When Precious Achiuwa arrived in the Bronx burrow of New York City at 14 years old to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA, nobody knew what to make of him.
Here was an extremely skinny, 6-foot-2 kid who grew up playing soccer in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and who thought he was a point guard despite his big hands making it difficult for him to dribble and his height making him one of the tallest kids in his class. He was raw, barely able to play basketball at a grade school level.
Precious was able to come over to the States because his brother, God’sgift Achiuwa, had been playing basketball at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where he told anybody that would listen that he had a younger sibling back home that would be just as good as him at basketball, if not better. So Gift’s coach and New Heights AAU program coordinator Oswald Cross convinced the head coach at his old high school, Adam Maldonado at Our Savior Lutheran in the Bronx, to help secure an I-20 student visa for Precious to come over and play.
“We really didn’t know he was gonna be this good. It was strictly because of his brother and the relationship we had with him that we helped bring him over,” Cross tells Complex. “I didn’t have any film or anything on him. I just had a little picture of him from when he was like 11 years old, or maybe even 9 years old. And I was like: ‘Hey bring him over. His brother’s big, maybe he’ll get big. Maybe he’ll be okay.’”
“When he first got here… He wasn’t who he is right now, where he’s a physical specimen, he’s built very strong, no body fat. When he first got here, he was just so small and frail,” adds Kenny Miller, who was the manager for St. John’s University men’s basketball from 2011 to 2014, eventually becoming Precious’ primary trainer, helping him through the pre-draft process and continuing to train him to this day. “And he was raw, but his movements were rare.”
Achiuwa grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-9 over the course of four short years, moving along the way from small forward to center as he went from Our Savior Lutheran in the Bronx to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey to the illustrious Montverde Academy near Orlando, Florida. Finally, Achiuwa secured an offer from Memphis University to play under legendary coach Penny Hardaway and, after an impressive freshman season where he shot up draft boards and earned AAC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honours, Achiuwa achieved his NBA dream, getting drafted 20th overall by the Miami Heat in the 2020 Draft.
But it took much more than physical growth for Precious to make it to the NBA. In fact, the more you learn about Precious, the more you understand that it’s the current Toronto Raptors forward’s mindset that sets him apart, because nothing has been handed to him. Everything Precious has, he had to take, sometimes literally.
Shortly after coming over to the States, Achiuwa was on a road trip with his AAU team when his point guard refused to pass him the ball. Whether it was because he couldn’t get it to Achiuwa or because he didn’t want to pass it to him, that was unclear.
“But literally in-game, Precious goes and just takes the ball from his teammate. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Miller. “But, you know, that was Precious. That’s who he is, his personality: he went and he did what he had to do.”
Port Harcourt is the fifth-largest city in Nigeria and the capital of the oil-rich Rivers State in the Niger Delta. Located more than 350 miles southeast of Lagos on the Atlantic Ocean near the Gulf of Guinea, Port Harcourt is an industrial center rife with criminal activity, with pirates frequenting its shores due to the prevalence of ships and lack of security.
Achiuwa was born and raised in Port Harcourt by his parents, Eunice and Donatus, who were both Pentecostal ministers, along with his five siblings—the reason he wears the No. 5 on his jersey. Precious grew up playing soccer like most boys in the area before eventually getting into basketball around eighth grade, the time he attended a Giants of Africa basketball camp in his home country. He turned out to be one of the youngest athletes to ever attend one of the camps run by Masai Ujiri, the Giants of Africa founder and current vice-chairman and president of the Toronto Raptors. The camps were a big deal: in a continent with limited resources to develop and scout basketball players, Giants of Africa is undoubtedly one of the most popular ways to get noticed and improve. That’s when Precious fell in love with the game, ultimately landing him in New York.