How hitting rock bottom altered the course of Raptors’ Chris Boucher’s season

One of the trickiest things for an NBA player to do is balance their own ambition with what a team needs of them at any given time.

It’s hard because you can’t make the NBA without being hugely ambitious – for all but the most gifted, believing you can earn one of the 450 full-time jobs in the most competitive league in the world requires a self-confidence that borders on delusion.

And once you make it – likely after growing up as the best player in any gym you walk into – the system is set up to make you want more and push harder.

There are generational fortunes to be made if you lead a team in scoring or emerge as an all-star.

Doing the dirty work that helps teams doesn’t necessarily generate flashy stats or always pay as well, but the work is steady and always in demand.

I can’t say any or all of that was running through Chris Boucher’s mind as he took the floor against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 26th as the COVID-riddled Raptors’ most established player.

But it was clear that as part of an eight-man rotation with four spots filled by players that had joined the team that day on 10-day hardship contracts, Boucher saw an opportunity.

He was going to take any and every shot, ball out and show the Raptors and the NBA that he had more to give than spectacular finishes in transition, wild blocks from the help side or his trademark, wind-up corner threes.

He worked on his handle, he worked on shooting off the dribble. This was his time to shine.

It was a disaster. The ‘ghost Raptors’ lost by 45, Boucher was a deserved -30 as he put up 19 shots in 28 minutes and made just six. He was 2-of-10 from three and turned the ball over five times. He was out of his element as a primary offensive option, like the ‘Joe’ in a ‘Pros vs. Joes’ episode, and it was plainly obvious.

“It was one of the worst games ever, my family they wanted to shut down the TV, [that’s] how bad it was,” said Boucher as the Raptors prepared to host the Indiana Pacers at Scotiabank Arena Saturday.

“I remember shooting 2-for-10 [from three]and I was like, ‘oh, I’m finally going to be the No. 1 guy, the go-to guy’ and I didn’t realize how hard it is to be that guy, day out and day in.”

The Boxing Day debacle was the culmination of a miserable first half of the season for Boucher who was hoping to build on a breakout offensive season in 2020-21 and position himself for a bigger role and bigger money as a free agent this coming summer.

And who can blame him?

Rare is the NBA player who decides they’re happy coming off the bench, filling a role and cashing ‘not-max’ salaries that come with it.

Boucher wasn’t happy with that. The late bloomer from Montreal believed he could be a star, if only he got the chance.

And it wasn’t based on nothing.

In 2018-19 he averaged 27 and 11 in the G-League, won the league MVP and the defensive player of the year award, and routinely posted stat lines that inspired a double take: 47 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks on one night , and 30 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks a few weeks after, with 30 and 10 nights sprinkled in between.

Even at the NBA level, he has always had a knack for changing games, like the time he time finally got some run at in the last game of the 2018-19 season and counted a 15-point, 13-rebound double-double in 24 minutes against Minnesota, or when he scored 15 points in 15 minutes as the Raptors came back from down 30 against the Dallas Mavericks in 2019-20.

Sure enough, when he finally got his crack at steady minutes during the 2020-21 season in Tampa, Boucher showed that he could produce numbers regularly. He was still coming off the bench, but he came on the court like a hurricane.

No other non-starter in the NBA could match all of Boucher’s per-game averages of 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.5 threes and 1.9 blocks.

And when did he start? How about 38 and 19 against the Chicago Bulls, or 31 and 12 against Oklahoma City, to name a couple of the monster games he put up.

So, no wonder that heading into the 2021-22 season – Boucher wanted to take that next step and make the transition from high-energy role player to NBA scorer who could dictate games and possessions at will. And get paid accordingly.

It didn’t work out, however. Even prior to his letdown against Cleveland, Boucher was heading for the most disappointing contract year imaginable. He averaged just 5.9 points on 38 per cent shooting through the season’s first 20 games. His playing time suffered. He looked lost.

But instead of the Cleveland game breaking him, it made him. Given a bit of the apple he always thought he wanted, only to find a worm in it, Boucher has opted for a steady diet of protein ever since.

“It definitely changed my life, it changed my perspective,” said Boucher. “I realized I never want to be in that position again and [that] I just wanted to become a better player. I didn’t like the way I was looking on TV, I know I’m better than that.”

He certainly has been, and he’s done it the way successful secondary players traditionally have in the NBA: embracing their role; recognizing how important it is, and moving past measuring their contributions by points or minutes or measures other than how they can contribute to winning.

There was no better example than his performance against the Cavaliers in a must-win on Friday night as Boucher put up 17 points, eight rebounds and three steals while playing virtually mistake-free basketball.

It’s been a pattern. Overall, Boucher’s numbers are down, but since Christmas he’s played the best basketball he ever has.

“It’s not even closed. A thousand percent. It’s not even close,” said Fred VanVleet. “You’ve got to watch it, too. You can talk numbers all day. But you’ve still got to watch the game and watch the impact and the enthusiasm and attention to detail and executing game plan.

“He’s been a thousand times better this year than he was last year without the big numbers. What he’s meant for our bench unit, coming in and blocking shots and making threes, he’s been incredible for an extended period of time now. It’s really since the Cleveland game in December when he had his low moment. He’s been great since.”

The numbers don’t tell a bad story either. He’s averaging 10.5 points and 7.1 rebounds with a block and (nearly) a steal per game on 49.7 per cent shooting. His three-point shooting isn’t quite where it was last season – 32.5 per cent compared to 38.3 – but the ones he’s taking are in the flow of the offense and he remains fearless about them, which is half the battle.

But he’s evolved in other ways too. He leads the Raptors in charges drawn this season, which is unexpected for someone who made a name as a defender by trying to block every shot he could reach. He’s less likely to be seen with his palms up wondering what went wrong after a missed rotation led to an easy basket, and he’s less likely to shoot every ball he touches, and force plays with that aren’t there – his 12.1 field goal attempts per 36 minutes are a career-low, as is his turnover rate.

It all speaks to a player who has figured out his role and where he fits, and it’s appreciated.

“The role he’s in right now is contributing to winning,” said VanVleet. “[He’s] a really good role player off the bench. He’s been amazing for us. He’s bringing that consistent energy and effort. He’s talking. He’s helping the young guys, which is crazy to think about. It’s a breath of fresh air for us off the bench.”

It’s been an adjustment for Boucher. His NBA career has unfolded slowly. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 19 in Quebec. He did two years of junior college and two more years at Oregon and then went undrafted after tearing his ACL at the end of his senior season. He spent two years in the G-League, and at 29 the possibility exists that his next contract could be his last, even though he carries himself like a much younger player.

But he’s learned this season that his value to the Raptors isn’t based on how many points he scores or threes he hits.

“Just with the wins,” Boucher says, when asked about how he measures his performance. “We got a lot of wins where I didn’t score very much but I did a lot of the defensive side, those rebounds and those steals is all stuff I couldn’t do last year.

“I wasn’t fast enough to make the reads and I feel like I’m getting better at it,” he says. “You can see it helps the team … I’m so used to it now, it just comes naturally.”

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