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Player Review: Chris Boucher turned an opportunity into a career-season

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Having finally earned a real role on the Raptors, Boucher has proven he belongs in the best basketball league in the world.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When given the opportunity on the court Chris Boucher has shown he can play with the best of the best at any level. That showed this past 2020-21 season in which Boucher received his first near-full season in the NBA with real minutes in the rotation for the Toronto Raptors.

Before diving into the statistics and Boucher’s gameplay this last season, let’s put into context what he can do when given the opportunity.

In two seasons in the NCAA with Oregon, the Montreal native played 69 games and averaged just under 25 minutes. During his time on the court, he averaged 12 points and 6.8 rebounds, respectable numbers for a big man at the college level.

Let’s not skip over the fact that Boucher was a piece of the puzzle that helped Oregon to the elite eight in 2016. And we’ll never know what the 2017 Ducks — who made it to the Final Four — would have done had Boucher not torn his ACL prior to March Madness.

After going undrafted, Boucher still picked up an NBA contract, but we can skip over his first professional season which wasn’t pleasant for him. In a Sportsnet piece by Michael Grange, Boucher admits to lacking professionalism and maturity in that year with the Golden State Warriors, most of which he spent in the G League.

Waived in June 2018 by the Warriors, the Raptors took a chance on Boucher with a 10-day contract. He got four Summer League games to prove himself, and prove himself he did, landing a two-way contract with the Raptors.

It was at this point in Boucher’s NBA career that he began to establish himself. Playing 28 games in that first season with the Raptors, the 2018-19 year for Boucher was made with the Raptors 905. That’s where, in another 28 games, the big man averaged 27.2 points, 7.5 boards and 2.2 blocks — leading to a G League MVP, G League Defensive Player of the Year and a spot on the All-NBA G League Team.

In 2019-20, Boucher started to see consistent NBA minutes. He played in 62 games and averaged 13.2 minutes. The issue that year was that he was still behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka on the Raptors depth chart, which limited minutes and usage. Boucher wasn’t expected to play in the pick-and-roll much and attempts from three were limited. Essentially in those 13 minutes, Boucher was expected to defend and rebound.

That season was also cut short due to COVID-19 and eventually regulated to the Orlando Bubble, in which Boucher showed the Raptors something in two of their final three games. In a game versus the Bucks on August 10, 2020, Boucher scored 25 points, grabbed 11 boards, two blocks and hit three 3s. Then two nights later against the Sixers, he put up a state line of 19 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and four threes.

And then prior to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, with Gasol and Ibaka off to L.A., Boucher signed a multi-year contract with the Raptors.

As the season began, Boucher’s competition at the five was Aron Baynes and for a short stretch Alex Len. But as mentioned off the top, when given the opportunity Boucher has shown he can play.

Through the first 13 games of the season, Boucher was averaging about 23 minutes, 16.1 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, while shooting an effective 60.3 percent from the field and 46.9 percent from three.

After Toronto’s 13th game, Len was waived allowing Boucher to be the permanent first big man off the bench — and sometimes starter. While Baynes did continue to start, Boucher was the team’s number one centre as he began to play key minutes and took on a sixth-man role.

Obviously, as the season went on the Raptors added Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie post-deadline. It bettered the team’s depth at the centre position but didn’t take away from the role Boucher had established himself, now as more of a power forward. That is until Boucher went down with an MCL injury that forced him to miss 12 of the final 13 games.

Up until that injury, Boucher had himself in the conversation for both Most Improved and Sixth Man of the Year. It was always going to be tough to beat out Julius Randle for the former and a couple Utah Jazz players for the latter. But Boucher did receive some votes:

Now, let's dive into the actual statistics and gameplay.

Boucher played 60 games for the Raptors, two shy of his career-high the year before. He also he started in 14. He played a career-high 24.2 minutes per game, while averaging a career-high 13.6 points, career-high 6.7 rebounds (including two offensive boards per game — a career-high as well), career-high 1.9 blocks and attempted a career-high 9.3 field goals and 3.9 three’s. Both field goal percentage (51.4) and three-point percentage (.383) topped out at career highs as well.

