One thing that NBA fans and analysts do far too often is, instead of directly complimenting a player for his development, they defer credit to the people around them. Raptors’ third-year big man Chris Boucher is no stranger to this type of dialogue, as Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Nick Nurse, and the Raptors’ development program have all been credited for his success.
While each afromentioned person no doubt played a part, Boucher is the one who put in the work and therefore deserves the vast majority of the credit for the leap he has taken this season, going from fringe rotation player to the Raptors’ best big man and a legitimate candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award. This is the type of leap that players rarely make, especially at age 28, but a third way through the 2020-21 NBA season it’s clear that Chris Boucher is finally putting it all together on the basketball court.
While it’s easy to look at the season Boucher is having and suggest that this is a case of a guy using the most of his new opportunity and guaranteed minutes — to suggest that he always had this in him but wasn’t given the opportunity until now — I don’t think it is that simple. Realistically, you do not go from unplayable in the 2020 playoffs to someone the Raptors rely upon to close out games with merely a confidence boost. In fact, Boucher is a fundamentally different player than he was last season: His shot from behind the arc is dramatically improved, his playmaking skills in the short-roll are new, and most importantly, his defensive positioning and IQ are day-and-night compared to last season, so much so that Nick Nurse is looking for more opportunity to play him, putting him into last night’s Celtics’ game less than three minutes into the first quarter.
“He’s playing at a super high level,” Nurse said earlier this season. “He’s certainly been a real bright spot. I think again he plays with great tenacity always and always puts you in a good position, he’s fighting on the glass and blocking shots here and there, he’s running the floor and plus the offence has been good.”
Offensively, Boucher is one of the most efficient players in the league this season, averaging 13.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.0 assists, with a true-shooting percentage of 65.0 on 20.8 percent usage. He is shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 44.1 from three on 3.6 attempts per game, all career-highs. He has never had any hesitation shooting the three, but now that it is going down so often, his teammates are looking for him in the pick-and-pop and for kickout passes, and he is making defences pay for sagging off him into the paint. Aside from boosting his own point total, Boucher being such a threat from three opens the game up for his teammates, helping space the floor for players like Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry to attack the rim. It’s no wonder that the team is scoring +6.6 points per 100 possessions with Boucher on the court. Siakam, in particular, is using Boucher’s floor-spacing to his advantage, as their two-man combination is scoring +10.6 points per 100 possessions compared to Siakam and Baynes scoring -5.9.
Boucher is also putting the ball on the floor and attacking closeouts with a handle and assertiveness that we haven’t seen from him before, making him really hard to defend as a spot-up option. Plays like the one below allow the Raptors to run primary actions not involving Boucher, using him as an off-ball player, which adds another wrinkle to his skill set. He is shooting 45.0 percent on mid-range shots.
Boucher has always been an effective pick-and-roll player because his length, athleticism, and great hands make him an ideal finisher, but this season he has taken it to another level. Unlike starting center Aron Baynes, Boucher catches everything thrown even remotely in his direction, corralling bounce passes low to the floor or heaters coming at his head. He does a good job keeping the ball high, too, and is finishing 64.0 percent of shots at the rim. Despite having the ball more than ever this season, Boucher has a career-low turnover percentage of 6.1 because of his great hands and thoughtfulness to keep the ball elevated.
In the past, Boucher was rarely asked to create in the short-roll, so this is the one area where he may have had the talent all along, he just never got an opportunity to showcase it until now. This season, Boucher is being relied upon to create offence for himself and his teammates because teams are overhelping on his rolls to the rim and because he so often plays in bench lineups with just one starter (such as VanVleet or Lowry), and defences are forcing the ball out of their hands by trapping and making Boucher play four-on-three. Fortunately, Boucher is reading the floor surprisingly well in the short roll, making quick decisions to find open shooters and cutters, assisting on a career-high 7.1 percent of teammates’ baskets.
Boucher short roll??? pic.twitter.com/vimZ6iD922
— T (@tmn_04_) January 24, 2021
The area that Boucher has shown the most improvement this season is on defence. In fact, Boucher always had the offensive skill set to play big minutes in the NBA. But the reason he didn’t see the floor in the playoffs last season was because of his poor defensive habits, many of which he has either completely eliminated or at least improved upon this season.
At 6-foot-9, 200 pounds, Boucher is never going to be big enough to match up against big post scorers like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic. But very few centers in the NBA can. The best Boucher can do in the post is to try to get good positioning and hold his ground until a double-team comes, provide rim-protection, and battle for rebounds after the shot, all of which he has done better this season, though his defensive rebounding needs to improve. He is currently grabbing a career-high 18.4 percent of defensive rebounds and a team-high 9.0 percent of offensive rebounds, making for easy put-backs. He has also eliminated most of his bad habits such as biting on pump fakes and going for impossible blocks that leave the team helpless on the defensive boards, and he has rarely gotten into foul trouble as of late, allowing him to play starter minutes most nights.
This improvement in the post has allowed Boucher to become much more matchup-proof, allowing Nick Nurse to throw him on opposing centers like Richaun Holmes, Clint Capela, and Jonas Valanciunas for stretches in recent games instead of only having him defend out on the perimeter. Sure, Boucher is fortunate to play alongside forwards like Siakam and OG Anunoby who can credibly guard centers for stretches and clean up mistakes, but by playing so hard while rarely making mistakes recently, Boucher has made himself into another option to throw on centers.
Most impressively, though, is Boucher’s improved pick-and-roll defence. He has improved his positioning and defensive IQ while using his speed and length/leaping ability to his advantage. There have been countless times this season when the Raptors are getting killed in the pick-and-roll with Baynes in the game, and Boucher has had to come into the game for Baynes in order to stop the bleeding.
While Boucher is not the quickest lateral defender and is therefore ill equipped to stay with most guards on the perimeter — and therefore not ideal to switch onto guards in the pick-and-roll — the Raptors don’t have to switch those actions because Boucher is getting much better at playing the cat-and-mouse game in the paint, watching the roll threat while remaining in a good position to contest the ball-handler if he puts up a shot. Against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Baynes was getting torn apart in the pick-and-roll because he doesn’t have the speed or length to contest guards like Ja Morant, but Boucher helped the Raptors turn the game with plays like this:
Outside of the pick-and-roll, Boucher is becoming more effective at using his athleticism and length to challenge shots all over the court. He is blocking almost two shots per game and leads the league in three-point blocks with ridiculous close-outs like this one:
Plus, Boucher is just downright fun to watch. When Serge Ibaka left in the offseason, it was clear that the Raptors were losing one of the best showmen in franchise history — someone who consistently made fun plays that brought the crowd to its feet. Well, Boucher has taken the mantle from Ibaka, stepping in as the shot-blocking, rim-running menace that provides a spark off the bench with plays like this that are oh so necessary in this dreary NBA season:
Can we just take in how Boucher ended a life tonight? pic.twitter.com/TM5URepa59
— Esfandiar | Es (@JustEsBaraheni) February 7, 2021
Boucher might not be the perfect NBA center, but he is finally putting it all together on the court, checking so many boxes that it is becoming hard to keep him off the floor. In a season as bleak as this one, that alone is worth celebrating.