Opportunity abounds for Boucher, Baynes

by Chris O'Leary

When they took their turns speaking with reporters, Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes were about 3,500 kilometres apart. A hectic free agent market has created an opportunity for both big men this season that might measure greater than the distance between them. 

Boucher, in Toronto and Baynes, in Phoenix, had their multi-year deals made official on Wednesday. In Boucher’s case, the 27-year-old has shown potential and room for growth in the Raptors’ system over the last two years, coming into games deep off of the bench. Baynes, 33, has built an eight-year NBA career in that role. Both have shown glimpses of being able to offer more and with Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol leaving in free agency, you can almost hear opportunity knocking on the hardwood for both of them. 

Boucher said that his end-of-season interview with the organization gave him a good sense of what they’d want from him this year. The team extended him a qualifying offer last week, making him a restricted free agent. News of their signings emerged Sunday. 

“They told me how happy they were with where I came from and the stuff that I was doing and that all I had to do was focus on what’s the next step? What’s the next thing I can do?” Boucher said. 

From his home in Phoenix, where he played 42 games for the Suns and had the best season of his career last year, Baynes said that he’d always appreciated the Raptors as an opponent. 

“It's one of those things where every single season I've been able to continue to get better and I'm still looking to get better,” he said. 

“Working under Nick (Nurse), with the other coaches there I definitely think I can learn more and get better.” 

At this point, the Raptors know Boucher well enough to know what to expect from him going forward. The Montreal native joined the team in 2018-19 and spent much of the year in Mississauga with Raptors 905, where he eventually was named the G League MVP and defensive player of the year. 

After picking up a ring with the Raptors’ Championship-winning squad, Boucher settled more permanently into the Raptors’ rotation. Injuries to Gasol opened the door for him and he put his best foot forward, showing toughness on defence, athleticism at the basket and zero hesitation to put up a three-pointer. 

A six-foot-nine forward/centre, Boucher averaged 6.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and a block in 13.2 minutes per game. Boucher isn’t looking to be the next Ibaka or Gasol, as much as they influenced him over the last two seasons. He’s just ready to try to expand on the positives that he brought to the court last year. 

“If you know Nick Nurse...the best way to fit into this system is to be positionless,” he said. 

“This is what we're focusing on, to be able to be versatile and be able to know all the defensive schemes I think that's one thing that will help me out.” 

At six-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Baynes brings a giant frame to his fifth NBA team and will be expected to use it on a nightly basis. He said he’s worked on his three-point shot from the days he was playing with the Australian national team and got a lot of encouragement on it in his two years in Boston from coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge. The payoff on that deep shot didn’t really come through until last season, though. Playing for the Suns, he was a career-best 59-168 (35.1 per cent). That was likely a factor in other career highs as well, including minutes (22.2 per game), points (11.5) and rebounds (5.6). 

“I'm excited to come in and work under Nick Nurse and get to know the guys and try and contribute and make their jobs a little bit easier,” Baynes said. “I know they'll make mine easier. It's just about trying to come in and contribute in a positive manner.” 

The chance for increased minutes is there for both players and Baynes is a good candidate to slide into Gasol’s vacated starting centre spot. That’s something that’ll be sorted out in training camp, which is quickly approaching. 

“I'm excited to get out there and get to work towards getting that role,” said Baynes, who started 28 games for Phoenix last year and 67 games for the Celtics in 2017-18. 

“At the same time I know it needs to be earned. I feel really good right now, my body is feeling great. It's just about going out there and getting to work and getting comfortable with these guys.” 

Boucher’s new deal allows him some off-court stability as well. His journey to the NBA is well-known. He grew up in poverty in Montreal and dropped out of high school to work full-time to support his family. After multiple NCAA teams and two-way contracts with Golden State and Toronto, he has some stability and will have more money than he’s ever known, a sign of the faith the Raptors have in him. 

“Through the years I realized who I was and who I needed to be around. Money won't change that,” he said. 

“It definitely is going to help me with my family. I don’t want my mother working, that’s one thing I’m definitely going to take care of. Besides that, I think just trying to keep the love for basketball, try to get better, don’t get too comfortable, learn from my mistakes and keep walking a straight line. 

“I’ve got Ibrahim (Appiah, a former coach and a mentor) here that’s been with me for almost 10 years. He always made me realize when I was getting too high, trying to realize what was important. I think I have a good circle, I think people will help me...to stay hungry...still want me to be the same player that they knew when I was not making the paycheque that I am now.” 

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