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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.”

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Coming from Baynes, that carries a lot of weight.

“He’s obviously one of the tougher, more physical guys in the league,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Baynes after seeing him in-person on the court over the last week or so.

“He’s right up there. It’s probably him and (Steven) Adams, right?”

That’s something that Raptors fans will get to learn as this season gets going. Baynes, 33, happens to be right in the middle of one of the biggest questions that the team faces: What will the contributions look like from the centre and power forward spots vacated by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka?

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“It’s kind of a combo between those guys (Gasol and Ibaka) a little bit,” Nurse said of Baynes.

“Gasol’s one of the best passing bigs in the world. Aron’s got a little bit of that in his game. I wouldn’t say he’s the passer that Gasol is but he’s a decent handler, gets it safely from side-to-side on swinging, DHOs (dribble handoffs) and handoffs.

“He did shoot it at a 37 per cent clip above the break last year from three on a pretty good number of attempts. There’s some of that pick and pop there as well. He’s a veteran player, experienced. I think he looks just fine.”

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It’s impossible to try to step into a new job and do it exactly the way that your predecessor did. For Baynes, it won’t be about being the new Gasol. It’s about working his talents into what the Raptors are doing. Coming off of a career-best season in Phoenix where he averaged 11.5 points per game and had a breakthrough on his three-point shot, hitting 35.1 per cent (59 for 168), that bodes well for him.

Aron Baynes is in a pretty tricky position ahead of his first season in Toronto. No replacement for Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol could possibly be expected to match those two, both in on-court production and off-court charm.

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Gasol was the team’s defensive quarterback, who turned the team into a buzzsaw whenever he hit the floor. Toronto’s entire think-piece inspiring defense was centered around Gasol’s ability to call out coverages and keep the team pliable. Ibaka, meanwhile, was the team’s most eager finisher, brightest off-court star, and handsomest fellow. Losing those two is a blow, and you’d be forgiven for being a little salty that they’re now in LA and the 2021 cap space their departures created is now likely to go unfilled by a big free agent. Baynes has some freaking shoes to fill.

Luckily for him, helping big men look good is kind of what the Raptors do.

If you’re Baynes, you couldn’t ask for a much firmer infrastructure within which to settle yourself. Kyle Lowry is his new point guard, and is sure to make it his duty to make Baynes’ next contract as lucrative if not more than the one he just signed. The only thing that seems to delight Lowry more than screaming at a ref he knows is wrong is getting dudes paid, whether it’s one of his beloved young pups in the Raptors core, or one-year stopover reclamation projects. Bismack Biyombo owes 85 percent of his career earnings to the eight months he spend catching lobs from Lowry.

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Beyond Lowry, Baynes enters a team designed to make life easy on centers. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam comprise as good collection of perimeter defenders as can be found on the planet. They’re joined by a couple bench options who are so good that Baynes probably won’t even be asked to close half of the team’s games. When he’s on the floor, opposing ball-handlers will more often than not be contained, and if not, Baynes will be helped by the prying arms and heavy palms of the Raptors who love to poke and steal balls oh so much. It’s a pretty plum gig being the last line of defense behind a concrete wall.

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Off the court, he’ll never be Parade Marc or the Scarf Daddy, but Baynes seems like he’ll fit in snugly. He’s a fun quote, believes in the social causes the Raptors have put themselves behind, and comes with one of the more endearing Twitter accounts there is championing his every move. Toronto is a fun team to watch and an angsty one to play against — that very identity tends to coat members of the team in an aura of likeability. A year or two with the Raptors will surely help rehab whatever bad Celtics juju’s still clinging to his reputation.

Essentially, Baynes has it made in Toronto, same as just about any other mercenary center would. For him to uphold his end of the deal, it’s really not all that complicated. More or less: set good screens, play sound defense, take a lot of open threes and make an average chunk of them, and either grab rebounds or clear space for others to scoop them up.

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The screening thing shouldn’t be much of an issue. Lowry boasted about that part of Baynes’ game after playing just a single preseason game with him on Friday. He’s sure to carry on the grand tradition of Raptors big men setting picks of debatable legality.

We’ve yet to see much of the eager three-point bombing Baynes leaned into in Phoenix last season — he’s was awkwardly married to rolling in the preseason as opposed to the popping that powered his career-best season in 2019-20. You’d assume that would resolve itself. Lowry’s gonna need a new buddy to feed pick-and-pop passes to like a momma bird taking worms to its nest, and Baynes attempted more threes per-36 than Ibaka did last year. On the glass, the five most-used Suns lineups featuring Baynes were somewhere between good and awesome at grabbing available boards. He’s got a history of helping to drive good rebounding at most of his stops, which was among the few things Ibaka and Gasol couldn’t claim.

