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At the start of his third season working with Chris Boucher, Raptors assistant coach Jim Sann continues to circle back to one word: Fearless.
In the midst of a disappointing 0-2 start, the 27-year-old centre has been firmly focussed on helping get the team back to the winning ways it’s come to expect over the last seven years.
His 22-point, 10-rebound and seven-block effort in the Raptors’ loss to the Spurs on Boxing Day was one of the best games of his young career. While blocking 4.5 shots per game may be a little too much to ask for on a nightly basis, the Raptors have been very happy with what Boucher has given off of the bench so far.
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“We ask certain things of that position and one of them is rim protection,” said Sann, who first came to the Raptors as an assistant in 2003-04 and returned to the team in 2016.
“It’s something I harp on him with constantly and it’s something that Nick (Nurse) and Adrian (Griffin) speak about constantly. We have an aggressive style of defence and that requires someone to be at that rim protecting it.
“The thing that really impresses me the most about Chris is it’s one thing to talk about it and coach it and a totally different thing to do it because that position requires a lot of fearlessness and a lot of physicality. He puts himself in harm’s way a lot. The ball’s flying to the rim and he jumps up there and he either goes vertical or he tries to block the shot. He does a great job of really concentrating on what his responsibilities are on the defensive end.”
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The numbers will level off, Sann admits. Two games in, Boucher is putting up 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and shooting 60 per cent from three. Where those numbers go will be partially up to Boucher. The Raptors’ frontcourt is different this year, with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka leaving in free agency. Matchups, like the Raptors’ game in Philly on Tuesday, will force Boucher away from certain types of bigs. But the six-foot-nine, 200-pound Montreal native will be ready whenever Nurse looks down the bench and calls for No. 25.
“The early results, to his credit, have been good,” Sann said. “He’s fearless in there. He puts his body in front of the rim. I’m sure you see it when you watch the games. He puts himself there and really has embraced that area of his defensive game. It’s a big part of our defence. That’s been a positive.”
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Boucher is another investment from the Raptors’ development system that’s paying off. He took the long road to the NBA, attending two junior colleges before landing at Oregon for two years.
There was a two-way deal with Golden State in 2017-18 and another with the Raptors for 2018-19. He won G-League MVP and defensive player of the year honours playing for Raptors 905, while being a part of his second consecutive NBA championship team.
He continued to grow last year, showing that shot-blocking presence and a willingness to shoot the three over 62 games. That led to a contract extension before the start of training camp, with more minutes and opportunity there for the taking in the absence of Ibaka.
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It had been a long road to get to this point. Boucher tore his ACL in his senior year with the Oregon Ducks, ultimately going undrafted in that year’s NBA draft. He went on to sign a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors, spending nearly the entire season in the G League. He won an NBA championship with the Warriors, only to get waived two weeks later.
Later that offseason, Boucher inked a two-way contract with the Raptors and had the most successful season of his career to date. Dominating the G League circuit, Boucher was named MVP and Defensive Player of the Year of that league, and then to top it off, he rode with the Raptors en route to winning the franchise’s first NBA championship.
Suffice to say he’s worked really hard to get to this point, and Boucher will be the first to tell you that himself. “It’s been a long time coming,” said Boucher in an interview with Eric Smith and Paul Jones. “I’m probably at the point where it’s time for me to try to get to one of those players … [to] be one of those guys that you can believe and trust every night.”
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It’s safe to say the Raptors expect the same down the road, and with so much progression to his game, Boucher’s ceiling is a lot higher than you’d expect.
Only averaging just over 13 minutes a game last season, Boucher was good for about six points, four rebounds, and a block to boot on a nightly basis. But with the departure of Toronto favourites, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the space for more minutes has presented itself on the Raptors — and Boucher is next in line.
After spending weeks waiting on the two big men to decide their future, Boucher’s fate was left in the wind. But then they left, Boucher re-signed in Toronto, and he was quick to mention his former teammates in his conversation with Smith and Jones, and what lessons he took away from them.
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“When it comes to Serge, it’s being ready every day and being consistent — I think he was really consistent every day,” Boucher continued. “You knew what you were going to get from Serge every day. Every night being ready to help his team.”
