January 16, 2021, 2:49 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look at former Oregon big Chris Boucher, who has been one of the breakout stars of the season so far with career-highs in almost every category.
Long Journey to Canada
Boucher had a rocky childhood as he arrived with his mom in Canada from the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia and his father didn’t see a purpose in his son spending time playing basketball; still, he was offered a spot in a local tournament, and a couple of coaches in the crowd noticed the lanky teen and offered him a spot on their AAU team. A quick reminder here about how the AAU is an institution that gets a lot of slander these days but, like it or not, it’s one of the reasons kids coming from a poor background get a shot at accomplishing their dream of playing professional basketball. The size and length of Boucher couldn’t go unnoticed and the years that followed included stops at Mexico Junior College, Northwest College in Wyoming, and finally the University of Oregon where he created a ton of highlights playing above the rim while spreading the floor (1.1 triples) and blocking shots (2.7 blocks) in 69 games, before his college career was cut short in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals when he tore his ACL.
Boucher was far from being an NBA-ready player and went undrafted, but he was signed to a two-way contract by the Warriors, who were then forced to cut him in the 2018 offseason due to extreme financial constraints that led the team to spend their two-way spots on players that were ready to contribute. The Raptors offered Boucher a two-way contract following his performance with the team in Summer League and he simply exploded, becoming the 2018-19 NBA G League Most Valuable Player and the 2018-19 NBA G League Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 27.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 2.2 triples and 1.3 steals in 28 games with Raptors 905, becoming the first player to win both awards in the same season.
Even though it was the G League, his performance was definitely not a fluke as he passed the eye test and looked stronger while improving his ball-handling and decision-making.
Toronto’s Defensive Woes
The Raptors defense has been the backbone of this team for a few years now but it was bound to take a hit given the departures of some of the best defenders in the league over the last two years. First it was Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green but the nail in the coffin was this past offseason when both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka departed to Los Angeles.
After 11 games this season, Toronto has a Defensive Rating of 111.1, good for 10th worst in the league and way off compared to last year (104.7, good for second in the entire league). They allow more points, 112.1, (compared to just 106.5 last year, good for first in the league) and more opponent fast-break points, with 14.4, (compared to 12.7 last year), while opponents have been able to rebound more this year compared to last season.
Aron Baynes an Alex Len were brought in to provide the necessary rim protection but they both have looked slow and lethargic and Nick Nurse has been forced to play Boucher at center, a situation he avoided last year as the big man was prone to fouling and was an easy target for opponents. As a result, the Raptors are doing a great job of defending the paint, as they have allowed the third fewest points in the paint in the NBA (40.7), but they are struggling behind the arc where they allow the 7th most triples in the league. The answer to this puzzling situation has been for Nurse to play more small-ball lineups, enabling the team to switch all pick-and-rolls, a tricky option as it places a heavy toll on defenders.
At 6’11” with a near 7’4″ wingspan and above average bounce, Boucher is a natural rim protector but he is still slowly learning how to pick his battles and even though has been working out with either a college or professional training staff for the past seven years, he still hasn’t gained the necessary weight to play as a center. Look at an overmatched Boucher going against Dwight Howard for the defensive rebound and being forced to foul as Dwight clearly has the advantage.
The biggest systematic flaw has been Boucher’s vulnerability in properly defending pick-and-roll action, an area where opponents have always targeted the big man. Look at this atrocious possession where Boucher doesn’t communicate with Norm Powell quickly enough, resulting in Jakob Poeltl easily cutting to the rim without anyone putting a body on him.
The level of competition in the NBA is significantly higher and opponents can either overpower him or catch him leaving his feet, which leads to the main question as to whether he can be a reliable defender.
Along with his skinny body frame, that has been Boucher’s biggest barrier to getting more minutes.
Boucher is an overeager defender and can sometimes be too focused on the ball and blocking shots rather than keeping his feet on the ground and playing sound fundamental defense. Here is another play where Boucher again miscommunicates the switch with OG Anunoby, only to sprint back to the paint and jump on P.J. Washington’s fake attempt for the layup.
The Swatterboy simply needs to get used to all this switching because Nurse has to play him and he’s going to be out there guarding primary ballhandlers a lot. He definitely has the speed, quickness and length to do that but it’s just a matter of developing the right chemistry with his teammates and being more patient in recognizing the right play.
Signs of Progress
Moving on to the other side of the ball, Boucher has been given the green light to play to his strengths since last year. If you’ve watched Raptors games from last season, it was clear how he was getting trigger-happy behind the 3-point line but with the Raptors struggling this year Nurse is fine with Boucher attempting 3.6 triples per game. He has a high release which, combined with his length, is almost impossible to block as he is still adjusting to reading the game and having the right shots come to him instead of launching from all over the floor.
The Raptors are comfortable putting the big man in pick-and-roll actions with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet or Pascal Siakam and the results have been marvelous as Boucher is averaging a more than healthy 1.57 points per possession as the roll man in pick-and-roll plays. Look at this beauty with Siakam setting the play and Boucher launching the shot long before Poeltl is able to close out on him.
The energy and hustle that have been the alpha and the omega of his game since he started hooping are still a big part of what he does when he steps on the court. Boucher has been able to cut down on unnecessary fouls and he is currently blocking 2.5 shots per game, third most in the league, meeting opponents at the rim or coming from the weak side to help with team defense. Here is an excellent defensive possession where Terence Davis forgets about his man, Eric Paschall, who is able to stroll in the paint; Boucher keeps an eye on the situation and quickly covers the ground for his teammate, making a play that shows his importance to the Raptors system.
The Swatterboy has slowly become Toronto’s best big as the team’s other centers have done little to warrant playing time and the Raptors have a positive Net Rating when Boucher is on the court compared to -11.4 for Aron Baynes and -19.4 for Alex Len.
Boucher’s numbers after 11 games are impressive as he is averaging 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.7 triples to go with 58.8 percent shooting from the field and 47.5 from distance in just 22.8 minutes per game, becoming the fantasy marvel we have all been dreaming of in the last couple years. These numbers also make him the No. 20 player in 9-cat leagues, one of only four players in the top-30 who are averaging less than 30 minutes per game, so some regression should absolutely be expected but Boucher is not a kid as he is about to turn 28 years old and he is in the prime of his career.
Nick Nurse is a system coach that adjusts his plan to the personnel, not vice versa, and Boucher is the team’s best center right now so you should ride the hot hand. Meanwhile, the slow start of the team this year means that it’s likely the Raptors explore the trade market and it’s not out of question that they try to land a more consistent inside presence as Nurse doesn’t seem to want to start Boucher, who has been the leader of the bench unit.
As much as I enjoy seeing the kid become a star this season, I would treat him more as a sell-high rather than an absolute hold for the rest of the year.
For anyone looking to find more about Boucher’s journey to the NBA, here is an excellent short movie the G League ran on him, visualizing his long journey to the spotlight.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 16th.