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Player Review: Chris Boucher earned his spot in Toronto and the NBA

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After a few years playing mostly in the G League, Chris Boucher spent 2019-20 as a noteworthy rotation piece for the Raptors.

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Coming off a 2018-19 season in which he played just 163 total minutes (and won his second consecutive championship), Chris Boucher was viewed by Raptors fans as a question mark. We knew a few things about him heading into the 2019-20 season, like his endearing Canadian-ness, exceptional nickname, and constant energy in limited minutes.

But we also knew that the team’s big-man rotation of Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, as well as new addition Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, were likely to keep Boucher in his role as a fringe player. For the first few weeks of the season this was indeed the case, as coach Nick Nurse kept his rotation tight — until the Raptors were struck by injuries.

With Ibaka and Kyle Lowry both out, Boucher was suddenly thrust into the rotation. His first real game with substantial playing time was a memorable win against the Los Angeles Lakers — who were at full strength, mind you. Boucher scored 15 in 24 minutes, blocked three shots, and contributed nine points to the Raptors’ commanding 17-6 run in the fourth quarter. He went on to score double-digits in five of the team’s next eight games, proving his worth as a role player on a winning team. His minutes would fluctuate throughout the season as Ibaka, Siakam, and Gasol took turns being injured, but finally the sample size had increased and the question of Boucher was answered: he’s sticking around in the NBA.

Boucher finished his season with the Raptors averaging 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. Those numbers are nothing special, but with showings like the aforementioned one against the Lakers, his 25-point Bubble barrage against the Milwaukee B-team, and his integral role (21 points, seven boards, and four blocks) in the legendary 30-point comeback against the Mavericks, Boucher has left some wondering if he can take a Pascal-like leap to become Siakam-Lite/Slimm Siakam (take your pick).

Still, Siakam’s sudden development is an extreme rarity, and Boucher will already be 28 years old by the time next season (hopefully) rolls around. So, you know, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. There are certainly some parallels between the two, including not only their similar size and athleticism, but also the fact that neither one started playing organized basketball until a late age — for Boucher, it wasn’t until he turned 19. So relative to other 28-year olds, Boucher may have more room to realistically grow.

What immediately stands out about Boucher when you watch him is his length. It’s one of his best assets as a player, and one which he uses effectively. At the same time, however, Boucher’s lanky stature could be holding him back from his full potential.

Let’s see how those factors impacted Boucher’s play in the 2019-20 season.

The Joys of Length (and Impeccable Timing)

If Boucher is closing out on an opponent squaring up for a three — well, they’d better have a quick (and high) release. Standing at around 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, not only will Chris Boucher shuffle out to the perimeter with frantic speed, but his hand will almost certainly affect the vision of that shooter. In fact, as per PBP Stats, Boucher actually blocked 12 three-point attempts over the course of the season, finishing sixth in the league in blocked threes — an impressive feat when factoring in that he played significantly fewer minutes than the five ahead of him. (Siakam blocked the third-most in the league, by the way.)

But it’s not just Boucher’s amazing length that allows him to be so disruptive. He’s adept at timing his jump — and not only when defending shooters on the perimeter, but also when sticking to a player who’s driving to the basket. It’s this ability to defend the paint that’s responsible for his 49.8 defensive field goal percentage against opponents within six feet from the basket. With anyone other than Boucher guarding them, those opponents shot 60 percent from the same range, putting Boucher’s -10.3% differential in the league’s top 20.

Just look at how he takes on Giannis, patiently waiting for him to, uh, definitely not travel, before elevating at the perfect moment:

In addition to his defensive impact, Boucher brings important skills to the table on offense. Firstly, his presence as a lob threat has made Boucher a great option in the pick-and-roll — he finished the season as the Raptors’ most effective roll man, scoring 1.15 points per pick-and-roll possession. Boucher was also dangerous rolling to the net with off-ball screens, as seen here. He was effective in pick-and-pops as well, with his serviceable 32 percent three-point shooting keeping defenses honest enough.

