Canadian Chris Boucher an early revelation for Raptors 905

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Toronto Raptors' Chris Boucher, left, defends against Brooklyn Nets' Spencer Dinwiddie during a NBA pre-season game. (Graham Hughes/CP)

It took all of four minutes into the Raptors 905’s latest game to get the full scope of the Chris Boucher Experience.

In front of a packed house of raucous kids probably just as excited to see the 905 lay the hammer to the visiting Erie BayHawks as to be outside of the classroom on a school day, the 25-year-old big man from Montreal, by way of Saint Lucia, was dominant — a running theme during his first five G League games this season.

During his opening salvo, in just a few early possessions, Boucher blocked a shot at the rim, filled the passing lane on defence and used his Stretch Armstrong arms to intercept a pass and force a turnover, hit a smooth corner three, and drew three defenders while attacking the rim and getting to the foul line.

Boucher finished Tuesday’s game with 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting, nine rebounds, a pair of triples, and six blocks — which isn’t even a season-high (that number is seven). And he did it in just 25 minutes of play as the Raptors 905 routed the BayHawks 145-103 (not a typo). Boucher finished a team-high plus-40.

The performance brings his season averages to 27 points, 12 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 4.4 blocks per game for the 4-1 Raptors 905. He’s also hit nearly three three-pointers per game and is shooting a respectable 38 per cent from deep, adding a new and dangerous dimension to his game.

To say Boucher has been a revelation early this season is an understatement.

“We got him right from Summer League and we weren’t quite sure what we had,” says Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela, who also coached Boucher on the Raptors’ Summer League team in Las Vegas this past July. “He was this raw talent but we didn’t know how to space him and exactly what to do.”

Boucher is a late bloomer who didn’t play organized basketball until six years ago. He averaged nearly five blocks per game in Junior College and was named 2016’s NJCAA Player of the Year while starring for little-known Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. He transferred to Oregon for his junior and senior seasons, where he flashed his potential as a rim-runner and shot-blocker. But with questions about positional fit, impact of an ACL injury that cut his final season short in 2017, and whether his skinny frame could withstand the physicality of the NBA game, he went undrafted.

The Golden State Warriors, of all teams, took a chance on Boucher and signed him to a two-way contract. After rehabbing from injury, he played for the Warriors’ G League affiliate in Santa Cruz, Calif., and made his NBA debut in mid-March of this year.

A bouncy prospect with an undeveloped game, it wasn’t until this year’s Summer League under Mahlalela that things began to click when, after a few games playing power forward, the coach began playing Boucher at centre. “It was such a natural switch,” says Mahlalela, “and he really flipped gears. That’s when we all said ‘I think we have something here.’”

This season with the Raptors 905 he’s started all five games at centre where, at six-foot-11 and 200 pounds soaking wet, whatever weight advantage Boucher gives up he makes up for with a game that has been virtually unguardable for opposing bigs this season.

After Summer League, Boucher received an invite to the Raptors training camp, where a promising pre-season showing earned him a two-way contract this season that can see him freely move back and forth from the G League to the NBA. The Raptors 905 has been an effective tool, with key players to the big club like Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell all making the most out of the development league’s training grounds.

Mahlalela is in daily discussion with the Raptors front office and coaches, and as much as the positional change has helped Boucher maximize his abilities at the G League level, there is little concern when it comes to where, exactly, Boucher will fit on an NBA court.

“The exciting part is that, as Nick [Nurse] is grooming that team and I’m doing the same here, is that we’re developing basketball players,” Mahlalela says. “Will he be an NBA four or five? To me, it’s irrelevant. He’s a player with a really interesting and compelling skill set, and when he does the tough things — getting that extra offensive rebound, showing that second-effort blocking a shot and getting back into the play — then it won’t matter [where he plays]. That sense of positional basketball is really starting to come true now.”

Boucher is a prime example. With his speed and ability to space the floor, he’s beginning to impact the game and tailor his skill set based on who he’s sharing the court with. The Raptors 905 roster is rich with fluid athletes who can shoot — the team hit 19 three-pointers on Tuesday, led by Malachi Richardson’s eight makes — and it opens up the potential for Boucher and his teammates. “If he’s with other players who can shoot and move it creates a five-headed monster,” says Mahlalela.

But the biggest difference in Boucher isn’t where or how he’s being utilized, but instead a growing understanding of his situation, talents and responsibilities.

“There’s a sense of him maturing into a professional basketball player,” Mahlalela says of the differences he’s seen in Boucher over the past six months. “He came to the table with a sense of entitlement that hadn’t been earned. ‘I’m a two-way player and I played for Golden State.’ And I think he was quickly humbled of that.”

“He’s such a new basketball player, and before he got to us he wasn’t quite sure how to navigate that.” Time spent this off-season at famed long-time NBA assistant coach Tim Grgurich’s basketball camp in Philadelphia has helped. Sharing the court with top first, second and third-year players from around the NBA, he showed up with purpose — “He got there early, stayed late, and was one of the hardest working players at the camp” — and excelled among the bigger names around him.

Much like Siakam dominating scrimmages against NBA all-stars in Los Angeles this past summer, Boucher began to realize his potential. “That gave him the confidence to say ‘I can do this at the professional level,’” says Mahlalela, who admits he’s surprised to see how quickly Boucher has also developed into a vocal leader with the Raptors 905.

Five games is a small sample size, but nothing about Boucher’s hot start to the season suggests his performance is a fluke.

“To me, it’s a maturity,” the head coach says. “He’s shown this ability to own the moment.”

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