As the Raptors organize themselves for the season in training camp with a deep roster and plenty of competition for minutes, a pressing question is whether Achiuwa’s second-half leap was real or imagined; wishful or sustainable.

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So far, the sense is Achiuwa is picking up from where he left off.

“[It’s] night and day; night and day as [far as] as who I saw for the first time last year in the gym to who he is today,” was Raptors guard Fred VanVleet’s assessment of Achiuwa after two days of practice.

“You’ve got to give credit to Precious and his work, his work ethic, and his dedication to continuing to get better. He’s found more touch around the rim, which is great to see. I was most impressed with his one-on-one defence on the perimeter. He guarded some of the best in the league better than anyone I’ve seen. I think that’s a valuable asset this year.”

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As much as the player who started last season was a liability for long stretches, the possibility of Achiuwa morphing into another O.G. Anunoby – a big wing who can guard five positions and shoot well enough to keep defences honest – changes the short-term equation for the Raptors.

Players with Achiuwa’s defensive chops – in the Raptors’ first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers he was as capable of standing in against Sixers behemoth Joel Embiid as he was tracking former MVP James Harden on the perimeter – who can shoot 39 per cent from three on nearly four attempts a game (Achiuwa’s post-all-star rates) all while running wild in transition and dominating the paint on defence are rare and valuable.

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A team can’t have enough of them in a league where so much of the offensive load is carried by superstars who have guard skills in power forward frames. And if your organization happens to have a surplus of them, the possibility of trading for additional talent from a position of strength becomes tantalizing.

But first Achiuwa has to prove that the final three months of last season weren’t an aberration.

He’s confident that’s not the case.

“I mean every part of my game, in my opinion, has been getting better,” Achiuwa said Wednesday. “That was a big emphasis of mine and still is, just trying to get better all-around when it comes to my game.

“…The second half of the season really made me understand what I’m capable of doing and how much more I could do,” he added. “Just gotta keep doing the same thing, having the same approach to the game, and I took that to my workouts as well. It’s kinda like a vision, you take it and run with it.”

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Increasingly, the Raptors are believing in it. Head coach Nick Nurse demurred when asked about the possibility of moving Achiuwa into the starting lineup, likely in place of Gary Trent Jr. and alongside VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes, but he’s as encouraged about what continued growth from the young big man could mean as anyone else.

“I think that he’s improving all the time. I think he had a great especially last half. I’ve already talked about I think he had a great spring, summer, fall so far, and he’s looked really good during the first three practices,” said Nurse. “So you know, I think a good step forward for him is expected by him, first and foremost, which is the most important, and by all of us, yeah.”

The Raptors need size, rim protection and outside shooting if they are going to improve on last season’s surprising surge from the lottery. Achiuwa can offer them all three qualities, and maybe much more.



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20 Fantasy Thoughts: Kadri still searching for offence with Flames

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Cal Petersen ending up on waivers was a bit of a shocker.

I actually drafted Petersen with my final pick in one league, thinking Jonathan Quick wouldn’t be able to sustain the numbers he produced last year and Petersen might be able to overtake him. My projection on Quick is proving true, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about Petersen. He looks nothing like the goalie from 2020-21 that had a .911 save percentage.

The Los Angeles Kings are in an interesting predicament. There’s no question they can ice a very competitive team, but Los Angeles is in danger of squandering their season if they don’t get some saves. You can only lean on a 36-year-old Quick so much and banking on him to recapture some of last season’s form seems like a longshot at this point. Perhaps the Kings will simply have no choice but to consider a trade.

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This is just me thinking out loud, but with the emergence of Pyotr Kochetkov, maybe the Carolina Hurricanes would be willing to move a goalie for cap reasons. Both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are pending UFAs and would be an upgrade to what the Kings have been dealing with this season.

It makes too much sense, which likely means it won’t happen.

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1. Matty Beniers was dropped by many after a slow stretch in early November and now he’s making those who did so really regret it. The Seattle Kraken forward has five goals and 12 points in his past six games and even though it’s still early, he’s staking his claim for the Calder. After struggling to score last year, Seattle is surprisingly sitting third in the NHL in goals for and is filling the net with regularity. Beniers is still only rostered in 42 per cent of leagues, so it’s a good time to circle back and see if you have space for him on your team.

2. Other young players haven’t been so fortunate. After an incredible preseason, Marco Rossi has struggled to stay in the lineup and is now down in the AHL. Nick Robertson is also finding it difficult to find a role on the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite starting off with two goals in his first game this season. For every Beniers, there are dozens of other prospects who take much longer to provide any fantasy value. Sometimes you have to be patient.

