The Surprisingly Acceptable Flaws of Gary Trent Jr.

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If there’s a conversation I’d like to be privy to it has to be the Raptors brass talking amongst themselves before they handed Gary Trent Jr. his deal. Letting him walk would not have reflected well, but it wouldn’t have been calamitous either. I imagine they asked him the equivalent of a “where do you see yourself in five years?” question and he responded by saying he’s going to be winning the defensive player of the year. To which Ujiri and Webster exchanged glances which meant one of:

  • This guy’s a bullshitter
  • Wow, what ambition!
  • Nice goal buddy, but how about we start by what a defensive stance is

Whatever the question and whatever the answer, somewhere in there Raptors decided that the net present value of Gary Trent Jr., is greater than, a) whatever else they would’ve spent that money on this summer, b) not spending it this summer. To see this investment through, the Raptors are banking on a few things.

First, Trent’s free throw shooting rate is abysmal and can only improve. He had a FTr (number of FT attempts per FG attempt) of 11.9%. By comparison, Khris Middleton is at 23.3%, Jamal Crawford finished his career at 26% and DeMar DeRozan is at 40.6%. Trent doesn’t hesitate to hoist mid-range and long jumpers and rarely looks to draw contact at the rim. In his defense, it’s hard to develop a knack for attacking and going to the line when your role is to be a shooter. In Portland he wasn’t asked to be the guy to go into the trees because their style of play was to spread the floor and let Lillard and McCollum run the show.

In Toronto, his role might end up being similar if the Raptors decide to play a higher pace. I wouldn’t think they’d want to slow the game down, and would prefer Trent shooting to keep the flow going. As with all things there’s a balance to be struck. Trent will get an opportunity to produce in half-court settings where the team has a tendency to struggle. It’s in these moments that his profile as a scorer, not just in open play but in tight quarters, has an opportunity to be built. This is a point of growth for him where he’ll struggle because he’ll have to earn the respect from the refs which will be a tall order given his reputation. The question is whether he can withstand the frustration and fight through the ebbs of the non-calls. Some hit that wall and stay on the perimeter. Others push on.

Second, his assist numbers are woeful. He averages 1.5 assists per 36 minutes, and that’s with a usage rate of 23%. It’s not like he’s not handling the ball, he just doesn’t have a nose for the pass. This is equally troubling as the free throw rate because the Raptors don’t want a black hole on the team. Black holes are good if they’re superstars (and even then not really), but your starting shooting guard swallowing possessions on a team built for transition, pace and getting out on the break doesn’t bode well. He’s also a great example of how a high usage rate and low turnover rate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good ball-handler. You’re just not taking risks. His 538 projections are glaring on this point.

It’s going to be difficult for him to kick these assists up a notch in the traditional way because he’s not a drive-and-kick guy. He hasn’t been tasked to run the offense so it’s not like he’s got a keen eye for pinpoint court positioning of his teammates. His instincts are to focus on scoring, and only pass when out of options. This has to change because he has to view himself as a cog in the wheel rather than the point of focus. The best way for him to raise his assist numbers is for his teammates to get into the habit of presenting themselves, because if they’re not presenting, he’s not passing. Much like how Scottie Barnes is showing a desire to pass if teammates cut, the same must happen for Trent Jr. He’s not going to be creating shots for others out of one-on-play alone.

Third, defensively he has to prove that he’s a net positive or at worst, even (see above graphic: he’s red in every defensive category). The Raptors can’t afford to have a leaky part in their defensive engine because this team will struggle to score, and defense is their backbone. He was guarding a somewhat disinterested Bradley Beal in the pre-season matchup and held his own, though it did take away from his offense. This is the area where Trent has the greatest potential to grow this season. He’s playing with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. This is a far cry from Portland which was the second worst defensive team in the league (only the Kings were worse). I would think just being around a culture of defense would be motivating and inspiring for him. I can also see Nick Nurse proving a point in games this season where Trent might get benched because he sees someone like Malachi Flynn or Yuta Watanabe as a better defensive cover despite not being natural twos.

We often compare Norman Powell’s established ceiling to Trent’s unknown ceiling as rationale for this swap, but instead we should be comparing Trent’s floor with Powell’s ceiling. Trent’s an adequate enough scorer already to replace Powell. The latter averaged 16, 19.6 and 17 points his last three seasons when he was 25, 26 and 27, respectively. Trent put up 16.2 points at 22 years of age. His offensive floor is (give or take) Powell’s offensive ceiling. Defensively, the Raptors could afford to give up something on defense given their abundance of riches there, so no matter how his season pans out it plays out well for the Raptors, especially given their rebuilding context. There also much isn’t the way of competition at the SG for Trent as Dragic appears to be a transient player, Flynn has been inconsistent and Svi Mykhailiuk is fresh as they come. So despite all the knocks against Trent he will very likely continue to progress his skill and address his deficiencies because he’ll get the one thing that develops a player the most: playing time.

One could also ask whether Trent even needs to alter his approach. Perhaps his trajectory is going to be of a pure scorer like Lou Williams or the aforementioned Jamal Crawford. When calculating Trent’s value, we can’t limit ourselves to an extrapolation based on him fixing these three things, but also of whether he fixes none. In that case he becomes, at the very least, a marketable asset in summers to come because pure scorers are always in demand. The Raptors may be a bit elitist when it comes to filtering for defensive capacity, but most teams aren’t, and for them a scorer like Trent who shoots 39% from three is a good get.

Samson talked about Gary Trent Jr. with me a couple weeks back as well:

Let the season begin.

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