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Defensively, we’ll see. Phoenix was a couple points better per 100 possession with Baynes on the bench last season, but that was the Suns, who didn’t really learn how to play adult basketball until the Bubble, during which Baynes was sidelined with COVID. Toronto, as we’ve discussed, has better defenders than than Devon Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. Baynes is mobile enough to hang when he needs to track a ways out, and will be wonderfully suited to doing the verticality thing at the rim.

The beauty of the whole Baynes experiment is that if things aren’t working on a given night, it’s not like the Raptors are beholden to playing him 30-plus minutes. In fact, they almost certainly won’t — he’s never averaged more than 22.2 minutes a night.

The reality is, while Baynes has the unfortunate duty of following up what Gasol and Ibaka did in Toronto, he’s not really being asked to do all the things they did. In his role, he should be a more than passable large person for hire, but he isn’t going to do it himself. Toronto can probably rely on Baynes, yeah. But they’ll be able to do so because of all the ways in which Baynes can count on the Raptors to help him out.

“It’s something that every single day I want to get better at,” Baynes said of his three-point shot, which has gotten some tweaks and refinements over the last week with his new team.

“I’m always wanting to contribute more to the team’s success and so I’m working towards that. It’s always good if you have the coach’s confidence. It’s one of those things that if you have the confidence of your coach, it breeds confidence in yourself.

“It makes that job easier to go out there and take those shots and knock them down.”

With news on Monday of three people in the Raptors organization testing positive for Covid-19, Baynes was reminded of his experience with the virus over the summer. He and his family contracted it in Phoenix in July, just when players were arriving in Orlando for the bubble.

He said that the early stress of not knowing how it would affect his family was the worst part of the ordeal. His wife was pregnant and their daughter has asthma, so he had legitimate concerns. In a July interview with The Athletic’s Shams Charania he said that he was thankful that he was the worst-affected in his family.

“It put me on my butt for a good week, I slept for four days straight,” he told Charania.

“At first…it was the unknown with Covid, we don’t know what long-term effects are going to be and the lack of being able to get out of bed and stay awake, that hit me hard.”

Just a few days into full team practices — Nurse said the Raptors went full-contact on Tuesday — everyone is feeling their way through their new arrangement in Tampa. Doing that while being Covid-aware can be a challenge, but Baynes said the organization is doing everything it can to make it a seamless experience.

“We’re in the best possible circumstance to be doing what we’re doing. They look after everything for us,” he said.

“There’s really not much stress on us in terms of what we have to do on a day-to-day schedule. The hardest thing for us is having to remember to go and get a test every single day. That’s about as tough as it is for us.

“We’re protected, we’re looked after so well that, sure we can’t go out and do some things but at the end of the day, we’re lucky to be able to do what we do. Every need we have is taken care of. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot worse and if that’s the biggest stress for us every single day that’s fine, it’s no skin off our back.”

There are still nuances of the Raptors schemes that Baynes will have to learn, terminology that with a new team can have a totally different meaning than it did with your last. Nurse and Baynes agreed that’s what this part of the season is for. It’s something that Baynes is working on daily and that he’ll be excited to show off on Saturday, when the Raptors travel to Charlotte for their first of three preseason games.

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Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby.

OK, back to reality.

Few — if any — teams in the NBA are better at developing talent than the Toronto Raptors. In each of the past two seasons, the organization has had players in the Most Improved Player discussion, with Pascal Siakam winning the award two years ago.

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Heading into this season, no player on the Raptors roster looks better positioned for a breakout — Most Improved Player worthy — season than the 23-year-old Anunoby. Vegas has him at 20/1 odds of winning the award, the sixth highest in the NBA, implying about a 5% chance of it happening.

So what exactly does an Anunoby breakout season look like?

Offensive Development

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Anunoby is a modern NBA offensive darling. He averaged 10.6 points per game last season while taking over 90% of his shots either behind the 3-point line or at the rim. He was essentially a highly efficient role player who was assisted on the vast majority of his points.

This year, the Raptors will likely ask a little bit more from Anunoby who should see his usage rate climb from 14%. For him to succeed, it will require a little more offensive creativity, something Anunoby is preparing for.

“Just being more aggressive, looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved,” he said.

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He said he spent much of the offseason working on shooting off the dribble, ball handling, and passing on the move, the kind of stuff he’ll be required to do with the ball in his hands a little more this year.

In his introductory session with the media on Friday morning, Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch explained what he thought went into a good NBA offence.

“To me, the most important thing right now is to be highly unpredictable,” Finch said.

