Fearless: Chris Boucher is searching for his next level
At the start of his third season working with Chris Boucher, Raptors assistant coach Jim Sann continues to circle back to one word: Fearless.
In the midst of a disappointing 0-2 start, the 27-year-old centre has been firmly focussed on helping get the team back to the winning ways it’s come to expect over the last seven years.
His 22-point, 10-rebound and seven-block effort in the Raptors’ loss to the Spurs on Boxing Day was one of the best games of his young career. While blocking 4.5 shots per game may be a little too much to ask for on a nightly basis, the Raptors have been very happy with what Boucher has given off of the bench so far.
“We ask certain things of that position and one of them is rim protection,” said Sann, who first came to the Raptors as an assistant in 2003-04 and returned to the team in 2016.
“It’s something I harp on him with constantly and it’s something that Nick (Nurse) and Adrian (Griffin) speak about constantly. We have an aggressive style of defence and that requires someone to be at that rim protecting it.
“The thing that really impresses me the most about Chris is it’s one thing to talk about it and coach it and a totally different thing to do it because that position requires a lot of fearlessness and a lot of physicality. He puts himself in harm’s way a lot. The ball’s flying to the rim and he jumps up there and he either goes vertical or he tries to block the shot. He does a great job of really concentrating on what his responsibilities are on the defensive end.”
The numbers will level off, Sann admits. Two games in, Boucher is putting up 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and shooting 60 per cent from three. Where those numbers go will be partially up to Boucher. The Raptors’ frontcourt is different this year, with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka leaving in free agency. Matchups, like the Raptors’ game in Philly on Tuesday, will force Boucher away from certain types of bigs. But the six-foot-nine, 200-pound Montreal native will be ready whenever Nurse looks down the bench and calls for No. 25.
“The early results, to his credit, have been good,” Sann said. “He’s fearless in there. He puts his body in front of the rim. I’m sure you see it when you watch the games. He puts himself there and really has embraced that area of his defensive game. It’s a big part of our defence. That’s been a positive.”
Boucher is another investment from the Raptors’ development system that’s paying off. He took the long road to the NBA, attending two junior colleges before landing at Oregon for two years.
There was a two-way deal with Golden State in 2017-18 and another with the Raptors for 2018-19. He won G-League MVP and defensive player of the year honours playing for Raptors 905, while being a part of his second consecutive NBA championship team.
He continued to grow last year, showing that shot-blocking presence and a willingness to shoot the three over 62 games. That led to a contract extension before the start of training camp, with more minutes and opportunity there for the taking in the absence of Ibaka.
In camp, Boucher said that he wanted to get away from his trigger-happiness with the three this season, to let the offence come to him more organically this year. So far, he’s done well with that. He only attempted one shot from deep in the season-opener against New Orleans and hit three of four in the loss to the Spurs.
“It’s going in with the mindset of trying to change the game with my energy first,” Boucher said in San Antonio.
“This is really something I have been focusing on, realizing where I could take my shots but also trying to set screens to get people open. The ball’s going to find me. I’ve got to focus on defence, I’ve got to be able to change the game with my defence and run the floor. I try to learn every game. I watch a lot of film and just try to do what I can to help this team get to where it was.”
Listening to Boucher, you hear the talking points that the coaching staff has used with him and how they’re sinking in for him. Sann notes that Boucher’s screening ability -- something vital to helping get Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet shots in the course of the game -- continues to improve. With that screen of course comes the option to roll and finish at the rim, which is something that despite not carrying the weight of a traditional centre, Boucher has no problem doing.
VanVleet, for what it’s worth, also has no problem with seeing Boucher step back and launch those threes.
“I wouldn’t tell him to not be trigger happy. That’s what got him here. You’ve got to be who you are at some point,” VanVleet said.
“In regards to being trigger happy, it’s just more about time and the score and the flow of the game. If you’ve got a turnover and two bad shots, that’s not the time to take a quick one, but you've got to be who you are at this point in the NBA and Chris has been good like that.
“The last two games, the shots are going in. When they don’t, I’m not going to scream at him because they’re bad shots. It’s a make or miss league. Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t but I think Chris has been doing good for us.”
Sann remembers his first workouts with Boucher when he arrived in Toronto. He saw a really raw, really thin player, “but a high, high motor and a high, high ceiling.”
Boucher turns 28 on Jan. 11 and Sann still sees a lot of good basketball in front of him. As high as Boucher can reach, his ceiling is still well above him. Sann envisions the possibilities of Boucher playing the four spot a little more, attacking angles better and seeing options beyond catching and shooting. We’re seeing some of that start to pay off now, early in this season.
“I’m not surprised by Chris’ development. I think he’s by no means at this juncture is he a finished product,” Sann said.
“He’s highly coachable, he’s a very smart kid, he really understands where his fit is and he wants to get better. I think that’s a pretty good combination.”