The Most Interesting Sixth Man in the World

An argument for why it is imperative - and appropriate - Gary Trent Jr. play off the bench.

“I don’t always play off the bench. But when I do, I prefer to score”

On the Rap Up a few weeks back, Oren Weisfeld, Sahal Abdi, and I drafted 6th Man of the Year candidates.

Naturally, Toronto came up and a debate ensued as to who Sahal should draft: Gary Trent Jr. or Precious Achiuwa.

It’s a dilemma. Both could have breakout years. Both could start; both could come off the bench. It’s hard to know with the unpredictable genius of Nick Nurse.

Likely, Toronto Raptors management is still toiling with the same indecision, but to me, there is only one answer – for Sahal and for the Toronto Raptors – and that is for Gary to take up his rightful place upon the bench.

Gary, the Starter

Gary started all but one game last year. He was an entrenchment among the core five – Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes.

Naturally, there’s reason to think that Gary would again start this year. By that justification, management could nimbly avoid any sudden rise of discontent. “Gary’s earned it.”

And he has, but the situation was exceptionally different last year. Precious was raw, Scottie Barnes fresh blood, Chris Boucher with an identity crisis, and Pascal Siakam coming off shoulder surgery. The team desperately needed Gary’s shooting and scoring. There was nowhere else to turn.

And that came at a cost.

With Gary as a starter and fellow shooters, Yuta Watanabe and Svi Mykhailiuk, falling out of the rotation, Toronto’s depth chart was drastically unbalanced. Nurse’s 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th best options off the bench were non-ballhandling, non-score-first “bigs”. Malachi Flynn, an unproven sophomore, was the only viable backup scoring and “shooting” option remaining. (The flyer on sniper, Armoni Brooks, was fun, but unsuccessful.)

This year, like the latter part of last, the need for Gary to start has receded. Especially with Scottie’s emergence, the starters are flush with offensive variety.

And while the bench is a wee bit deeper this year, without Gary there, Nurse would find only a crowd of forwards and nary a scorer in sight.

Gary, the Real Scorer

On The Raptors Show, Will Lou and player development coach and TrueHoop writer, David Thorpe, chatted about this year’s potential Starting Five and who should come off the bench (33:00).

Thorpe mused that, “[Thorpe] would start a centre…[his] initial feeling is that Gary come off the bench and let him lead for 6th man of the year as a real scorer.”

I was suspect of Gary’s scoring, at first. I thought it a fluke. Particularly when observing his penchant for shots few would anoint as “optimal”.

Yet, despite his Long Island Ice Tea cocktail of well-defended jumpers (165/425 shots with a defender within 4 feet or less), step-backs (90/230), and fadeaways (22/37), Gary’s scoring flourished, finishing the season with 18 points per game at a solid clip of 51.2 eFG% (57th percentile for combo guards).

Players with similar points per game and field goal percentage included D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, James Harden and RJ Barrett. Not exactly crumb comparators.

Most importantly, though, Gary scored on set defences whether teammates were single-celled organisms or basketball players. I kid, but it seemed often, last year, that Gary was the one rescuing Toronto from a dwindling shot clock with an unlikely dagger.

The stats demonstrate a picture similar to my imagination. Gary took the 3rd most shots on the team (behind Pascal and Freddy) with the shot clock at 7 seconds or less. He led the team in points per possession in isolation, in half-court points scored per play (alongside Pascal), and in pull-up shooting percentage at both the two and three – a shot typically created on one’s own accord. Gary also ended the year with 59% of his total 2-pointers unassisted (3rd to only Pascal and Freddy amongst the core).

Gary’s a one-man-travelling-scoring band, unfazed by smothering defences and undaunted by sticky situations. But as a starter, his scoring powers are limited. Pascal and Freddy are the centrifugal forces he must orbit and defer to. Not the other way around.

On the bench, however, where Gary’s shot selection would be less scrutinized and his aggression encouraged, Gary can be a real scorer.

Gary, the “Sparkplug”

Gary’s, of course, not without his foibles.

His at-rim game is scant, for example. He rarely got to the rim (15th percentile in attempts for combo guards); when he did, he struggled to finish (35th percentile in makes for combo guards).

And, although he relied heavily on the midrange and three (they equalled to 68% of his total shots), his efficiency at both were only above average (56th percentile in mid-range accuracy and 69th percentile from three). No complaints, but plenty of room to grow.

Gary’s also a zilch in playmaking. Last year, he had the one of the worst assist percentages among those who played at least 1400 minutes.

