The 2021 NBA season has been anything but normal for the Toronto Raptors. The team that bears the We The North slogan moved decidedly south to play their games in Tampa due to Canadian travel restrictions. For a franchise that strives for consistency, the disruption of this season exposed some cracks in the foundation and forced a reassessment, at least in the short term, of who they are as a team.
At 20-31, things haven’t gone according to plan for the Raptors. They’ve slipped from perennial East contender to a team fighting for a play-in berth. There have been, however, a few bright spots amid these struggles: Norman Powell emerged as a top-level scorer, allowing the Raptors to flip him to Portland at the trade deadline for Gary Trent Jr., who has impressed early in his time with the team. After Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka left in free agency, the door opened for another homegrown talent in Chris Boucher to step into a larger role.
While free agent acquisitions Alex Len (since released) and Aron Baynes have not filled the gaps as hoped, Boucher has provided a lift and shown his potential on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s averaging career-best marks across the board at 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from three range on nearly four attempts per game. His team-leading 1.9 blocks a night don’t just come at the rim — he uses his tremendous length to alter shots all over the floor, oftentimes stepping out to the perimeter to wreak havoc.
Boucher’s breakout season is the latest step in quite the personal journey, one that’s seen him go from hardships as a teen struggling to find his way in Montreal to finding hope on the basketball court. He fell in love with the game, which took him to Oregon, eventualy, and the NBA. That story is one he’s told before, but right now, he’s focused on the next chapter, one that hopefully will see him become Toronto’s latest G League success story.
The Raptors, in their current iteration, place an emphasis on their development program and helping young talent reach their fullest potential. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are the best examples, having paid their dues with the 905 before going on to become core pieces on Toronto’s championship team.
Boucher says seeing those guys take that path, one which ended in big paydays, showed him there is a plan in Toronto for players who believe they are “definitely better than what people were thinking about them,” and credits them for keeping him grounded as he dominated in the G League.
“I already knew that if I do the right thing and take the same steps they took, eventually I will get my chance, too,” Boucher tells Dime. “Fred, Pascal, Norm, Kyle, they talked to me most of the time when I was in the G League, like, ‘Yes, you’re doing good, but you still gotta take the next step, because playing an NBA is different.’ And they made me realize it’s not going to be in one night. It’s not because today you scored 30, that means that you’re automatically an NBA player and stuff like that. That really helped me out, just to realize that it’s a long journey, but at the end of the day, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Coming into this season, Boucher knew that his opportunity was set to arrive as Ibaka and Gasol departed, and he had to change his physical and mental approaches. His goal was simple: become more consistent and make better decisions, particularly in shot selection. In the G League, Boucher averaged more than 27 points per game, having the greenest of lights to shoot at will and take the lead role, although even there, efficiency wasn’t his biggest strength.
The biggest adjustment he had to make as he left the 905 was embracing a much lesser role on offense, recognizing that his job is to be an auxiliary piece. In more sparing minutes in the 2019-20 season, Boucher would find himself pressing, trying desperately to make an impression whenever he got some playing time. The result was inefficiency, particularly from deep, as he hit just 32 percent of this three-point attempts.
Even at 28, Boucher is still learning. His first season with consistent minutes has afforded him the opportunity to use live reps to continue refining his game as he looks to maximize his gifts on both ends of the floor. On offense, that means working on that shot selection, as he admits to being “trigger happy” when he first arrived in the league — he’s now at a point where he says that’s only the case “a little bit.” Having a regular rotation role has allowed Boucher to take a bit of a breath and not feel like he needs to have an instant impact whenever he touches the ball, instead opting to take better shots in the flow of the offense.
In order to make the necessary changes to become a 39 percent shooter this season, Boucher credits his newfound obsession with film work that began after the Orlando Bubble. Rather than watching a random YouTube video to pass the time, Boucher now fires up some film to figure out what he’s doing right and, more importantly, what he’s doing wrong. The results speak for themselves, as self-critiquing his game allows him to make the necessary adjustments. He still has his ups and downs, as evidenced by a recent cold spell from three, but rather than simply trying to shoot through it, he’s looking at the tape to see where things might be coming undone with either his shot selection or mechanics.
“One thing I realized is that you can shoot as many shots as you want, but when you look at the game and you look at the tape, you can see you’re not shooting it the same way that you shoot in practice, or my release is too fast, or my feet are not set,” Boucher says. “And those are all little things that affect your shot, so if you don’t watch film, you’re always going to ask, ‘Why are my shots not going in?’
“But then you watch film and then you go look at practice and you’re like, OK, I’m not shooting this too well,” he continues. “I’m changing this, I’m changing that. That does a lot. … If you don’t watch film you think that everything’s fine. But is it really fine? Like, if you’re 0-for-5 in the last three games, something’s wrong, and you might just be like, ‘Oh, I’m just missing.’ But you watch film and, ‘Oh, look my left is in front of my right foot and I never shoot that way.’ You would have never seen it without film.”