3. Goals in three of four games now for Auston Matthews. That’s a good sign for those who drafted him, but it still only puts the Maple Leafs sniper on pace for 38 this season. For most players, 38 goals is a really solid showing, though the expectations were much higher for Matthews. Many thought he had a realistic shot at exceeding 60 and even 50 seemed like a worst-case scenario. Of course, Matthews could drop a few multi-goal games in a row and totally flip the pace around. There’s still time, but it feels like December might be a make-or-break month for Matthews in regards to getting back on track to reach the totals we’re used to seeing from him.

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4. Andrei Kuzmenko’s streaky season continues. After posting two points in his first seven games, Kuzmenko then posted nine points in his next five, before going pointless in four. The Vancouver Canucks forward recently dropped 10 points in five games when he was really clicking with Elias Pettersson and now, he’s been held without a point in three straight. Kuzmenko seems like one of those players who is going to be added and dropped all season long. You’ll just have to hope you scoop him up at the right time.

5. Thatcher Demko is set to miss the next six weeks with an injury, so it’s the Spencer Martin show for the time being. Martin’s record has been surprisingly good thus far and if nothing else, he’ll figure to play regularly with Demko out. He’s an option if you’re desperate for help between the pipes.

6. After going goalless for a lengthy stretch that dated back to last season, Alex Killorn now has 17 points in his past 16 games. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a few players like Killorn, Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul getting a boost from that potent top six. See if you can take advantage of it with a waiver wire pickup.

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7. It’s time to be concerned over Vincent Trocheck. The New York Rangers forward fell out of the top six recently and has just a single point in six games. The silver lining here is that Trocheck is still on the top power play, so maybe there’s a chance he can pull himself out of this. Unfortunately, those who were hoping Trocheck could have an offensive renaissance in New York have been sorely disappointed thus far.

8. Tough timing for Anton Lundell’s injury. The Florida Panthers forward had points in four straight games, to go along with eight penalty minutes, 10 shots and 17 faceoff wins. He was really excelling in the Panthers’ top six with Aleksander Barkov sidelined. Hopefully, Lundell’s usage remains similar when he returns.

9. Cam Talbot has a .928 save percentage over his past five games. It’s safe to say he’s claimed the starting job for the Ottawa Senators and Anton Forsberg’s value is diminishing rapidly.

10. Games don’t get much more productive than the one Nathan MacKinnon had this week against the Buffalo Sabres. MacKinnon finished with two goals, three assists, three power-play points, two penalty minutes, eight shots, eight faceoff wins and two blocks. It would’ve been nice if he picked up a few hits, though. All joking aside, that’s one of the more versatile games for category coverage I’ve seen in recent memory.

11. Adin Hill’s value is settling into simply a backup role on a good team in Vegas. I thought there was a chance he could split more time with Logan Thompson, given coach Bruce Cassidy’s history of rotating goalies. Thompson, though, started three straight games recently for the first time all season. He’s undoubtedly the true number one with the Golden Knights.

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12. No goals for Anders Lee in 11 games now. He’s still very effective for hits, but the lack of offence is concerning. Lee is on pace for 26 goals this season, his lowest pace for a full 82-game campaign since 2015-16.

13. Cole Perfetti is starting to catch fire. I mentioned Perfetti as someone to watch in the Winnipeg Jets’ top six in the pre-season, and he’s finally hitting his stride. He’s really connecting with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler to the tune of six points in his past four games. There are also other good reasons to consider Perfetti: the Jets play four times next week, and Perfetti is C, LW, and RW eligible. Great roster flexibility there.

14. It feels like the Buffalo Sabres have a plethora of fantasy relevant forwards this year, and JJ Peterka is the latest to go on a run. Peterka quietly has points in five of six games, thanks to being able to take advantage of Dylan Cozens’ recent strong play. I’m not sure I’d pick him up right now but put Peterka on your watch list.

15. The same goes for promising rookie Jonatan Berggren of the Detroit Red Wings. He’s notched six points in 10 games since being called up, though he isn’t getting as much of an opportunity as Peterka. Maybe if he keeps this up, Berggren will get a shot in the top six at some point with Tyler Bertuzzi injured again.

16. Alex Nedeljkovic got his first start since Nov. 12 this week and promptly gave up four goals in the loss, dropping his save percentage to .880 on the year. He’s played very sparingly, as Ville Husso has taken over the starting job in Detroit. Nedeljkovic isn’t worth rostering at this point.

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17. Seattle’s offence is even trickling down to the fourth line, where Daniel Sprong amazingly has seven points in his past seven games and 14 in 17 overall this season, playing only limited minutes. For a team that couldn’t score at all last year, the Kraken suddenly have a bunch of forwards that are fantasy options.

