Toronto has had a slow start to the season, but their one bright spot has been a bouncy big man making his mark in the league.
The Raptors’ sluggish start to the 2020–21 season is…understandable. Veteran centres, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, decided to leave Toronto for Los Angeles in the offseason to join forces with Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers and LeBron James’ Lakers — who wouldn’t want to tag along with those stars?
But who would step up and fill the hole they’ve left? Who would capitalise on the opportunity?
Raptors’ guru president, Masai Ujiri, and right-hand man, Bobby Webster, ended up nabbing centres Aron Baynes and Alex Len (who was recently waived) in free agency, along with re-signing Montreal native, Chris Boucher.
Baynes was projected to slide into the starting centre role with ease. His massive screens, good positional defence and newly added three-point shot were thought to be mirrored attributes of the aforementioned Ibaka and Gasol. So far, Baynes has not been up to par and needs more time to mesh with the team.
Head coach, Nick Nurse has searched for an answer to give his team some sort of production at the five spot — cue the energetic pogo stick, Chris Boucher.
Boucher has been a surprise for the Raptors this season. The Canadian is averaging just under 15 points, six rebounds, two blocks and one assist per game. His play on the court cannot be overlooked, as he has become a reliable contributor that makes at least one highlight-worthy play a game — especially on the defensive side.
The noteworthy thing about Boucher is, as his minutes have gone up, so has his production and efficiency.
His minutes per game has gone from 13 to 23 per game. This mostly has to do with the Raptors losing Gasol and Ibaka, as well as Baynes’ limited role so far. But hey, those minutes were up for grabs, and Boucher snatched them.
His shot attempts and percentages have seen the same rise as his minutes. Last season, Boucher shot just under five attempts per game at a 47 percent clip. This season, he is putting up just over nine attempts, at 53 percent. The interesting factor is that a large chunk of those minutes have come against starting bigs — a testament to the trust Nick Nurse has in him.
His three-point percentage has shot up, as well. Last season, Boucher attempted just shy of two per game, at 32 percent. This season, he is hoisting up just about four per game, while shooting 45 percent. That percentage increase is bonkers, especially when you see his shot mechanics.
Boucher’s biggest impact occurs on the defensive side of the floor. Despite his slight frame (six-foot-nine and 200 pounds), he is still able to create a presence in the paint with his shot-blocking ability — altering attempts from any and all who attack the rim.
Being under the tutelage of Ibaka and Gasol these past few seasons is any young centre’s dream. The knowledge from these two veterans is invaluable. There is no doubt they helped with his overall defensive awareness and understanding of team schemes and sets.
The Raptors’ centre is reaping the benefits of those learned baseline principles and is now more reactionary when reading the defensive floor. Boucher’s composure is apparent, as he anticipates the offensive player’s movement, and reacts quicker to his teammate’s rotations and switches.
Boucher has become more attentive to his opponent’s tendencies. Knowing whether to force them right or left, letting them shoot or playing tight. His pick-and-roll coverage has also improved, understanding who to hedge out on during screen action and who to use drop coverage on and contain.
There are lots of positives in Boucher’s defensive game, but one area he needs to work on is being less foul prone. At times he reaches and contests too strong, leading to ticky-tack fouls that are unwarranted. In the past, Boucher would come in for only eight to 12 minutes and get three to four fouls. Not a problem at the time, but now that his role is increased, he needs to be more disciplined.
Good defence takes time, and actual minutes out on the court, to hone. Now that Boucher has those minutes, he will need to implement consistent stretches of solid play for the duration of a game. Easier said than done, though. But his potential has always been there, and if he is able to harness it, we could see a defensive stalwart for this Raptors’ squad.
As stated before, the Raptors’ slow start is…understandable. The team lost two highly touted centres and are trying to reconfigure their identity with new players and roles. Not to mention they are playing home games in Tampa, as opposed to Toronto.
The one bright spot of this underwhelming season has been Boucher. The centre has proved his worth to the Raptors, especially on the defensive side. His two-year contract is only guaranteed for this season, so it leaves questions for what the Raptors do with him after this campaign. One thing is for sure though — Boucher’s rise is helping his case for the Raptors to hold onto him going forward.