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Player Review: Gary Trent Jr. outperformed expectations, but the bar has been raised

In his first full season with the Raptors, Gary Trent Jr. showed off improved defensive intensity, but his streaky offense remains a question mark. Can he stick around long-term?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Toronto Raptors’ 2021-2022 season began, Gary Trent Jr. was a question mark on the defensive end, and for good reason. He didn’t show much defensive activity during the previous season after getting dealt midway through the year for Norman Powell, and he seemed to lack the size and quickness to be a positive asset on that end of the floor.

A pleasant surprise, Gary made his impact known immediately by becoming the Raptors’ steals leader. His anticipation and quick hands became a revelation for the team, proving his value on the floor despite not fitting into the long, athletic archetype that Toronto has been seeking out over the past couple of seasons. Gary’s propensity to interrupt passing lanes proved invaluable, and led to many fast break opportunities where the Raptors shined. The team finished third in the league in fast break points per game, largely predicated on deflections caused by Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet.

Trent’s newly-found pesky nature on defense came as a surprise to his teammates, even prompting Khem Birch to famously declare to the media, “Gary is one of the best players I’ve ever seen like, no offense, not play defense then all of the sudden become a good defender. Like, it’s just crazy. I swear, I’ve never seen that before. Now he can be one of the best two-way players.” This backhanded compliment perfectly encapsulates where Gary finds himself at this point in his career. His shot-making used to be seen as his primary strong suit, but that’s no longer the case. While his offense, at times, can be lethal, it’s also prone to the occasional slump. Now, he must prove that he’s reliable on both ends of the floor.

Gary’s offense was largely impressive, and the choices he made on the floor were, by and large, smart ones. After his first half-season with the Raptors, Gary left fans wondering whether his shot-making ability came at a price of often hoisting too many contested step-back jumpers. As his next season progressed, however, Gary displayed a more composed side to his offensive game, more often making the right reads and settling for far fewer contested, difficult looks. In Gary’s 17 games with the Raptors in the 2020-2021 season, 44.8% of his field goal attempts and 14.9% of his three-point attempts were tightly defended (closest defender 2-4 feet away). The following season, however, only 37.2% of his field goals attempts and 7.5% of his three-point attempts were tightly defended.

As well, Trent became more comfortable driving to the rim and initiating contact. His free-throw attempt rate (total free throw attempts divided by total field goal attempts) rose dramatically from 11.9% to 18.8%. His free throw attempts rose from 1.8 to 2.9 per game, and his free-throw percentage increased from 80.6% to 85.3%. Whereas in the previous season Gary may have settled for a contested jumper, he’s learned to craftily get by his primary defender and find an open spot on the floor for a jumper or floater.

With his positives laid out on the table, let’s look at where Gary Trent Jr. can improve. Firstly, he’s built up a reputation as a streaky shooter. Over the course of the whole season, Gary can be depended on to put up an average of 18 points per game. However, on a game-by-game basis, it can be difficult to predict how he will perform. This past regular season, Gary had 10 games where he scored 30+ points, and 11 games with just single-digit scoring efforts. If he wants to cement himself as a mainstay in the starting lineup, Gary must show that he can perform on offense consistently.

Of course, it makes sense that Gary’s game-by-game performance is often subject to large swings in quality, considering most of his shots come from the three-point line. Still, he can improve somewhat in that regard by limiting his self-creation as much as possible. He’s best when taking catch-and-shoot threes, where he shot 41.4% over the course of the season compared to just 34.6% on pull-up three-point attempts.

Gary saw a tough end to the season, as he contracted an illness during the first round of the playoffs that severely impacted his ability on the court. In the first round versus the 76ers, he shot just 33.3% from downtown and 37.8% from the field and was noticeably gassed. It isn’t totally fair to let the most recent memory of Gary impact offseason moves, but it does beg the question of whether Gary can be a reliable enough asset for the Raptors to justify keeping him around. The Raptors’ timeline to contention has been expedited with the emergence of Scottie Barnes, and Pascal Siakam performing better than ever. Gary will need keep improving his shot selection to remain in the team’s good graces moving forward.

Considering Trent started this past season with the reputation of a defensive liability, I’d say that, overall, his season was quite successful. He also put up his most efficient scoring numbers since arriving in Toronto, which bodes well for the future. If he can continue to improve on his consistency, even marginally, there will be a solid role for him on this team, either as a starter or one of the first faces off the bench.

Overall grade: B+