TORONTO – Fred VanVleet remembers a coming-of-age moment for Chris Boucher early in training camp last month – an indication that the 27-year-old, who has since turned 28, was ready to take the next step as a player, and a sign of things to come.
“Me and Nick [Nurse] laughed one day, [Boucher] was the one telling all the other new guys what to do, and we just had to laugh to ourselves, that was kinda scary,” VanVleet joked. “He’s come a long way.”
He has indeed. Boucher is a Raptor through and through. Even on a team that’s filled with unlikely success stories – such as the undrafted VanVleet, or Pascal Siakam, who’s defied the odds on his way to NBA stardom – the Canadian big man’s unique journey to the pros sets him apart.
Boucher was born in Saint Lucia and raised in Montreal. He dropped out of high school as a teenager to cook chicken and wash dishes in order to help support his family.
As a basketball player, he was a late bloomer. He grew tall, long and athletic, but his body never filled out, though he’s always made it work. He went to a couple of junior colleges before winding up at Oregon and then signing two-way deals with the Warriors and Raptors – both of which would win championships with Boucher watching from the bench.
He earned MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honours in the G League, became a fringe rotation piece in Toronto last season, and landed his first big NBA contract this past fall – a huge moment for him and his family, given everything that came before it.
“It’s definitely going to help me with my family,” Boucher said back in November. “I don’t want my mom to work no more, so that’s definitely one thing I’m gonna try to take care of. And besides that, I think just to try to keep the love of basketball, try to get better, not get too comfortable, and learn from my mistakes… I think I have a good circle. I think people will help me stay hungry, play with a lot of energy, and still want to be the same player they knew when I was not getting the paycheque that I am now.”
His new deal didn’t just come with $6.5 million in guaranteed salary, and a non-guaranteed second year at roughly $7 million, which is looking like a bargain now. With the team’s veteran centres – Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – leaving in free agency, it came with an opportunity to prove that the promise he’s shown in a limited role could be extrapolated over a larger sample.
To say he’s taken advantage of that opportunity to this point would be an understatement.
Boucher has been a revelation this season. Through 11 games, he’s averaging career-highs of 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks – all in just 22.8 minutes per contest. Meanwhile, he’s fourth in the NBA in true shooting percentage (.708), second in player efficiency rating (29.2) and win shares per 48 minutes (.294), and third in blocked shots (28).
With the Raptors starving for production at the centre position, Boucher broke out on their recent West Coast road trip, but that may have just been the start of his ascension. In Thursday’s win over Charlotte, he matched a personal-best with 25 points to go along with 10 boards. Over his last four games, he’s averaging 20.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while shooting 65 per cent from the field and 58 per cent from three-point range.
So far this season, there have been eight instances of a player coming off the bench to score at least 20 points and grab at least 10 rebounds – Boucher is responsible for three of them, with two coming in the last week.
With his rail-thin frame, unorthodox jumper, and herky-jerky style of play, he doesn’t necessarily look the part, but the Raptors’ super sub is blossoming into a star before our eyes.
“I still don’t really know what it is [about him], to be honest with you,” said VanVleet, who admitted he saw something special in Boucher the moment they met. “He’s just a baller, man, he’s just a gamer, he’s got that thing that you can’t see. You don’t really know what it is, but he’s just got a great feel [for the game]. He makes risky plays, takes chances and they work out for him more than they don’t, he doesn’t have a textbook jump shot, he doesn’t have the quote-unquote best frame that you want on a big guy, but he just figures it out, man. If you were creating a player I don’t think it would come out looking like Chris in any shape or form, but I would take him on my team any day if we needed to win a ball game. I just love the fire and the heart that he plays with. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
It’s tempting to say that he’s looked like a different player, but in actuality he’s been the same guy, only more confident and perhaps a bit more refined. His boundless energy and unique skill set has always made him an intriguing prospect, but with more experience and an expanded role, he’s starting to put it all together.
“He's playing extremely well,” Kyle Lowry said following Thursday’s 111-108 victory over Charlotte, improving Toronto’s disappointing early-season record to 3-8. “I think his confidence is there. When a guy gets paid, he kind of relaxes a little, he kind of feels comfortable, and now he knows [he’s going to get] consistent minutes. He knows what he's going to do. He knows his abilities. And I think he's just confident in who he is.”
“I think it’s getting there,” said Boucher. “Just figuring out the shots I can take, when to roll, when to pop, the defensive schemes, being able to switch sometimes. It’s all about reps. The more reps I get, the better it gets. I’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s getting better every game. I’m definitely happy with the process. It’s my third year now, so it’s been a long time learning the schemes and figuring out ways to help the team. It’s gonna get better. We’ve got a long way to go.”
It seems strange, that Boucher is a year older than both VanVleet and Siakam, but he’s a young 28 – having picked up the game later in life, and lost 12 months to a torn ACL prior to signing with Golden State as an undrafted free agent out of college. He only appeared in his 100th career NBA game the night before his 28th birthday last week. At his age, most players are just reaching their prime years, but it feels like Boucher is only starting to scratch the surface.
Admittedly, he still has a lot of room for growth, which is encouraging considering how far he’s already come. A lot of the questions that had been holding people back from fully buying in on Boucher are still worth asking. Is he strong enough to hold his own in the post or on the boards against bigger players? Is he too erratic and does he take too many risks, on both sides of the floor? His weaknesses seem a lot less problematic because of how much he’s doing with his strengths, but with more time and more work, there’s still another level that he can reach.
“As good as the numbers look, there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Nurse. “I don’t mean going from scoring 20 [points] to scoring 30, I’m talking about [how] he’s really close to making a lot of the right plays at the defensive end that he’s not quite getting to [yet]. He does make a lot, a blocked shot here and a big rebound there and those kinds of things, but he’s really close to being a really solid defensive player.”
“There's a lot of basketball still for him to be able to continue to grow,” VanVleet echoed. “There's a lot of team stuff, like remembering plays and being in the right spots defensively. He's still kinda playing off of his talent and his incredible God-given abilities that he has. There's still another level he can jump to. He's been making strides.”
It’s almost impossible to put a ceiling on a player like Boucher, because of his unusual career arc. However, the fact that he’s already emerged as a valuable rotation player is a crucial development for a Raptors team that has gotten off to a slow start to the season and is in desperate need of somebody to soak up minutes at the five.
Boucher has never started an NBA game, though he did start the second half in a couple contests this past week. There’s definitely an argument for continuing to bring the emerging big man off the bench, at least for now, even if most fans don’t want to hear it. Firstly, he’s been one of the lone sources of energy and consistent production in Nurse’s second unit. Bringing him off the bench allows them to keep him out of foul trouble and match him up with opposing second units, many of which feature small-ball fives. Nurse has also been hoping to spark one of the two traditional centres – Aron Baynes or Alex Len – with spot starts, though that hasn’t worked out as intended.
Still, for all the reasons to keep him in his current role – coming in after five or six minutes, giving the team a jolt of energy, playing long stretches, and often closing the game – there’s one very compelling reason to promote him to the first unit - he’s earned it.
If he continues playing at or anywhere close to this level, and if Baynes and Len continue to struggle, it’s only a matter of time before Boucher forces Nurse’s hand.
“I feel like at the end of the day my role is still the same, [whether I’m] starting or not starting,” said Boucher. “I think they’ve pretty much seen what I do: bring energy to the game, play defence, shot-blocking, run the floor and hit threes when I’m open. Starting or not starting, this is my role. I’m good with the way I am. I’m good with the position I’m in. I just want to get better. That’s what I’ve been saying since the first game, I want to get better every time.”