18. I’ve mentioned Evan Bouchard’s recent surge might give him an opportunity to overtake Tyson Barrie for first power play time and it appears to be happening. Over the past two games, Bouchard has played 7:58 on the power play to Barrie’s 4:21. If this keeps up, Bouchard’s value should soar.

19. Fabian Zetterlund has remarkably picked up a point in eight of the past 11 games. What makes this so impressive is that Zetterlund is only averaging 12:43 per game this season. Talk about making the most of your opportunities. Everything is going right for the New Jersey Devils this year.

20. Nazem Kadri appeared to not miss a beat when he joined the Calgary Flames. He scored 11 points in his first 10 games and looked like he might be one of the best signings from the summer. Since then, though, he’s managed just five points and Kadri has been held to a single assist in his past eight contests. Kadri’s struggles aren’t for lack of opportunities. He’s getting top power play time and is actually starting in the offensive zone more frequently (76.7 per cent) than he did last year (63.1 per cent). However, the Flames power play hasn’t been great, sitting at 24th overall in the NHL. His linemates at even strength also leave a lot to be desired, as Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube are both on pace for significantly lower outputs than they produced a year ago. Even with a pair of goals from Mangiapane on Saturday, he’s on only pace for 20 this season, while Dube is looking at just 13. They had 35 and 18, respectively, in 2021-22. Mangiapane’s trade value isn’t very high right now, so you’ll have to hope he goes on a tear or head coach Darryl Sutter re-works his lines to give Kadri a bump to the top group. If something doesn’t change, I don’t see Kadri coming anywhere close to the totals that made him such a coveted player in the off-season.

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2 Teams That Should Be Calling About Pirates CF Bryan Reynolds

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As MLB free agency gets underway, there are still trades that are looking to be made across the league.

One player that has just become available in the trade market is Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds.

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Reynolds requested a trade from the Pirates on Saturday, and most outfield-needy teams should be calling.

The 27-year-old is a perennial all-star and one of the most underrated players in the MLB.

Here are two teams that should be calling about the Pirates’ star.

 

Toronto Blue Jays

One team that needs to be calling about Reynolds is the Toronto Blue Jays.

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After a disappointing season for them in 2022, the Blue Jays have pressure to make a run this year.

But, after trading away outfielder Teoscar Hernandez, the Blue Jays need another outfield bat.

Reynolds would be a perfect addition to their roster.

The switch hitter can slot in anywhere before or after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.

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Reynolds would be able to elevate his game with plenty of other good hitters around him in the Toronto lineup.

If the Bule Jays are serious about contending, this is a move they need to make.

 

Miami Marlins

The Miami Marlins are desperate for a star hitter.

They have not had an all-star caliber position player since Giancarlo Stanton in 2017.

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It is time for them to make a splash move to acquire a big bat.

Reynolds would slot into the middle of the Marlins’ lineup and immediately become their best hitter.

Miami has the pitching in place to contend in the National League.

With reigning NL Cy Young winner, Sandy Alcantara leading the way.

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If the Marlins can start to develop a good group of hitters around their pitching staff, the rebuild may not take so long.

This is a big offseason for Miami as they look primed to make some big moves.

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2 Questions Facing The Mets After Losing Jacob DeGrom

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The New York Mets find themselves in a precarious position after losing ace Jacob deGrom.

The Mets planned to bring deGrom back, but he found a better deal with the Texas Rangers.

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So what will the Mets do now?

There are plenty of questions that surround this team after they let their prized pitcher walk.

Here are the two questions that most people should want to be answered.

 

What Will They Do At Starting Pitcher?

With deGrom now headed to Texas, and Chris Bassitt also a free agent, the Mets need some starting pitchers.

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The noise around the Mets will only get louder the longer they wait to make a big move.

Luckily for New York, there are still good free-agent pitchers available.

The two names they have to target now are Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon.

Those are the two best starters available and they can fill the void left by deGrom.

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It also seems like the Mets are interested in bringing back Bassitt who had a career year last season.

Keep an eye on the Mets as they look to be one of the most active teams in free agency.

 

How Will The Mets Pass The Braves?

The Mets spent most of last season in first place in the NL East.

Until the end of the season when they got swept by the Atlanta Braves with the division title on the line.

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The Braves have been the NL East champions for the last five seasons, so how will New York compete with them?

Other than adding more starting pitching, the Mets could also use an impact bat.

One name that could interest the Mets in the trade market is Bryan Reynolds.

The Pirates outfielder is a switch hitter and a perennial all-star.

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He also fits the Mets roster more than signing one of the available star shortstops.

The New York media will not be kind to the Mets if they do not make a splash move.

If they want to compete with the Braves and Phillies for the NL East title next year, the Mets must be active this offseason.

The post 2 Questions Facing The Mets After Losing Jacob DeGrom appeared first on The Cold Wire.





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