Photo credit: Trung Ho/TrungHo.ca
A Unicorn is a myth, kind of like a UFO. People claim to have seen one, but there’s no way of proving it. Last Friday, in Erie, Pennsylvania, I saw one. There wasn’t a broadcast, there wasn’t another independent media member. But at 4:30pm, as I entered Erie Insurance Arena, there he was.
About an hour before game time Raptors 905 assistant coach AJ Diggs runs the guards and swingmen through rigorous ball handling drills. Other players diligently go through their pregame rituals. It’s the team’s first and only preseason game, so it’s time to get serious. But pan to the far corner of the court. Now tilt your eyes down.
There lies Chris Boucher on his side. 6’11 in height, infinity in limbs. The Montreal-native strikes a model-like pose, hand holding his head up, elbow providing support on the floor, as he casually works a roller to his thighs, staring into space. When the team runs its layup line, unlike most players who mix up their layups with jumpers from varying ranges, Boucher opts to casually take a dribble and hoist three pointers from the spot he catches the ball. Later in warmups he shows off to a teammate that he can palm the ball after a dribble without the help of a second hand. You’d be tempted to interpret this pregame “routine” as lacking focus. And maybe it is, but once the ball gets tipped, his play will render that theory moot.
By the end of the first quarter, Boucher has already racked up two and-1s, six boards, a steal and a block, but one play in the second quarter is all you need to see.
RJ Hunter – Erie’s 6’5 guard who averaged over 20 points last year for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers – gets the step on his defender. Boucher shuffles over with plenty of time to help. Hunter gathers. He’s about to challenge Boucher at the rim.
A relaxed Chris Boucher before tipoff in Erie. Photo courtesy: Andrew Damelin
“For a minute I was like – ‘I’m already there. You see me,'” Boucher says, incredulous that Hunter was about to try to dunk on him.
Hunter rises. Boucher rises higher. Hunter realizes that getting blocked is the only outcome. Boucher sends him away.
“He’s a great player and all that, but there’s some stuff that I do well,” Boucher says. “There’s some stuff that I see before it happens.”
By the third quarter Boucher is toying with his opponents. He takes a defensive rebound 80 feet the other way, gathers, then cuts his speed in half, rendering the two defenders converging on him helpless to contest his layup. He hits a three from the top of the key. Then another ambitious guard drives into the paint, is met by Boucher, and lifts his floater over the backboard.
“He scared, bro!” Boucher boasts to his bench.
Three quarters, 25 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks later, his work is done.
Has it always been this easy?
Boucher’s unlikely ascension is well-documented. Born it St. Lucia, he moved to North Montreal as a child. He grew up in poverty, started playing the sport when he was 18, went to a pair of junior colleges, then to the Final Four at Oregon, where he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, all in a span of five years. SI dubbed him “The Unicorn” for his rare combination of length, shot-blocking, and three point shooting. Any kid who rapidly goes from unknown to household name would have a hard time handling the hype. But not Boucher.
“When you don’t have anything it’s easy,” Boucher says. “You have to be composed and realize that a lot of stuff just don’t come for free. You have to work hard. When you see your work paying off, you realize that it’s not just coming at you. You’re more calm. You realize the work you put in is the reason why it’s happening. It’s easier to be composed and humble about it.”
Boucher’s composure would be tested in early 2017. That’s when he tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semi-finals. Boucher feared he may have lost basketball. He went undrafted. He was down. But with multiple reminders from his mother to persevere, the lithe Canadian recovered, and signed a two-way deal with the Warriors. On March 14 of this year, Boucher was called up to the big club. With a minute left in the their game against the Lakers, Steve Kerr called his name.
“I was not ready, to be honest,” Boucher says with a laugh. “I was a little nervous. (It’s) Golden State. The crowd is crazy. I just felt like, when I got there, I was like ‘yeah I’m ready’. But when I got on the floor, it was just like – my first game, I was so happy. I came back from my injury. It’s a great moment for me because it was like, ‘wow, look I made it.’ But, there’s a lot of stuff that you gotta embrace at the same time so it was a lot for me to get through. It was a great moment for me.”
Boucher remembers his lone field goal attempt – an air ball. The minute of NBA game time was long enough for him to realize how far he was from an NBA career.
“I’m just building up with this. Since (my debut) I’ve got better. I’ve got my game better. I’ve got my confidence better. I’m just ready to play now.”
905 Head Coach Jama Mahlalela thinks Boucher is ready too. While his on-court skills are obvious, Mahlalela is also encouraged by his intangibles.
“How (Boucher) carries himself in the role he’s in (is impressive),” Mahlalela says. “Someone who is basically a new basketball player – his ability to have a great demeanor and attitude around fellow people. Realizing where he’s coming from makes it all the more impressive.”
Boucher’s potential is tantalizing but still unknown. Listed at 200 pounds, which seems generous, he needs to get stronger. He’s only played 20 games at the professional level, so he has to prove he can play with grown men for at least the 50-game G League schedule. One big factor in his favour: he’s in one of the NBA’s most proven development cultures.
“He’s hungry. He wants to break through to the NBA. That’s where his head is at,” says Mahlalela. “He knows he needs certain things to do that. And our team is providing a framework for him to do it.”
The parent Raptors are replete with depth, but they don’t have anyone with the combination of rim protection and floor spacing that Boucher brings (although Serge Ibaka is turning heads). It’s still early to project Boucher’s NBA potential, but in the interim, like the unicorn, few will see him, but his legend will surely grow as he toils away in the G League. Perhaps in the future, Boucher will emerge as a Raptor, and his mythology will transform into reality.