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Player Preview: Gary Trent Jr. is on track to take a huge leap this season

The 23-year-old has been on a steady incline his whole career. Could this be the year he shines?

Preseason- Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors Photo by Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images

Gary Trent Jr. joined the Toronto Raptors during a very tumultuous time in team history. Deep into the infamous 2021 “Tampa Season”, Trent Jr. was traded to the Raptors along with Rodney Hood in exchange for Norman Powell at the trade deadline.

The vision seemed pretty clear — a young guard with lots of potential, lots of drive, and a history with the team that goes back to when his father, Gary Trent Sr., played with the Raptors decades ago.

He was immediately thrust into a starter role, due to increasing injuries on the Raptors roster. He proved himself in those first weeks as a player who was not only dedicated to the development this team was ready to put him through, but someone who was excited about a future with the organization.

One highlight in particular was his first game-winning buzzer beater, a much needed highlight during a difficult season for the Raptors.

So, he was granted a larger deal that summer, and 2021/22 was the first full season Gary Trent Jr. spent in a Raptors uniform. Already having been on a steady career incline up to this point, he had the best season of his career.

He averaged 18.3 points and two assists per game (career highs), but while everyone knew he could shoot, what shocked people was his defensive development. He led the league in deflections and steals for most of the season.

He stayed in a starter role for Toronto despite speculation that he may be bumped to the bench upon the return of Pascal Siakam from surgery recovery. He took criticism from fans and turned that into solid development. He understood the role he was given — put the ball into the basket, be a menace on defence, and don’t get comfortable.

One thing a lot of the critics against him seem to forget is that he is only just now 23 years old. We’re seeing these numbers, this drive, and these shots from someone who has not even reached their full potential. Now that the Tampa season is over, the rocky 2021/22 season is over, and things seem to have returned to whatever “normal” looks like now, this could be Gary Trent Jr.’s time to rise even higher.

You can’t deny that he fits the vision of this team. Sure, he’s not six foot nine, but he is turning into a defensive-minded player. He shoots the most impossible looking shots. He understands what it means to be an underdog. He fits the culture, and he seems to love Toronto and the chance he’s been given here — and you have to admit it’s a little sweeter when a player openly loves the city.

So, what’s possible this season? With Trent Jr., the more appropriate question is what isn’t possible. He is in a position right now that he could take a HUGE leap this season, on every level. The team needs him to be a shooter, they need him to keep up the defensive energy he displayed last year.

In an ideal situation, Gary Trent Jr. is racking up as many points per night as players like Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, and maybe even Pascal Siakam. He’s getting those points when the aforementioned players are on the bench, but also working with them in the starting lineup. He’s taking control of the floor and the responsibility of shooting while playing with the bench lineup. He’s a top contributor.

He’s proven that he’s capable of these things, and maybe this is the year that inconsistencies become less frequent and he rises in rank as a player.

Stats say that Trent Jr. could see an increase in points per game but stay even on assists per game. That makes sense, as he’s a shooter first; shooters shoot. There is no pressure on him to be a point guard or be the strongest playmaker on the floor — that’s what Fred VanVleet is for.

The stat projection that doesn’t seem very accurate is a decrease in steals per game. The motivation of a great defensive year last season could very possibly cause even more growth in that department for Trent Jr. If any of those stat projections are underselling him, it seems that may be it.

In the Raptors preseason game against the Chicago Bulls, Trent Jr. scored 17 points shooting 75% from the field. While it’s hard to judge the preseason, it’s easy to say that he’s ready to make an impact for this team.

Not to mention, the shots themselves are insane.

Head coach Nick Nurse has also commented that Trent Jr. has “played well enough to earn himself a starting role” and that will be the case for the foreseeable future.

At this point, it’s easy to say that Gary Trent Jr. has made himself an indispensable member of this team. They need his contributions on both ends of the floor, they need his wild shot-making abilities. They need him to get a bucket after a dry-spell, to see one or two go in and then go off on a run. The team needs a shooter on a team that sometimes forgets how to shoot.

Plus, he kinda brings up the overall coolness of the team? That doesn’t matter as much, but he’s still really cool. Cool players are fun.

He’s clearly an underrated player, yet he thrives under that narrative — he has the underdog mentality to want to prove people wrong. He has his whole career — he went from a second round pick with barely any minutes to a starter on a team full of champions in the first few years of his career.

This year, expect him to take all of that further. The crazy shots, the point totals, the steals and the energy. Maybe even the tunnel fits. Surely the tunnel fits.

Gary Trent Jr. is hopefully here to stay on the Raptors roster. Get used to it, get into it, and get ready to see this young, up and coming star play his best basketball yet.