Those flaws, however, emphasize Gary’s bench destiny. His unique combination of confidence, self-energizing, instant-noodles scoring, and frugal playmaking conjures “sparkplug bench guy”: a player-type buoying teams’ offences while primary scorers rest.

In fact, other guards with similar poor assist percentages as above and same approximate usage include Malik Monk, Monte Morris, Devonte’ Graham, Patty Mills, Coby White, and 2021 6MOY, Jordan Clarkson. None start for their respective teams. Each a feast or famine type scorer.

(For what it’s worth, I’m not sure Gary would agree with that assessment [Don’t @me Gary, or maybe do]; he, certainly, prides himself as a stronger defender, which is a fair proclamation.)

This team is in desperate need of anything that resembles bench-scoring vitality, regardless of any aforementioned flaws. Toronto’s starters were third in the league in scoring (83.7 points per game). The bench an abhorrent 25.7 points (last in the league).

That cannot happen for another entire season. Too often hard-earned leads melted in the hands of the bench. The starters were forced to return and, over and over again, regain a squandered lead – playing way too many minutes in the process.

Gary’s scoring off the bench would at least mitigate another disastrous year from the reserves.

Gary, the Bench Balancer

In most respects, moving Gary to the bench is less about what he can do on his own and more about what everyone else can’t do collectively.

After OG, Pascal, Scottie, Freddy, and Gary, the next five best Toronto Raptors are power forwards: Otto Porter Jr., Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, Thaddeus Young, and Precious Achiuwa.

At this point, until proven otherwise, all are incapable of dribbling and, except Precious, loathe to do so. Only Precious, averaged more than one dribble and more than 2 seconds of possession per touch.

As for those who can and do handle the ball, both Dalano and Malachi have yet to demonstrate the ability to crack the rotation let alone shoulder an offence.

Opting to start a “traditional” big (I’m advocating for Thaddeus, I think a Precious/Gary/Boucher/OPJ foursome is a nice second shift) in place of Gary creates a more natural positional homeostasis.

Defensively, the starters gain blunt force to defend the centre position – alleviating Pascal or OG from that energy expenditure. Thaddeus also boosts their defensive rebounding and attends to Nick Nurse’s scramble and recover defence better than, say, Khem Birch. Gary, on the other hand, can defend bench ballhandlers should Banton fail to accrue minutes.

On the offensive end, little changes with Gary sitting. In 700 possessions, the FVV-Gary-OG-Scottie-Pascal lineup averaged a mere 109.6 points per 100 possessions with a point differential of +1.8 (60th percentile in the league) Take Gary off? In 267 possessions, the Raptors offence remains at 109.4, but the point differential jumped to +3.1 (70th percentile).

Thad only played 60 total possessions with the starting four; they scored a whopping +140 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size, but I’m willing to guess it’d be no worse than with Gary.

Thad’s proven to be a wonderful passing hub, a mediocre 3-point shooter, an attacker when the opportunity presents itself, and, generally, a strong figurative and literal presence on the floor. In exchange, the bench gets the team’s 2nd best scorer in the half-court.

‘Nuff said.

Gary, the Touch Balancer

Not only is the roster top-heavy with Gary in the starting lineup, but so too are the distribution of touches.

One of Toronto’s greater challenges, as a team looking to foster growth and success simultaneously, is ensuring that everyone gets the ball. This is Pascal’s team; Freddy’s too. After that, Scottie, Gary, OG, and Precious also want/need/deserve to get the ball to experiment and develop. This is as much for the team’s betterment as it is for their individual growth.

The trouble was that Gary, Scottie, and Precious came on with such velocity last year, that touches were suddenly gobbled up and stricken from others – specifically, OG.

OG and the Raptors offence is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say that, slowly, over the course of the year, OG became less and less a part of it – a touchy [pun intended] subject this offseason.

For OG’s first 33 games of the year, he was 4th on the team in touches with 54. For his last 16 games, he remained fourth, tied with Gary, but with only 34 touches per game. Some of that had to do with the health of OG’s teammates (Pascal missed the first 10 games of the year) and some his own health (OG was injured for 18 games in the latter part of the year).

And, to be fair, Gary’s touches only went up marginally (+2) between the two time spans. It was Pascal who, rightfully, siphoned off most of OG’s touches.

Regardless, OG does deserve to be more involved in the offence. His potential as a 3rd or 4th scorer for this team is integral to their long-term success. Any frustration OG may have must also be nipped in the bud ASAP.

The fix is simple. No one on the bench other than Precious deserves even a fraction of the number of touches Gary would consume. Conversely, whoever replaces Gary in the starting lineup – Thad or Khem most likely – will neither receive nor demand not a touch more than necessary.

Plenty to spare for OG.

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