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By the time the Miami Heat got into the heart of the 2021 playoff chase, Precious Achiuwa and KZ Okpala found themselves left behind. Too much was at stake in the moment for Erik Spoelstra’s team for the development of the recent draft picks.
But with the invitation to try out for Nigerian Olympic team, a second chance seemingly has provided second life.
And Nigeria coach Mike Brown, the Golden State Warriors assistant, couldn’t be happier.
Both Heat prospects already have made indelible impressions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, including in Saturday’s 90-87 exhibition victory over Team USA, when Okpala and Achiuwa both started for Nigeria and then were on the court for the game’s decisive defensive sequence.
An upset nobody saw coming? Perhaps. But the contributions of the Heat neophytes? Brown saw that prospect even before his team took the court Saturday night in Las Vegas.
“Precious Achiuwa two days ago, on one possession, he guarded seven guys,” Brown said with a laugh about
the center out of Memphis the Heat selected at No. 20 in the 2020 first round. “Only five were on the floor. I don’t know, he guarded two guys on the sideline and then he got the block at the end of the possession. And I went up to him afterward and I said, ‘Precious that’s what we need from you.’ I’m sure Spo wants the same thing.”
As for Okpala, the forward out of Stanford taken in the 2019 second round, Brown said he has carved a specific, and familiar, role.
“We’re going to try to use him in a way that is a little unique,” Brown said. “We’re going to use him similar to how we do Draymond Green a little bit in Golden State, where he’ll guard everybody at different times. But his potential on that side of the ball is remarkable.”
With guard Gabe Vincent, an impending free agent who has spent the past two seasons on two-way contracts with the Heat, also working with the Nigerian national team, the Heat have taken particular notice of Brown’s practices.
Vincent led Nigeria with 21 points Saturday night, shooting 6 of 8 on 3-pointers, a performance that made it even more likely the Heat will extend a qualifying offer by that Aug. 1 deadline to make him a restricted free agent.
“We knew we could compete against the best team in basketball,” Vincent said. “It’s the beginning.”
Achiuwa closed with a game-high-tying seven rebounds and three points. Okpala finished scoreless in a team-high 20:12 of action.
“I talked to Spoelstra a few times prior to training camp beginning and I kind of gave him my vision for the direction that I want this team to go, and he was on board,” Brown said, with Spoelstra in the stands on Saturday night. “He told me he told his guys, ‘Hey, this is not going to be a vacation.’
“Spo came by practice [Thursday] and a couple of other front-office guys have been here for the last three, four days watching practice. And the feedback I’ve gotten from them, Spo told me this for their players is better than anything else they can be doing down in Miami right now. So he was extremely excited after watching us practice and seeing how we’re trying to develop his guys.”
When it comes to Okpala and Achiuwa, Brown’s hyperbole already is at Olympian level. But then again, so was Saturday night’s upset, even if it was merely an exhibition.
“KZ is a remarkable talent,” Brown said. “This is a young man that, in my opinion, he has a chance to be, obviously, an elite defender. And these are high expectations, but the short time I’ve had him, he could be a Defensive Player of the Year type candidate once he figures some things out to get consistent minutes on the floor.
“His length, his athleticism, his size, his strength, his work to play defense and be great at it is off the charts. I’ve been around some very good defenders, starting with Bruce Bowen and Ben Wallace, even a guy like Ira Newble. But KZ, I’m excited that he’s here.”
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As for Achiuwa, Brown said it is opportunities such as this that can further draw out his possibilities.
“He’s so talented,” Brown said, “and he has so much ability and you couple that with his passion, his athleticism and how hard he plays, once, as a young guy, he figures it out to be able to sustain that level of hard play every single possession, he’s going to be a monster in the NBA.”
To Brown, Nigeria’s green and white are the perfect offseason colors for the Heat’s prospects.
“You look at the guys that the Heat have here, including Gabe, also, and all those guys are locked in,” he said. “You know that they’re well coached. You know that they have a tremendous amount of talent and ability.”