Chris Boucher is raw.
There is no denying that. The Canadian plays basketball like he is fairly new to it despite being 26 years old (he turns 27 tomorrow). But Boucher is smart enough to play to his strengths, using his height (6-foot-9), length (7-foot-4 wingspan), athleticism, and diverse skill set to make up for positional mistakes and a lack of strength.
Even when he fails to make up for those mistakes, Boucher still has a positive impact on the game almost every time he steps on the court. The best way to summarize his game is by simply stating: he makes things happen.
Whether it’s blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, finishing lobs, or hitting threes, Boucher is always doing something. The 2018-19 G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year has an NBA-ready skill set and is proving it in his first full season with the Raptors. Boucher is averaging 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds — both career highs — and 0.9 blocks in just 13.3 minutes per game on 45/33/73 shooting splits. More impressive, his per 36 minutes stats: 17/12/1 with 0.9 steals and 2.6 blocks. His true shooting percentage of 56.1 ranks sixth on the team.
One of Boucher’s most underrated abilities — aside from availability — is his ability to play and defend more than one position: Although he has the height of a center, Boucher provides enough shooting (32.8 percent from deep on 1.7 attempts per game, mostly above the arc) and foot-speed to play power forward. What makes Boucher so special is that he can play either center or power-forward regardless of who’s around him: Boucher can play in a frontcourt alongside a shooting-center like Ibaka or Gasol (where he can stand in the dunker spot) or alongside a non-shooting big-man like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (where he can space the floor). We talk about positional versatility a lot in the NBA, but Boucher is truly unique in that he is the size of a center but can be plugged into any situation at center or power forward and succeed. (However, as I will explore later, there are different ways to bring the most out of Boucher depending on if he’s playing the four or five).
Boucher is one of the best shot-blockers in the league, averaging 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes and blocking approximately 6.7 percent of opponent two-point field-goals, which ranks 9th in the league among players who have played 450 minutes or more, ahead of Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis. Although he still bites on too many pump-fakes and attempts to block shots he has no chance getting too, he is such a threatening presence at the rim that opponents — especially small guards — hesitate to drive into the paint when he is there.
Boucher also alleviates a lot of the Raptors rebounding problems: They grab 6.0 percent more rebounds when he is on the court. Boucher is one of the best rebounders on the team, grabbing 17.9 percent of total rebounds, ranking 19th in the league among players who have played 450 minutes or more. He also creates a ton of second-chance opportunities, grabbing 16.2 percent of offensive rebounds, good for 2nd in the league, which he is willing to pass out to reset the offense rather than going back up in the crowded paint. He is what Zach Lowe calls a “pogo” rebounder rather than a guy who boxes out, but it works because he is so long and is able to time his jumps so well.
The most important aspect of Boucher’s offensive game might not be his offensive rebounding or his three-point shooting, though. It might be his rim-running. For as long as Kyle Lowry has been a Raptor, the team has lacked a true pick-and-roll threat outside of Ibaka, who is slowing down with age — someone who can roll to the rim and finish a pass or a lob — for one of the best passing point-guards to hit in stride. They finally have one in Boucher, which makes the Canadian especially effective in transition:
Considering Boucher has such a well-rounded offensive game, you might be thinking, Why does he only play 13 minutes per game, especially in a season where Ibaka and Gasol have each missed a ton of games?
That, of course, has to do with his defense. Even though Ibaka has his own problems on the defensive end, he is still a veteran who (mostly) makes good decisions and has earned the trust of his coach to close out games with Gasol out. Nurse clearly distrusts Boucher down the stretch, especially against opponents with big, strong centers with a post-up game.
You likely know what I’m talking about if you watched the Raptors Christmas day game against the Boston Celtics: Boucher was unable to stop Celtics’ backup center Enes Kanter in the post, eventually forcing Nurse to match Ibaka’s minutes to Kanters’ the following game.
Boucher is still too skinny to guard some of the league’s big centers and he’s too slow to hang with fast wings on the perimeter. His defense is why Boucher has failed to earn the trust of his coach despite all the things he brings to the table offensively.
So, what’s the solution? There is no easy solution — not with the collection of injuries the Raptors are dealing with, forcing Nurse to play Boucher almost exclusively at center — but there are ways Nurse can mitigate Boucher’s defensive problems while keeping him on the floor.
More zone would help, for starters. Playing zone defense would enable the Raptors to hide Boucher — a weak one-on-one defender — while allowing him to be in a position under the basket to block shots and swallow rebounds.
If they are going to play man, double-teaming players in the post would also help when Boucher is matched up against a bigger center, which is something the Raptors were doing prior to the injuries but have dialed back because it’s a scheme the starters are more comfortable doing. Nurse could also surround Boucher with defensive-minded wings like RHJ and Anunoby when he is playing center, allowing them to cover up for some of his mistakes.
Even though it is hard right now with Gasol out, playing Boucher at power forward alongside Ibaka would allow Boucher to guard smaller players while giving the Raptors multiple options on offense including multiple pick-and-roll partners for Lowry and a five-out look, as my colleague Louis Zatzman alluded to here.
The last time Boucher played more than twenty minutes was on Christmas, but, as we saw on Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets, Lowry cannot be depended upon to carry the scoring load every night. The Raptors are desperately searching for offense, and Boucher provides it in multiple ways: his blocks lead to transition opportunities, his three-point shooting, his rim-running, and his offensive rebounds.
Sure, he can be a defensive liability depending on the matchup, but Nurse should explore different ways to keep Boucher on the floor as much as possible during this injury-riddled stretch and beyond. He brings such a unique skill set to the Raptors that he deserves a spot in the rotation even when the team is fully healthy, and it will be up to Nurse and the coaching staff to get creative and bring the most out of Boucher.
Boucher’s importance grows as the trade deadline approaches because if the Raptors look to trade one of their expiring contracts — most likely Ibaka due to Gasol’s defensive importance — Boucher will be relied upon to step into an even bigger role and replace some of the things Ibaka does so well.
Boucher is a polarizing player — either you see the positives and the potential or you just see the mistakes. But there is no denying that Boucher is having a positive impact on the Raptors in his first full season in the NBA.
Plus, he might become even more important as the trade deadline approaches.