But Boucher’s rebounding may have been his most important contribution to the Raptors. Once he checks into a game, you expect at some point to see his stick-figure body fly into the frame for a putback dunk. Like when he, you know...

Highlight plays aside, Boucher was by far the best offensive rebounder on a team that finished just 24th in that category. He finished tenth in the league among eligible players with an OREB% of 12.1. For the sake of comparison, Ibaka, Siakam, and Gasol’s OREB%’s were 7.5, 3.0 and 2.7, respectively. It goes without saying that offensive rebounds create crucial opportunities for second chance points which, as we’ve seen throughout the 2020 post-season, can swing games. Boucher’s offensive rebounding in the regular season helped prop up the Raptors’ chances at winning — especially during games when half the roster was injured and possessions were precious.

(Very) Slimm Duck

It’s in his nickname. It’s in his game. Nearly everything that’s ever been written about him mentions it: Chris Boucher is thin.

Boucher’s head coach at the University of Oregon said that he was initially concerned by the forward’s stature, but that Boucher’s immediate intensity and “ridiculous” motor outweighed his, er, weight. So far that’s been the case in the NBA, as Boucher’s best qualities have earned him solid minutes on a 50-win team.

Boucher has more room to grow, however, in order to earn more consistent minutes. And sure, he can make improvements like working on his handle and developing a mid-range game (he took six shots all season between 10 and 19 feet). But the most crucial thing the Slimm Duck can add to his game is strength.

As Sports Illustrated’s Aaron Rose points out, Boucher’s stature at a listed 200 pounds made him a target for defenders looking to post up. He allowed one point per possession on post-up plays, putting him in just the league’s 36th percentile of post defenders — no Raptor other than Boucher and McCaw finished below the 73rd percentile. This clip from Christmas 2019 shows Jayson Tatum backing down on Boucher, who just doesn’t have the strength to hold his ground, leading to an easy bucket:

The disadvantages posed by his slenderness aren’t exactly breaking news — least of all to Boucher himself.

Using the NBA’s four-month hiatus as a time to work on his body, Chris Boucher gained around 15 pounds before entering the Bubble. “I feel it when I finish,” Boucher said of his newly added muscle. “I was falling on the ground a lot, when I was dribbling the ball I was getting off balance or just focusing on contact so much I feel like I was scared of the hits.” Unless he was attacking the rim at full speed for a mostly uncontested dunk, his stature hindered his ability to finish in the paint as he was outmuscled by the league’s stronger bigs. In fact, Boucher shot just 43 percent on layup attempts in the 2019-20 season — the lowest mark by a Raptors player.

While Boucher didn’t get a ton of playing time in the Bubble, we caught glimpses during his 25-point performance vs. the Bucks of how his added muscle allowed him to finish stronger. In one play, Siakam passes to Boucher as the latter cuts to the basket. Boucher is met by all 281 pounds of Robin Lopez, but maintains control in the air and sinks the layup. Later on, Boucher finishes with a forceful dunk despite being pushed in the air by Ersan Ilyasova. He’s no Chuck Hayes, but Boucher has shown promising signs of increased balance and finishing ability with his weight gain.

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The future is unclear for Boucher as a Raptor since he’s a restricted free agent this off-season. All it takes is one team to give Boucher an offer he likes, and the Raptors will have to choose between coughing up more money or letting him walk. Still, unless the Raptors acquire someone else with Boucher’s skillset, he offers them a blend of skills — offensive rebounding and off-ball offense chief among them — that not only provides real value off the bench, but is not exactly a strong suit among the rest of the roster. If he can continue strengthening his body and working on his post defense and finishing, there should be a place for Boucher on the Raptors.

If nothing else, though, Boucher has proven to himself, the Raptors, and the basketball world at large, that he’s a rotation NBA player. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what comes next for him.