“When you get to the playoffs, everybody knows who you are and what you do and what you do well. That’s where they start to try to stop you.

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“So the more randomness that you can have, the more purpose within that randomness, more structure that you can have, it’s always great but at some point, the game comes down to you playing basketball and some sort of random mindset.

“If you can do that really well from the beginning it’s really hard for teams to guard you. That’s been one of the calling cards of a lot of the teams I’ve been associated with, is that we’ve been able to maintain that type of unpredictability.”

A few hours later, one possible piece of that unpredictability puzzle sat in the same chair and wondered about his future.

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“I think so,” OG Anunoby said about the possibility of having an increased role in the Raptors’ offence this year.

“Just be more aggressive looking for my own shot, looking to get other people involved. Just trying to do more. I think so.”

If good offence is about wrinkles and throwing the unexpected at your opponent, Anunoby might be the perfect candidate for the role. He heads into his fourth season in the league, all of them with the Raptors, with potential still radiating from his six-foot-seven, 232-pound frame.

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It’s funny in a sense that after building a reputation as the team’s top defender over the last three years that it’s a half-a-second of offence that’s attached itself to him. Type his name into Google and the autocomplete instantly tries to take you back three months to the bubble, where his buzzer beater in Game 3 against the Celtics instantly became one of the top highlights of the playoffs.

“It was a cool moment. Looking back on it was exciting, it was fun,” he said.

“But we lost the series.”

At the start of a new season, there’s finally an opportunity to get past that lost series and to start fresh. Anunoby said he’s worked more on his ball handling, shooting off of the dribble and passing on the move. He also may have made training camp history by being the first athlete to say that he hadn’t put on weight over the off-season. He said that he strengthened his core and worked on individual leg strength while keeping his weight the same.

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With the change that’s come with this new season, in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka going to L.A. to play for the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, there’s room for Anunoby to grow, to take on more responsibility on and off the court. Finishing out the season in the bubble, he started to show signs that he was ready to take those next steps.

In the playoffs, he surpassed his career averages of 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and an assist per game with 10.5 points, 6.9 rebounds 1.2 blocks and assists and one steal per game. He shot 41.5 per cent from three in the playoffs, compared to the 39 per cent he shot during the season. Keep in mind he does these things while often defending the opposition’s best players on the other end of the floor.

A year older and further up the ladder of vets on the team, there’s plenty of opportunity for Anunoby to continue to evolve, to be that element of unpredictability and help his teammates.

“I think every year in the league, I try to be a better leader than I was the year before,” he said.

“I try to show the young guys the way. If they need help they can ask me. I think I lead by example, more than a guy that’ll be yelling and screaming. I just try to do things the right way. I know how we do things, like drills and practice stuff. I just try to show the guys who don’t know. They can watch me and figure it out or they can ask me for help and I’ll help them.

“When I was young and I got here and I didn’t know what to do I could look at Pascal (Siakam) and ask him what to do, or ask Norm what to do and they’d help me figure it out. It’s just passing on what I’m taught.”

“I thought he started to become more of a driver, getting by people on the catch or making a move and getting by people,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby’s performance in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble last year. “There’s probably a midrange game in there that he could find, I know he’s working on.”

While it’s unlikely Anunoby ever becomes a 20 points per game scorer, a little more shot creation to increase his scoring to 15 points per game would make a massive difference for Toronto and could vault him into MIP consideration.

Defensive Development

Anunoby is already one of the NBA’s premier defensive players. He’s a true 3-and-D player who can guard almost anyone on the court.

One through four, Anunoby has no issue stopping the opposing team’s best player. This season though, with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol playing in Los Angeles, it’s expected that Anunoby will see a little more time defending centres.

Last year, Anunoby defended opposing centres on about 14% of his defensive possessions, according to Krishna Narsu. His most notable stretch against opposing bigs came in the playoffs when the Raptors opted to go small against the Boston Celtics, playing Anunoby at the five against Daniel Theis.

It worked pretty well for Toronto, who held the Celtics to just 101 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. It was, however, a bit of a learning experience for Anunoby who gave up some easy lob passes down low to Theis.

“Just gotta be strong, gotta be on my feet, just ready to go, ready to protect the rim, ready to get back to my man because I know [Theis] got some lobs from me stepping up too early,” Anunoby said, reflecting on the matchup. “Just learning from those situations, knowing to stunt, get back, just knowing what to do, reading the situation.”

Anunoby’s ability to hold his own against opposing bigs for extended stretches will likely be an X-factor this season both for the Raptors as a team and for Anunoby’s development into an all-star caliber player this season.