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Player Review: Chris Boucher found clarity in his role as a key rotation player

Following a rough start, Chris Boucher turned things around and became an integral contributor to the Raptors’ winning season.

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors’ 144-99 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 26 was an odd, forgettable, and mostly meaningless game. Marred by COVID-19, half of the Raptors’ players in that game were on temporary replacement contracts; Tremont Waters played 35 minutes and D.J. Wilson cracked the starting lineup. For the team, the game had little significance. But for Chris Boucher it was a turning point in his season, and maybe even his career.

Boucher entered the game with shooting splits of 42.6% from the field and 20.8% from beyond the arc. His scoring numbers were way down from the 2020-21 Tampa season. But beyond that, he wasn’t giving the team his signature all-out energy and hustle plays, leading to a big reduction in minutes and even a couple DNPs.

The Boxing Day loss to the Cavs was the culmination of a disappointing couple months. With basically every rotation player ruled out, Boucher figured to be the team’s primary option that night. Obviously, nobody expected Boucher to lead the carcass of an NBA team to defeat the healthy Cavs. But Boucher ended up playing what he described as “one of [his] worst games ever” in their 45-point loss, shooting 6-for-19, 2-for-10 from deep, and coughing up five turnovers. His family turned off the TV that night and many fans wondered what kind of return a Boucher trade would net. Boucher would later say about the game: “It definitely changed my life. It changed my perspective.” It was frustrating to watch — but rooting for Boucher as he built himself back up was all the more rewarding. And he used that moment to do just that.

On a team largely bereft of depth, Chris Boucher may well have ended up as the Raptors’ most important bench player. He finished the season with the third-best total plus-minus on the team according to StatMuse. Even with dips in his shooting numbers (9.4 points on 46.4 FG% and 29.7 3PT%, versus 13.6 points on 51.4 FG% and 38.3 3PT% in the 2020-21 season), Boucher’s refocusing in December allowed him to majorly impact games off the bench. Sure, Boucher’s numbers looked better in 20-21, but someone’s gotta score on a losing team. This season was Boucher’s best as a contributor to winning basketball. His aggressive offensive rebounding, timely cuts, and reduced mistakes made his injection of energy off the bench a necessity. The man quite simply played his ass off.

Boucher has spoken openly about his mid-season turnaround. In addition to studying film twice a day, the 6-foot-9 forward has credited pre-game meditation with helping to clear his mind. Ray Chow, athletic trainer for the Raptors, noticed that there was “so much going on in [Boucher’s] mind” while he was on the court, and suggested practicing meditation. From an outsider perspective, Boucher looked overly frustrated and at times checked out during the first couple months. Clearly, his new strategies helped him get back on track.

So how specifically did Boucher impact winning for the Raptors this season?

Given the roster’s dearth of shooting, the Raptors relied on crashing the offensive boards to create extra possessions. The length of their personnel allowed them to deploy this strategy — and Chris Boucher was key to its success. Boucher led all Raptors with 1.8 points per game off putbacks, and was second in offensive rebounds per game behind Scottie Barnes.

The Long Limb Lineups® featuring Boucher-Young-Achiuwa plus Siakam/Barnes/Banton/etc. were wicked to watch, but also fairly short on consistent shot-making ability. Boucher’s presence on the offensive boards was important in making their offense viable enough while they wreaked havoc on the defensive end. He has a good feel for when and where to crash the offensive boards from the perimeter. Here’s Boucher giving the poor Indiana Pacers a taste:

Boucher can also duke it out down low and use his length to grab offensive boards when he’s planted in the paint:

Another aspect that Boucher brought to the Raptors’ offense was his feel for cutting off-ball. Boucher has improved at knowing when to find openings and cut into the teeth of the defense, and formed an especially effective partnership with Thad Young as the passer. The duo were strong during the team’s Game 4 and 5 wins against Philadelphia:

On the other end, Boucher remains a disruptive help defender who’s a shot-blocking threat on tons of drives:

Boucher led the Raptors in blocks per game this season with 0.9. His per-game number dipped from 1.9 last season, and according to PBP Stats his league-leading 25 blocked three-pointers last season dipped to 13 — still third-most in the league, mind you, but an appreciable dip. While more blocked shots is obviously preferable to fewer blocked shots, this trend might also indicate an increase in Boucher’s discipline. In past seasons, his eagerness to block shots would often lead him to fly past shooters, who would be left with an open look from a simple pump-fake. While he hasn’t cut these plays out entirely, Boucher has improved at keeping his feet on the ground as a defender.

Boucher is a tall, long, high-energy player – he possesses a lot of qualities that Masai Ujiri loves. One area where Boucher falls short is the ability to put the ball on the floor in transition. Nick Nurse has emphasized the importance of players being able to push the ball following a defensive rebound, but Boucher’s dribbling and decision-making aren’t strong enough in transition to do so regularly:

Overall, the Raptors’ season was a major success and despite a poor start, Boucher’s was as well. Game 6 against Philadelphia had few bright spots, but perhaps the biggest one was Boucher’s monster performance: he put up 25 points and 10 rebounds on 7/13 shooting, as well as a 9/10(!) night from the free throw line. He kept the Raptors afloat and was maybe the biggest reason it was only a one-point deficit at halftime. Things took a downturn after the half, but Boucher gave us a performance to remember before entering the offseason.

Coming up with a final grade for his season is a bit weird. I can’t ignore the rough first couple months of the season, but I don’t want to undersell his importance to the team as they surged upwards in the East standings. Overall, the trajectory of his performance left us with a very pleasant taste, and will likely earn him a solid contract in free agency.

Grade: B+

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Fun facts:

  • Best five-man lineup featuring Boucher (min. 10 games): VanVleet-Trent-Barnes-Siakam-Boucher (+23.3 per 100, in 104 minutes across 11 games)
  • Worst five-man lineup featuring Boucher (min. 10 games): VanVleet-Barnes-Siakam-Boucher-Achiuwa (-24.0 per 100, in 35 minutes across 10 games)
  • Boucher won the Kyle Lowry Award for most charges drawn on the team with 13 (Thad Young drew the second-most with seven, followed by Barnes and Achiuwa with four each)
  • Boucher has led the Raptors in blocks per game each of the last three seasons
  • Opponents shot 2.6% worse when guarded by Boucher
  • I have used the “tired Chris Boucher” GIF upwards of 100 times in various group chats