Gary Trent Jr. has become something of an afterthought this summer. As the second man in a two-man backcourt, Trent Jr.’s likely free-agency has taken a clear back seat to Fred VanVleet chatter.
There is a general perception that Trent Jr. took a step back from his 2021-2022 season, but on a 100 possessions basis, Trent basically duplicated all his major counting stats, with the only significant decline, three-point percentage, offset by an even greater uptick in his two-point shooting.
Gary Trent Jr. (Per 100 Possessions)
Would you like to see more growth? You would. But you also didn’t see any signs of decline during a season where everything pretty much went sideways for Toronto.
There is also the matter of fit, a microwave scorer on a team that struggles to put the ball in the basket, especially in the half-court, Trent Jr. is the type of player the Raps need more of, not less. While his defensive qualities may be over-stated at times, Trent Jr. has certainly shown a knack for getting his hands in passing lanes, and, to be fair, at times showing some pretty interesting lock-down defense.
He’s also a baby - at just 24 years, Trent Jr. is younger than Malachi Flynn, and was the third youngest regular rotation member on the team, behind Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa. This is not the age profile of a finished project.
Yet there is a lot of chatter that somehow Trent Jr. has no further upside, that he’s the sort of player that could be replaced without incredible effort in the open market or in the draft.
Last year, there were three players under the age of 25 that avaeraged at least 17 points, shot better than 36.5% from three and had at least 1.5 steals. You get no points for guessing that Trent Jr. was one of them, but the other two were Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton - two All-Star calibre guards.
Now, this isn’t to say that Trent Jr. is those players equals - he pales as a facilitator and a defender to both guys (as well as a scorer to some extent), but it shows that players like Trent Jr., players who get real minutes, and can be productive in them, don’t grow on trees.
With all that, how did Trent Jr. really fare last year?
As a low turnover wing, who rarely passes, Trent Jr. is judged on one thing, and one thing only. How does he finish?
The answer for last season: okaaaay???
Overall, Trent Jr.’s effective field goal percentage - a stat that takes into account the value of three-point attempts and free throws - was middle of the pack for a combo guard.
That was in large part due to the fact that Trent Jr. takes a LOT of long twos, arguably the worst shot in basketball, and last year converted just 39% of them - well below his career average. He’s also weirdly bad from the corners as a three-point shooter. In every season he’s been a Raptor Trent Jr. has shot better from above the break, a longer shot, than from the corners.
The good news is above the break threes are arguably a more valuable shot, given most team hate to yield the shorter corner shot, and forcing shot contests above the break provides more opportunity to attack the rim.
Indeed, Trent Jr. converted 64% of his “at-the-rim” shots - the best rate since his ten game rookie season cameo back in 2018-2019, and a better than average mark for guards.
Weirdly though. Trent Jr. saw his effectiveness in isolation plummet. Two seasons ago Trent Jr. averaged a point for every isolation, which was in the 76th percentile in the league in scoring in isolations and made him the Raps’ most dangerous options with the ball in his hand. Last season? Trent clocked in at 0.77 points per play - which put him down in the 26th percentile - right around Marcus Smart and Russell Westbrook.
His shot selection didn’t really change between the two years, so maybe this was just a flukey set of results, and it’s worth noting that he was more of a 50% percentile guy in Portland, but it certainly contributed to the Raps overall half-court malaise as Trent Jr. went from being a guy who added six points per 100 plays to the Raps half-court game (one of the absolute best marks for guards in the league), to a guy who took a point off the table.
One area of his game that did show some growth was Trent Jr. pushing himself to just about average at drawing fouls as a guard - adding about half a free-throw a game. If Trent Jr. can continue to improve that mark, his career 83% free-throw percentage would play up even further.
On defense Trent Jr. seems to have to a pair of replicable skills. He gets steals, and he doesn’t foul a ton.
Historically speaking opponents score more when he’s on the court and shoot a better percentage. The two make some sense. Trent Jr. is a gambler on D, which can have a boom or bust effect on the rest of the team - when Trent gets the ball he’s a catalyst for the Raps dangerous fast-break offense, and when he misses he forces the Raptors into rotations that they can’t always recover from.
Last year, Toronto got a bit of a flip from Trent Jr. Opponents basically shot the same with him on or off the court, but the Raps actually forced more turnovers and fouled more when he was on the court.
The improvement in opponent’s shooting was seemingly fuelled by Trent Jr. seeing a massive improvement in his defense at the cup. He went from being one of the worst defenders in the paint in his first 90 plus games in Toronto, to one of the better guards in the league last year.
There’s probably some mix of luck, and Trent Jr. digging in with his 6’6 frame after then coach Nick Nurse took him to task for poor defense, in that number, but it presents an interesting question - are the Raps better with the gambling, hounding Trent Jr., or one that plays a more positionally sound game?
Of coure, it’s hard to answer that question given Nurse’s ultra-aggressive scheme. Trent Jr. has good size, solid lateral quickness, and has certainly showed moments of willingness to lock in on the defensive end.
It remains to be seen if in a more “vanilla” scheme Trent Jr. would be a better and more consistent defender, but it’s fair to say that his NBA career suggests that he’s fine at that end, no more, and no less.
The 2022-23 Trent Jr. picture is a bit hard to parse. On one hand, Trent Jr.’s overall offensive contribution stagnated. On the other, he showed some real areas of growth in getting and converting the ‘easiest’ shots — at the rim and from the charity stripe.
If his efficiency in isolation reverts to the previous mean, and the “easy” buckets stay, more Trent Jr. would go a long way to helping ease the half-court issues that marred the Raptors.
Still, it’s an open question if the Raps lack of shooting meant that Trent Jr. didn’t have the spacing that a decent, but not dominant on-ball player needs to suceed?
Even if that was the reason for Trent Jr.’s decline in efficiency, if the Raps aren’t goint to develop or acquire that shooting, does signing a medium efficiency scorer like Trent Jr. to a relative big money deal in an increasingly draconian NBA cap environment make sense? It’s clear that you’re not paying Trent Jr. for his defense, even if his defense might grade out as a slight plus, depending how you value generating turnovers.
Still, Toronto should want to be in the Trent Jr. business. He’s a better scorer than he gets credit for, and with new coach Darko Rajakovic seemingly interested in speeding up how the Raps play on offense, there could be an uptick in play-making from Trent Jr.
Really, the question is who do you think replaces Trent Jr.’s minutes? Who can the Raps find who can score on three levels, and contribute at least something on defense. That guy isn’t on the roster now, and barring Masai and co. unearthing a hidden gem, it seems unlikely that Toronto would be able to sign a player to replicate what Trent Jr. does at a price they could fit in cap-wise. At worst, a reasonable contract leaves him as an asset who could be traded in some hypothetical teardown.
Like it or not, keeping the Trent Jr. show in town, should be front of mind for Raptors fans.