Flash back to 2010, and I could not have been more excited for Old Man Luedecke’s My Hands are On Fire and Other Love Songs. The masterful Nova Scotian folk musician, born Chris Luedecke, had released a quiet first album, Mole in the Ground, to little acclaim. His real first offering was Hinterland, which is as good as folk music gets. Every song is a gem, with banjo notes and guitar strums the only accompaniments to Luedecke’s plaintive tones. How would Luedecke’s My Hands are On Fire and Other Love Songs hit after he had finally tasted success? Nine years later and in a seemingly dissimilar field, Chris Boucher is in a similar position, facing a similar question, to Chris Luedecke in 2010.
If Boucher’s understated time in Golden State was his Mole in the Ground, then his monstrous 2018-19, in which he won G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year was Hinterland. We know what Boucher can do in the G-League — the basketball equivalent of the Maritime folk scene — but how will he perform given consistent minutes in the pressure cooker of the NBA? 2018-19 gave us an inkling, though it leaves most of the future to the imagination.
(I’m not going to show you Boucher’s per-36 minute stats in the NBA, as they’re not very useful, but they are remarkably similar to his G-League stats. Part of the reason why Boucher’s NBA per-36 numbers are similar to his G-League numbers is probably because he played most of his NBA minutes in garbage time against players of a relatively similar quality to G-League starters. So don’t read too much into the per-36.)
Ignore the stats. Boucher has only played a total of 164 minutes in the NBA. One shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Instead, let’s look at some film. It doesn’t take too much gandering to realize that there aren’t many people in the NBA who can do the collection of things that Boucher can do. It’s been said before, but Boucher has the possibility of becoming something unique.
Boucher has some of the chops of a traditional big. He, for example, is a very good rebounder, especially on the offensive end, where his length is able to make up for his lack of lower body strength.
Boucher displays some fantastic chops at finishing in the pick-and-roll, which is an even more important offensive skill for bigs in the NBA.
He’s long, with solid balance and terrific vertical explosion. His first jump takes opponents by surprise, which can have the same effect as wrong-footing defenders. Boucher is exceptional jumping off his left, very good jumping off both feet, and weakest jumping off his right. Opponents block Boucher often, but most of those blocks occur when he jumps off his right or off two feet. His footwork is improving, but he already has solid footwork on the move for a center.
More than just traditional big skills, Boucher has an effective, if unorthodox, jumper. He displays good footwork into the shot. His lower body dip is fluid and balanced, and he’s comfortable shooting whether open or contested.
It gets better. Boucher is a fantastic shot-blocker, and he’s so athletic that he can chase down much smaller opponents.
He doesn’t record a huge number of steals, but he’s maneuverable around the perimeter, and he’s good at using his length to close passing lanes, as on this hammer play.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Boucher’s game is his ferocity in contesting jumpers. He has the same athletic gene as Pascal Siakam or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s easy to watch film of Boucher and, as in an opium dream, lose the thread between explicit and implicit. Chris Boucher is more virtual than real, more awash in possible than actual.
But one has to stay grounded. There are solid reasons why Boucher has not yet exploded to dominate the NBA. His awareness of the game can still be lacking, and he can lose a sense of all nine players on the court. Boucher desperately needs to add strength to his frame, which will help virtually every aspect of his game: rebounding, post play, dribbling in crowds, finishing, and paint defense, just to name a few. Boucher is blocked often because he lacks core strength. Per nba stats, Boucher drove seven times in 2018-19, and he shot 1-for-6 on those drives; with his combination of athleticism and finishing ability, his numbers should be better. His lack of strength and unwillingness to use his left-hand are evident in his predilection to drive left and gather the ball back to the right, increasing the shot’s difficulty, and opening up the ball to defenders.
These are fixable weaknesses. Boucher has the extraordinary, and now he just needs to add the ordinary. Like Siakam, Boucher has not been playing organized basketball for long, and there is thus more upside than traditional for a 26-year old. Despite the flaws, there is far more in Boucher’s game that elicits salivation than damnation. By all accounts, Boucher had a great developmental summer, and the team is giddy about his upcoming season. As did Siakam before his 2018-19 Most Improved campaign, Boucher dominated in Rico Hines runs. There are signs that portend a leap.
Boucher himself isn’t stressed about the hype: “Nothing really changes for me,” he said on media day. “I’m still always gonna be the guy that blocks shots, shoots the open threes, play defense, trying to rebound, and push the ball when you can. I don’t think anything really changes except that I get an opportunity and a bigger chance to show what I’m capable of doing on the biggest stage.”
Boucher doesn’t believe his approach to the game has evolved. But his skill-set has, and Boucher is absolutely correct that this year should offer a real NBA opportunity. He will likely enter the season as Toronto’s fourth or fifth big, and he could quickly see his role increase in case of injury or trade. In fact, solid play from Boucher could give the organization the peace of mind required to trade a veteran center for future assets. Boucher can play either power forward or center, and he and Siakam have a burgeoning chemistry on the court. He’ll get minutes, and if he plays well, he’ll continue to get them. All this to say: Chris Boucher has earned a shot.
Chris Luedecke earned a shot after Hinterland. He recorded a very good album in My Hands are On Fire and Other Love Songs. He added plenty, including drum tracks and a full backing band. The music was well-written and, musically, far more complex than Luedecke’s early creations. However, the album was not as good as Hinterland. Complexity detracted from Luedecke’s sound. He remains best in a tiny venue, wearing a flat cap, stammering in between songs in front of a few dozen lucky souls, scraping a living and joyously and mournfully singing about the process. Even though his catalog is exceptional, Luedecke never exploded beyond the stage of the ‘big fish in a small pond.’
2019 for Chris Boucher is 2010 for Chris Luedecke. Boucher must add to his game, but he can’t lose himself in the process. Boucher has a chance to be a star. Still, it’s probable that Boucher remains a useful player who plays small minutes in the NBA. That’s the equivalent of what happened to Chris Luedecke in the music world. Fans are still lucky to enjoy the music he creates, including My Hands are On Fire and Other Love Songs. Likewise, fans will still enjoy Chris Boucher’s game, whether or not he puts the package together into stardom. There’s no real losing for Boucher; the possible paths ahead of him are only different definitions of success. But if he’s going to take a leap, this year is his first real opportunity. 2019 is Boucher’s chance to prove that his hands are and will remain on fire (and other love songs).