HOUSTON — When the Knicks made the trade that brought Precious Achiuwa home to New York, he had reason to celebrate. His family could see him play. His brother, who played for St. John’s, could spend time with him. And then reality set in.
It was the OG Anunoby trade, and Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn were little-used pieces on their arrival from Toronto. In his first 10 games with the Knicks, Achiuwa played only 11.7 minutes per game, averaging 2.8 points and 3.5 rebounds, and there was reason to wonder where he would be when the season was over. He would be an unrestricted free agent.
But much of the NBA is based on opportunity, and the Knicks’ injury troubles presented an opportunity for Achiuwa. Suddenly he found himself on the court, playing at least 40 minutes in each of the last six games entering Monday night’s contest against the Rockets and averaging an NBA-leading 41.8 minutes per game in that span.
“For me, it’s doing whatever it takes to get a win,” Achiuwa said after the morning shootaround at the Toyota Center. “I’m a winner. I like to win basketball games. I don’t really care about all the extra stuff, just do what I got to do to put us in a better position to win.
“It’s how it is in this league. It’s how it goes. You just have to stay ready, stay patient. You never know when your name is going to be called. I was just staying prepared, trusting everything.”
Some of the injuries that pushed Achiuwa into action may be easing, as Jericho Sims was back in action Monday night. With the Knicks missing Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Sims — the three centers on the roster — as well as power forwards Julius Randle and Anunoby, the 6-8 Achiuwa has been forced into duty as the starting power forward and the center by default.
“It don’t matter to me. Just affecting winning any way possible,” he said before pausing and adding with a smile, “But I’m definitely more of a four than a five.”
It hasn’t just been minutes, though. After biding his time to get a chance, Achiuwa averaged 14.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the six-game span.
The turnaround really came for him when the Toronto Raptors came to Madison Square Garden and the focus was on the return of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley or how Anunoby would perform against his old team. When the Knicks built a large lead, Achiuwa got his chance, and after scoring 28 points in his first 10 games with the Knicks, he had 18 on 9-for-10 shooting in 20 minutes.
Now he has become a steady and reliable option for coach Tom Thibodeau, who acted incredulous when asked about the increased minutes load. Then he smiled and answered a question about whether he was surprised at the production that Achiuwa has given in those minutes.
“Yes and no, from this standpoint,” Thibodeau said. “We obviously had the need for the backup center position. What we didn’t know was he was also very comfortable at playing the power forward position. He’s got great feet.
“He’s handled the minutes — he’s young. He’s handled the minutes very well and showed us that he can guard multiple positions. So I like that aspect of him. . . . So he’s done a really good job. If we can get him to keep pushing, usually that’s how guys grow, by playing every game, playing big minutes and handling that. So when the intensity and the concentration match up together good things usually come from that.”
“Like I said, I’m a winner and I like to win games,” Achiuwa said. “So it’s just whatever it takes. So it’s whatever it takes to win games, whether it’s setting screens, rebounding the ball, guarding the best player on the other team. Steals. Blocks, whatever it takes to win basketball games. That’s what I’m really looking forward to doing.”
Achiuwa, whose family emigrated from Nigeria to the Bronx when he was a child, still has his family in the area — including his brother God’sgift — and they have been part of the crowd cheering him on at the Garden.
“For me, I grew up in New York,” he said. “I went to school in the city. And just being back home playing, a lot of people that I grew up playing around, just knowing me being back home has been a lot of love. It’s been a lot of really, really good times, being able to play in front of my family. I can’t express how amazing that is. But it’s been an amazing time being back in the city.”