Hungry For More

Chris Boucher dreamt big, he didn’t want to be just anybody in the NBA.

Why wouldn’t he? He didn’t come this far to only come this far. Boucher went from washing dishes for $10/hour to seemingly making the most of every basketball opportunity that came his way unless injuries got in the way. He won the G League’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2018-19, spelled Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka well when either was absent through injury in 2019-20, and the Tampa tank season was filled with eye-popping box scores.

The goal became stardom but those plans were quickly erased by his play early in the 2021-22 season. Wins mattered again in Toronto and the margin for error wasn’t quite the same. Boucher found himself toiling in the proverbial dog house and even calling his play up and down seemed generous when head coach Nick Nurse himself said he didn’t see much up.

With a contract on the line it was now a fight or flight response test. Are you going to sulk about what you’re not or redefine what you can be?

“It was hard at first because there’s a lot of ego, a lot of pride that you put down,” Boucher said. “I saw myself as such a player (read: a certain type of player) and I had to learn that I was better at other stuff and those things I have not been better at before. It was just changing the focus and I think the people around me helped with that. They did a really good job of showing me film, showing me what I was capable of doing, making me watch other people just to see that there are so many other ways to be impactful and have a great career in the NBA.”

When Boucher walked into OVO Athletic Centre on Thursday evening to address the media after a newly signed extension with the Raptors, he had a little extra bling to show the increased financial security, but more importantly, the same walk and talk he’s shown since about January that shows security in self. The 29-year-old turned around his season by accepting what he’s not, and finding a pot of gold in being what plenty of others aren’t. He’d scramble from a rim contest to the three-point line, dive for loose balls, draw charges, and hustle on the offensive glass.

Kyle Lowry and Dennis Rodman became central figures of his own film sessions in a pivot point for Boucher, two players who have had long, successful careers built on a foundation of doing the dirty work and the Montreal man zeroed in on what made them so well respected. Boucher can still get you out of your seat with a highlight block, but that it’s no longer a signature speaks volumes of his transformation. He’s reading plays better and so by virtue of being in position to deter the thought of a shot attempt rather than a shot itself, he’s working smarter rather than harder by showing real winning impact through prevention rather than cure.

“The game has so many areas where you can be successful and be great at,” Boucher said. “I'm trying to find all those little plays to make my game better. That's what made me better for the playoffs, that's what made me better for the end of the season, I started doing stuff that other people don't wanna do and I'm trying to push it to that next limit, what other stuff do people not wanna do that I can do?”

It’s genuinely heartwarming to hear how passionate Boucher has become about the intricacies of the game, committing things like a particular player being more likely to pull-up for a shot than drive when going left to memory or what someone likes to lean on depending on which spot of the floor they’re located at.

Boucher led the team in drawn charges last season and believes he can be among the league leaders next season. He wants to improve his technique and footwork, as well as be more in tune with opposing player tendencies so he can make defensive reads that much quicker. While there may be more to be gained through these little facets, there is one big thing that could make a significant difference maker for both him and the team.

The three-point line is an area where the Raptors as a team need all the help they can get. Corner threes were a breeze for Boucher last season as he made them at a 43.3 percent clip, but it’s above the break that a lot of role players struggle with and he was no different last season at just 23.8 percent. Per Cleaning the Glass, he made 40 percent of his above the break threes in ‘20-21 and 34 percent the season before that so there is room for optimism that he’s at least capable of a bounce back. To get more specific, it’s his threes from straight-on (22 percent) as well as the left wing (12.3 percent) that need the most work as he made 38.9 percent of his attempts from the right wing three last season. If he can get above 30 percent on those two spots on the floor and carry over his marks from the corners and the right wing then he could be considered one of the best role players in the league next season.

Toronto leans heavily on offensive rebounding and have consistently been better in this regard when Boucher’s been on the floor. He has led the team in net rating each of the past two seasons, too, and so it’s easy to see why East rivals like the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets were reportedly interested in luring him to their team.

Ultimately, Boucher decided home is where the heart is, and the opportunity to inspire kids as a Canadian was too good to resist. He’s not satisfied by what he’s accomplished, and is eager to hit the ground running in the upcoming season after needing a couple months to take off last season.

“You play your best basketball when you feel like you’re at home, when you feel like you know everything and things are going smooth,” Boucher said. “I don’t think I would have felt that much more appreciated or felt like home anywhere else.”

Doing what others won’t, Boucher has established himself as somebody who could be in the league for a very long time, and that’s something not just anyone can say.