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Player preview: Gary Trent Jr. still has something to prove

Despite signing a relatively hefty contract in the offseason, Gary Trent Jr.’s work here has just begun.

NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Trent Jr.’s upcoming season with the Toronto Raptors will shed light on his game, which is currently shrouded with uncertainty despite playing a decent chunk of last season with the Raptors.

Much like a younger Norman Powell, consistency has not been Gary’s strong suit; during his first half-season stint with the team, Raptors fans saw one of two different versions of Trent on any given night. With approximately equal probability, Gary could either be seen lighting it up on the court with incredible efficiency, or wasting several possessions with subpar defensive positioning, ill-advised shots and/or turnovers.

For a team desperately lacking in success and/or positive vibes though, Gary’s arrival (and subsequent flashes of stellar play) served as a much-needed, pleasant surprise last year. Amid an abysmal season plagued by COVID, Tampa, a lack of competent centres, trade rumours and a myriad of other issues, Trent’s highlights — including a career-high 44 points versus the Cleveland Cavaliers and a game-winner against the Washington Wizards — felt like a godsend.

Still, a few impressive outings can only do so much for your reputation. Trent will have to consistently keep up the intensity on the defensive end of the floor, while cleaning up his shot selection and decision-making, to reach the ceiling of what he can provide the Raptors in 2021-22. Let’s start by talking about the potential roles he can fill for this team.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that there will be ample room for Trent to operate in Toronto. Especially near the beginning of the season while Pascal Siakam is out, Trent will have an opportunity to cement an identity for himself beyond just shooting the ball. For starters, a great way to integrate with teammates is by moving off-ball around the perimeter, or cutting to the basket. Trent showed some flashes of each in the preseason, recognizing where there are open spots. On numerous occasions, he filled in passing lanes successfully on the way to the hoop, utilized screens for catch and shoot opportunities, and has been well-positioned for kick-outs. Offensively, this is the best of Gary Trent Jr.: when he works within the flow of the offense and doesn’t try to force it, he can be an incredibly valuable asset.

On the other hand, if Trent leans too heavily on the less flattering aspects of his offensive game, his usage may plummet. After all, Trent’s bread and butter is his shooting — but he can end up disrupting the offense, wasting possessions with tough midrange jumpers and mid-shot-clock, step-back threes. If that happens, we may see Trent inadvertently concede shots to Svi Mykhailiuk, another willing and capable scorer who may be a better playmaker than originally anticipated.

Trent isn’t the best decision-maker, especially in heavy traffic, which will cap his usage unless improved upon. There have been plenty of instances of tunnel-vision, where Trent settles for a difficult shot in lieu of passing to an open teammate on the perimeter. If he can improve his playmaking under pressure (which I don’t necessarily expect to happen this season), Gary’s utility on the court becomes much more varied.

On the other end, Trent was often heralded for his defensive prowess as a member of the Trail Blazers. The bar, however, is much higher in Toronto, with several All-NBA-level defensive talents on the roster. After arriving on the Raptors last year, Trent would often disappear on the defensive end of the floor. That lacklustre defensive effort led to many assuming Gary may always be a negative on the defensive end.

This preseason however, we’ve seen a more engaged version of Trent. Off the ball, he’s been on the lookout for steals, positioning himself in open lanes and anticipating passes before they happen. On the ball, he’s been making up for his lack of athleticism and footspeed with intensity and hustle. He’ll often crowd and attempt to overwhelm his defender, which works when surrounded by incredibly long teammates who can help at the rim in case of a blow-by. Compared to last year, Gary showed increased activity, with Nick Nurse lauding his active hands and tenacity, citing his 10 deflections against the Houston Rockets in the penultimate preseason game.

Gary Trent Jr. is an interesting player. His season could go in several ways, but all roads to significant minutes are paved with three-point proficiency. If Gary isn’t hitting his shots at a high-percentage clip, no matter how well he’s playing on defense, his added value on this team shrinks significantly. The reason the Raptors awarded him a $54 million contract this offseason is because there’s already an expected baseline of sharpshooting, and, as a 22-year-old, there’s room for potential growth in other areas (playmaking, defense, etc.). If Trent can’t connect on open looks (which he struggled with in the preseason), or he simply sabotages his three-point percentage with unnecessary, contested attempts, we may quickly see Nurse favour the experience of Goran Dragic, or the versatility of guys like Svi Mykhailiuk or Yuta Watanabe.

At the end of the day, which way Trent’s season goes is ultimately up to him. It should be interesting to monitor his progress, and where he lands in the rotation.