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Chris Boucher Jersey

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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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Toronto is nothing if not predictable. Transit continues to be poorly managed at seemingly every level. Bars, restaurants, and venues shutter for the ever-expanding sprawl of condominiums and gentrification. And Raptors fans get geeked at the arrival of an athlete who puts their body on the line in the name of hustle. DeAndre’ Bembry is the newest athlete to bear that mark and if his the few preseason games he’s played are going to serve as any indication of what’s to come, Toronto is going to fall in love hard and fast.

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But who is DeAndre’ Bembry? Raptors fans would be excused if they hadn’t been indulging in the requisite amount of Atlanta Hawks games over the last four years in order to find out, so let’s break down some of the highs and lows of Bembry’s game.

Highs

Defense
DeAndre Bembry is a vintage Raptors player — one who excels on one end of the court while offering glimpses of excellence on the other. Defense has been Bembry’s calling card since his college days at Saint Joseph’s and though his professional advanced metrics don’t jump off the page, there’s only so much someone can do when they share the floor with Trae Young and John Collins.

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This Toronto team will be a stress test of Bembry’s individual abilities vs. his ability to conform to a hyper-aggressive defensive scheme that demands precision execution. Like Aron Baynes, who is also a stout defender and has yet to find his footing, it’s going to take some reps to learn this very complicated defense. With that learning curve, Bembry’s strengths will be momentarily buried in stretches where he looks lost or out of place which will lead to a “time will tell” scenario — will Bembry be able to reign in some of his gambling tendencies in order to stay within the Raptors very tight system?

Hustle
With the departure of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Raptors were left with a gaping void in the hustle department. This isn’t a knock against current players on the roster, but more of a testament to the prodigious levels of hustle that RHJ brought to the club.

The Toronto Raptors have a tendency to make under-the-radar signings that pay dividends in the long run and DeAndre’ Bembry stands to become the latest example.

MORE: Fast facts on Bembry

 

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According to reports from ESPN’s Adam Schefter and The Athletic’s Blake Murphy, the 6-foot-5 wing is set to join the Raptors on a two-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum, with the second year of the deal not guaranteed.

Welcome to the squad, @fearthefro95. #WeTheNorth 📰 » https://t.co/r8l8ZlZp0a pic.twitter.com/DqbPCc4UvP

– Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 29, 2020
It’s a low-risk, high-reward signing as the Raptors get a player that they planned to work out ahead of the 2016 NBA Draft, where he was taken with the No. 21 overall pick, six spots ahead of Pascal Siakam.

Three of Bembry’s four years in Atlanta were impacted negatively by circumstance and injury but the 2018-19 season saw him appear in all 82 games (15 starts), posting averages of 8.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 23.5 minutes per game.

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This past season, Bembry appeared in 43 games for the Hawks before his season came to an early end due to injury. Overall, his season averages took a dip but early on in the season, he put forth one of the best performances of his young career, finishing with 18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two steals in a nine-point loss to the Miami Heat.

MORE: What Alex Len brings to the Raptors

It was a quintessential DeAndre’ Bembry performance. Not because of the numbers – it would be unwise to expect a near triple-double from most anyone on a nightly basis, let alone a player on a veteran’s minimum deal – but in doing a little bit of everything, Bembry showed exactly what he brings to a team.

Grit. Hustle. Toughness. Athleticism.

For a team like the Raptors, who led the league in transition scoring last season, an athlete like Bembry can be a very valuable addition. Looking back to his performance against Miami, he first put his athleticism on display towards the end of the first quarter, getting out in the open floor to finish way above the rim, beating the clock in the process.

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– Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) October 31, 2019
He’d get back above the rim later on in the game, too, attacking the baseline for a finish off of a kick out from Jabari Parker.

DeAndre’ Bembry sees the opening baseline! 💥 4th quarter NEXT on @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/6zM1tS5UGf

– NBA (@NBA) November 1, 2019
Now, imagine it’s Bembry spacing out in the corner off of a pick-and-roll with either Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet as the ballhandler, and picture the possibilities of him having even more opportunities to attack in the half-court. It’s something we’ve seen from OG Anunoby and Norman Powell from the exact same position and with his athleticism, Bembry can execute in a similar manner.

His finishes aren’t just limited to dunks, either. See Bembry put his toughness and dexterity on full display as he contorts his body to score despite a tough contest from Jimmy Butler.

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– Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) November 1, 2019
Rewatch the play and you’ll see that it’s Bembry’s hustle that makes it all possible.

In a scramble back on defence in transition, Bembry initially causes chaos by playing the passing lane on a Bam Adebayo outlet to Kendrick Nunn. Though Bembry fishes and misses out on a potential deflection or steal, he has thrown Nunn off-balance, buying time to recover, which, ultimately results in the forced turnover and transition bucket.

This level of hustle is on-brand for Bembry. Similar to the manner in which fans fell in love with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson last season, they will develop an affinity for Bembry and his tendency to make positive hustle plays like the one above, and one that came earlier in the same game.

Herein lies the highest of highs of DeAndre Bembry’s game. A fixture in the top-50 players in the league in deflections, Bembry’s 6’9” wingspan and, at times, overactive gambling nature means he’s always a threat in the passing lanes as evidenced by his 2.1 steals Per/36 averaged over his last two seasons.

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Passing
While his assist to turnover ratio leaves a lot to be desired, Bembry has shown flashes of being an above average passer, specifically out of the pick and roll where he developed chemistry with fellow Raptor newcomer, Alex Len while playing in Atlanta.

With Fred VanVleet’s emergence propelling him into the starting unit, Toronto has struggled with ball handling off the bench and this is an area where Bembry can immediately contribute. What minutes will be available to showcase these skills remains to be seen with Toronto’s glut of guards.

Lows
Offense
While all of the highs listed above are certainly true about Bembry’s game, there was a reason why he was available on such an affordable contract this offseason. Save for his incredible amount of hustle and willingness to pass the ball with the occasional spot of flair, DeAndre’s offensive game is not pretty. With a 45/27/59 shooting slash, Bembry struggles to shoot the ball from all over the floor. Moreover, his sub-100 offensive rating leaves a lot to be desired, but there is the distinct possibility that, like his defensive advanced metrics, that might have more to do with playing with the Hawks than anything else.

Thankfully, not much will be expected out of Bembry on the offensive end as he will surely be a fourth or fifth option with pretty much whomever he happens to share the floor with. And that — that is where Bembry shines. With the spotlight pointed at every other Raptor on the floor, Bembry’s opportunities will come in the form of loose balls, tipped passes and early clock steals off of the opposing team’s rebound. If he can provide that, then he will more than justify being on the floor on the offensive end of the court.

No Nickname
Possibly most importantly, according to Basketball Reference, DeAndre’ Bembry has no nickname. This is unacceptable for a player who fits so snuggly into the hustle role and, quite frankly, will absolutely not to cut it in Toronto if there is any hope for a lasting impact. A collective effort is going to have to be undertaken by Raptors Twitter, but a pal of mine called him Teen Wolf in a group chat and that’s just too perfect not to stick.

What does all of this amount to for Bembry’s season with the Raptors? With the logjam of guards on Toronto’s bench, Teen Wolf’s (gotta start somewhere) minutes will likely be sporadic as coach Nick Nurse has been known to ride the proverbial hot hand when it comes to his bench players. Bembry will be fighting for that 8th through 12th spot with Patrick McCaw, Malachi Flynn, Matt Thomas and [redacted] so an expectation of around 13 to 16 minutes per game isn’t out of the question.

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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.