Defense is likewise a work in progress, as he works to find the balance all young shot blockers must between chasing blocks and staying in position. Boucher’s natural reflex is to try and block everything, which should come as little surprise given his 7’4 wingspan and ability to close space so quickly with his long strides. At the NBA level, the punishment for leaving an assignment to chase a block as a help defender is far greater than at the college or G League level, and Boucher is trying to lean on his ever-growing experience to recognize the right times to challenge and when to stay at home.
It’s not just rotating at the rim — Boucher is the best player in the NBA at blocking three-point shots. Boucher’s 22 rejections beyond the arc this season lead the NBA and are nine more than second-place Matisse Thybulle, per PBP Stats. He’s mastered the art of the fly-by, chasing out on shooters not by running to one side or the other (the Raptors scouting report details which side to go to on which shooters) and using his ridiculous wingspan to reach across and block the shot without risking the dreaded three-point foul by closing out into a shooter’s landing area.
In order to use that length to deter three-point shots, however, he has to stay attached to his man outside the arc enough to get out and contest. As he splits time between small-ball center and power forward, a position he’s not accustomed to, he’s recognizing that his role as a shot blocker is different.
“Sometimes it’s not your place to go, but I’m so used to being a shot-blocker, I’m leaving my man in the corner. And then I was going in and they kick it out and then I got to go all the way out,” Boucher says of lessons he’s learning on defense. “Those are the little things I’m trying to learn because when you play the four, you’re not really the shot blocker, and if you play with a five, then it’s not really your place to go. And sometimes, you know, contested is good enough. You don’t have to block it and that’s what I get in trouble … I’m trying to block it, and if I didn’t jump, it would have been a great contest, and I’m over here trying to block it. So those are things that I’m trying to learn every time, and the more I watched it, the more I realized, OK, well, you know what, you don’t have to try to block shots every time. You could actually contest a lot tougher without jumping.”
Boucher is a work in progress, but he’s fallen in love with the process and the work that goes into refining his craft. Instinct and natural talent can only get a player so far, and Boucher recognized that the mental work has to catch up to the physical effort if he’s to take the next step. Diving into film and seeking out other opinions on his game has given him a new perspective, one in which he combines his natural self-confidence with more self-awareness and the ability to accept critiques.
Boucher’s rapid maturation isn’t solely about the work he puts in. He’s a member of an organization that demands accountability and a good work ethic from the top down. From the day he stepped foot in the gym with the Raptors, he says assistants like Jim Sann and Jama Mahlalela (formerly his coach with the 905) have worked him like he was a starter, ensuring he’d be ready whenever an opportunity presented itself and showing him that they believed in him and were going to put as much effort into developing him as he was willing to put in himself. That staff backing is important, but development is a two-way street and it requires players who buy in and want to do the work, something Boucher says is impossible not to do when he sees how the stars around him approach practice and off days.
“Fred, Kyle, you look at them right now, they’re playing like they didn’t sign [big contracts]. They’re still playing like they’re trying to get to the next one,” Boucher says. “And that’s what builds for me, because at the end of the day, I’m nowhere close to what they’ve done. If you have guys that already been to the top of the mountain, and still working like they’re at the bottom, what makes you not want to work like you’re at the bottom? Cause you probably are.”
For this season, Boucher’s focus is on maximizing his talents and being the best version of his current self that he can be. That means blocking shots, playing with energy, running hard to the rim, and knocking down shots on the perimeter. It also means taking the lessons from each game as he gets more reps and applying them to the future so that his mistakes don’t get replicated over and over.
This Raptors season hasn’t gone according to plan. It’s shifted priorities a bit to the near future as the organization looks to set themselves up for another sustained run of excellence with a different core. Boucher hopes to be part of that next run, using this season as a starting point to prove where he can provide value, but this is far from where he sees his potential.
He readily admits that he still has to add more strength to be able to do everything the Raptors need from him defensively, particularly if he’s going to be able to play more minutes at the five, and he wants to refine his game on offense when he gets a guard switched onto him.
“I would like to have a go-to move or a couple post moves because it’s to the point where you play the game and they like to switch. You set a screen and they switch because they don’t want you to shoot,” Boucher says. “And I would like to be able to use that mismatch and go down to the post and then score an easy one, to a point where they can’t really switch it because if they switch it then it’s a small guy on me and then I could do something against it. Like I said, I just want to be able to be a mismatch, no matter who I’m playing and be able to change the game, when I come in the game.”
Getting to the NBA has been a long, winding journey all its own, but Boucher isn’t satisfied. He has dreams of doing so much more. He’s long embraced the physical grind, and has now become obsessed with the mental side of the game and what that can do to unlock his talents.
After a late start, the clock is certainly ticking at 28, but he’s defied odds throughout his voyage to being a regular rotation player in the NBA, so why not believe he can keep climbing?