Picking up the identity of consistency from Ibaka, and being available and ready on a nightly basis, is something the Raptors will surely hope to expect from their fourth-year centre. Meanwhile, Toronto hopes that Boucher also picked up some of Gasol’s habits and approach.
“When it comes Marc, it’s just his IQ — you want to be able to do all that stuff, you want to be able to be versatile, when you watch Marc and the plays he does, you’re like damn I want to be able to do that stuff.”
Gasol is the embodiment of a high IQ big man and being able to play fluidly and effectively is a skill-set that Boucher has proven to be one to pick up on. Spending his summer and offseason analyzing film, Boucher highlighted in his preseason media availability that he and the coaching staff are currently looking at ways to best use his skills and how he can be most effective to the team on the floor.
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“I think we spent a lot of time during the summer watching clips and realizing the stuff that I can do because I might not getting super big, but I’m able to get stronger, and I’m also able to use my speed, use my hands and my athleticism.”
Boucher’s athleticism was on display already in the Raptors first preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets.
Despite his paint presence and blocking ability, Boucher’s weight has been a constant conversation his entire career. But after picking up 15 pounds prior to heading into the Bubble last summer, that discussion has slowly been put to bed as Boucher has focussed on being agile and using his pace to make an impact.
And with the addition of Aron Baynes to the roster, Boucher could find himself used more frequently in big rotations as a stretch four — a position he’s more accustomed to, having played power forward up until his NBA years. With a knack for connecting on long threes, the 6’9” big man isn’t the easiest player to contest on the perimeter and could give the Raptors the edge in a lot of swing possessions.
With more minutes on the table, every night could turn into a block party, but the next level for Boucher is still seamlessly stepping into a position-less role to provide the versatility the Raptors need. Staying ready on a nightly basis and getting more reps on the floor will help too. In this, the Raptors are banking that Boucher can make the leap to become a consistent player in their rotation.
In camp, Boucher said that he wanted to get away from his trigger-happiness with the three this season, to let the offence come to him more organically this year. So far, he’s done well with that. He only attempted one shot from deep in the season-opener against New Orleans and hit three of four in the loss to the Spurs.
“It’s going in with the mindset of trying to change the game with my energy first,” Boucher said in San Antonio.
“This is really something I have been focusing on, realizing where I could take my shots but also trying to set screens to get people open. The ball’s going to find me. I’ve got to focus on defence, I’ve got to be able to change the game with my defence and run the floor. I try to learn every game. I watch a lot of film and just try to do what I can to help this team get to where it was.”
Listening to Boucher, you hear the talking points that the coaching staff has used with him and how they’re sinking in for him. Sann notes that Boucher’s screening ability — something vital to helping get Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet shots in the course of the game — continues to improve. With that screen of course comes the option to roll and finish at the rim, which is something that despite not carrying the weight of a traditional centre, Boucher has no problem doing.
VanVleet, for what it’s worth, also has no problem with seeing Boucher step back and launch those threes.
“I wouldn’t tell him to not be trigger happy. That’s what got him here. You’ve got to be who you are at some point,” VanVleet said.
“In regards to being trigger happy, it’s just more about time and the score and the flow of the game. If you’ve got a turnover and two bad shots, that’s not the time to take a quick one, but you’ve got to be who you are at this point in the NBA and Chris has been good like that.
“The last two games, the shots are going in. When they don’t, I’m not going to scream at him because they’re bad shots. It’s a make or miss league. Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t but I think Chris has been doing good for us.”
Sann remembers his first workouts with Boucher when he arrived in Toronto. He saw a really raw, really thin player, “but a high, high motor and a high, high ceiling.”
Boucher turns 28 on Jan. 11 and Sann still sees a lot of good basketball in front of him. As high as Boucher can reach, his ceiling is still well above him. Sann envisions the possibilities of Boucher playing the four spot a little more, attacking angles better and seeing options beyond catching and shooting. We’re seeing some of that start to pay off now, early in this season.
“I’m not surprised by Chris’ development. I think he’s by no means at this juncture is he a finished product,” Sann said.
“He’s highly coachable, he’s a very smart kid, he really understands where his fit is and he wants to get better. I think that’s a pretty good combination.”