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Player Review: Chris Boucher, the unlikely unicorn

Chris Boucher made excellent strides development-wise last season, winning the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the G League. But can he get better in the NBA?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It was one hell of a year for Chris Boucher as he bounced back from spending most of his rookie season on the shelf and was without a job by summer 2018. From there, he joined the Raptors and worked his way through Mississauga with the 905 on his way to a G League MVP, a G League Defensive Player of the Year award, and an NBA championship.

Initially seen as raw — both physically and skill set-wise — and someone who’s too old to still have “potential”, Boucher also had to deal with being seen as a novelty because he’s Canadian. It was always going to be a talking point upon his arrival in Toronto.

With Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka expected to soak up the minutes at the centre spot, the Raptors brought in an underwhelming group of big men for their 2018 Summer League team. Much like roster-filler spot players in the Summer League, Boucher did not see consistent action. In fact, he did not get his big opportunity until the last game of the round robin against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was the first game where we got a good glimpse of what Boucher can do — confidently hoisting up three-pointers, block/contesting shots around the rim, and effectively using his length to shut down the opposing team’s offense for stretches.

Boucher’s performance for the rest of his Summer League stint was enough to earn him a training camp invite. From there, the Raptors got a good look at what he’s capable of — including his shortcomings. Boucher found himself playing in front of his hometown crowd in Montreal against the Brooklyn Nets in the preseason, and while it was garbage time, his perimeter shots and his celebration/mean-mugging right after electrified the crowd. The Raptors signed Boucher to a two-way contract, beating out Eric Moreland among others.

Still, Boucher’s lanky frame and lack of physicality in his game made him look like a long-term project. Since he was 25 at the time of his signing, it felt like Boucher was a project with a rapidly dwindling window. Even at the G League level, it was a question mark whether he could perform well enough with consistent minutes. Those questions started to disappear after Boucher dropped 25 points in the 905’s lone preseason game against the Erie Bayhawks, whom they outclassed by 39 points.

That was just the start, as Boucher came out firing in the G League, averaging 29.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 4.1 blocks, and nailing at least three three-pointers per game for November — more than enough to earn him the NBA G League Player of the Month award.

Boucher exceeded expectations while playing for the Raptors 905. He quickly became “the man” on both ends of the court, taking advantage of the extra rope given to him to learn from mistakes. For his efforts, Boucher was able to showcase things we did not know he can do at the pro level.

For example, it was eye-opening to see Boucher grab a rebound on the defensive end and go coast-to-coast for a dunk. On top of that, he’s got some decent counters when his defender tries to contest his perimeter shot, showing a modest first step for a big man, blowing by his defender for a layup/dunk, or Euro-stepping around the secondary defender.

Boucher also excelled in the open court, as he would outwork the opposing bigs, trying to beat them to the other end of the floor as an excellent rim-running finisher in transition. He’s pretty good at catching the ball on the move and bouncy enough to take off for a lay-up or dunk quickly.

Boucher formed a lethal pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop combo for the 905, with Jordan Loyd as the team’s starting point guard. Later in the season, coach Jama Mahlalela experimented on getting plenty of reps for Boucher to catch a lob in the post, as most defenders would get physical and overplay him.

Unfortunately, Boucher did not get a chance to show his entire toolbox with the Raptors, even when he received an extended call-up after Jonas Valanciunas went down with a hand injury. He had a tiny window of playing time in real non-garbage time action. Still, that did not prevent Boucher from exciting the fan base every time he touched the ball. Even if it was his first time with the ball, he sure as hell would take any mildly open shot.

In the Raptors’ final regular season game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boucher got an extended run, playing almost 25 minutes. He dropped 15 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks. While it’s easy to say that this is the highlight game of his Raptors season, I would point at the Indiana Pacers game back in December as the more accurate representation of where he’s at as an NBA player.

Boucher showed that he can hit an open three and that he’s got good hands to catch and move for lay-ups. More importantly, it gave us a better look at how he would fare as an NBA big defensively, which is something that’s been holding him back. The obvious problems are there — Boucher can get out-muscled, for sure. But he’s got a good fight in him and does not easily concede the paint. If the offensive player gives him space to use his long arms and get vertical, it’s tough for opposing players to score on him — Boucher always has a chance to swoop in.

It will be an interesting summer for Boucher. Not only he does need to show up in this year’s Summer League (now in progress) and training camp, but certain decisions regarding the team’s future could also affect his tenure with the Raptors. For now, Boucher just has to keep grinding, and hopefully, he can shine later.