Now, Boucher won’t outmuscle any opponent. He’s not quite there yet but could be if he continues to add weight and improve his footwork. What he will do is be quick on his feet, be a moving piece on offense, have the ability to knock down open jumpers, and use his length to defend the perimeter and the paint, while providing that same length on the boards.

Per BBall Index’s graphic below, consider the effect of stretch bigs and their offensive impact per 100 possessions and their aggregate offensive impact.

That’s Boucher up near the top of the curb. In a sense, that explains his season — not only as a stretch big on offense, but just in general when Boucher was on the court, the Raptors were almost always playing at their best level.

Of the 10 different five-man lineups, Boucher was a part of that played 20 minutes or more together, only two had a negative net rating. Four of those 10 lineups finished in the top-7 of net rating amongst Raptors five-man units that played 20 or more minutes together.

As an individual, Boucher finished with an offensive rating of 127 per 100 possessions — which ranked him only behind Patrick McCaw on the Raptors (note: McCaw played five games). His defensive rating per 100 possessions was tops on the team at 109. Boucher’s player efficiency rating also was the best at 21.9, and he had a team-leading win-share of 6.1 — the next best was Fred VanVleet at 4.3.

Being a team leader in specific statistical categories is all great, but Boucher was a solid stretch big throughout the league. He finished ninth in the NBA in three-pointers made by a big with 90. And of those big’s in the top-10 of the NBA in 3’s made, Boucher was seventh in percentage made at 38.3 percent.

Of the list of bigs that played 80 percent or more of their minutes at the centre and made at least 60 threes on catch-and-shoot, Boucher was fifth at 37.8 percent. He only ranked behind the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic, Nikola Jokic, and Kristaps Porzingis.

Beyond being an effective shooting big, ask VanVleet and Kyle Lowry how nice it was to have a centre this season that was effective on the pick-and-roll. Boucher averaged 1.26 points per possession as a roll man. That ranked fifth in the league (minimum 150 possessions) behind Deandre Ayton, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo and Richaun Holmes. (Credit @WolvesClips for the above two statistics.)

On the defensive end, Boucher was blocking shots both in the paint and on the perimeter. He averaged 3.7 blocks per 100 possessions, good for 15th in the league, while his 1.9 blocks per game were good for fifth in the league. Of his 111 total blocks, 36 of them were from jump shots or floaters — ranking second in the league behind Matisse Thybulle’s 53 – and the next best: defensive player of the year favourite Rudy Gobert at 27.

At 28 years old, what’s next for Boucher is kind of difficult to predict. Essentially most NBAers peak in their late-20s and while Boucher fit into his role with the Raptors this past season to almost near perfection, the key now will be for him to improve his IQ and court awareness — and also recover from his knee injury.

The MCL that cut Boucher’s season short is one to watch for with a 6’9”, 200-pound athlete. We can’t forget it was the same left knee in which Boucher suffered a torn ACL in his final season with Oregon. And as a result, he announced via Twitter that he won’t be joining Team Canada in Tokyo this summer for the Olympics to rehab the knee — which is a loss for the Men’s National Team.

It’s also easy to forget that Boucher didn’t start playing organized basketball until the age of 19. To say he’s peaked isn’t fair to him and what more he can do on both sides of the basketball court.

If Boucher can add muscle to his frame in the offseason, it’ll help him finish stronger at the rim and possibly lead to more trips to the charity stripe. Boucher averaged only 3.2 trips to the line.

Boucher mentioned in his post-season media conference that watching clips of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam play and defend the four is one area he’ll specifically focus on. While the Raptors have been known for some small-ball play as of late, being able to use Boucher at the four and go with bigger lineups will help in certain matchup scenarios.

Overall, it has been a long journey for Boucher. He’s gone from a high school drop-out to going undrafted and being released after one year with the Warriors, and then finally getting an opportunity with the Raptors both in the G League and in the NBA. Boucher has found his game in the NBA after a career-season and will once again play an important role for the Raptors next year.