QUEBEC CITY — There couldn’t be two more different players with the Toronto Raptors in training camp arguably than Marc Gasol and Chris Boucher. But they have in common the hope that the choices they made this past summer will benefit them in what is a critical season ahead for each.
Boucher is the lithe and electric big man who uses his drive, energy and athleticism to make plays on the floor most wouldn’t attempt. But at 26 and soon to turn 27, he’s been on the cusp of an NBA breakthrough for two years now and needs to make it happen. The late-bloomer from Montreal, via junior college and the University of Oregon, is on a partially guaranteed contract that will only be paid in full if he makes the Raptors out of training camp.
Gasol is the 12-year veteran who became the second player in FIBA and NBA history – joining Lamar Odom – to win both the NBA title and the World Cup of basketball in the same calendar year. He’s almost an anachronism as a 7-1 bruiser who – he would happily tell you – would have a hard time jumping over your laptop. His game is smarts, feel and making opponents feel him.
Gasol doesn’t have the same urgency as Boucher, who is still waiting for his first major NBA payday, but heading into the last year of his contract toward his 35th birthday, making sure you are in a spot to secure another one is often top-of-mind for someone in his position.
Where they are in their careers reflects the decisions they made this past summer. Each of them had an opportunity to play internationally – but only one of them did.
Gasol wouldn’t have had it any other way than to suit up for Spain – something he’s been doing since he won gold for the first time as a 19-year-old at the 2006 world championships in Japan. He’s been part of one of the great teams in FIBA history, but may have topped it all off leading an undermanned Spanish team to another gold with a win at the World Cup in China where he was a tournament all-star.
And now his hope is that all the tread isn’t worn off the tire, and that with some careful “load management” – remember that? – he will be the same player who went off for 33 points against Australia in the semifinals in Beijing, or be able to add some more offence to the defensive acumen he brought to the Raptors from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline last season.
The World Cup final was Gasol’s 111th game in an 11-month span, a load that would seem to fly in the face of the careful approach increasingly dictated by sports science, as anyone who watched the Raptors measured approach with Kawhi Leonard last season.
Toronto started by keeping Gasol out of any live drills Sunday in Quebec City, with head coach Nick Nurse saying Gasol’s demands will be likely be lightened into the early stages of the regular season.
“Yeah, it’s not always practical to play for the national team, because it is taxing on your body, and it takes time away from family, from recovering, from working on your own game, working on your body,” said Gasol. “But at the same time, it does a lot of good for you, as far as commitment, loyalty and playing for something bigger than you.”
Boucher was scheduled to go to China also, playing for Nurse who was in his first summer with the Canadian national team. But he pulled out late in the process, citing personal issues.
“You know, obviously, I want to work on my body and all that. But I could have done that in China. I didn’t want to go over there represent the country and have another couple of things to think about,” Boucher said. “So obviously, I wanted to fix everything that was going on … you want to play basketball in the mindset where you only think about that, that’s what I wanted.”
Unlike Gasol who has both money in the bank – he’ll have earned $190 million over his NBA career by the end of this season – and years of credibility, Boucher has to make every moment in training camp count.
Perhaps playing in China for Canada could have meant whatever personal issues he had would be on his plate now when his focus needs to be highest? Perhaps he judged the best way for him to prepare for such an important stretch in his career was staying in Toronto and working with the Raptors’ development staff on the skills he needs to be the player they want him to be? (Think of Pascal Siakam turning defensive rebounds into a one-man fast break or Boucher being able to handle the ball well enough to initiate offence).
There will be no load management for Boucher in training camp. For him, it’s go time.
“First of all, he’s had a pretty good summer and he’s shown a lot,” said Nurse. “He just continues to look more like a basketball player that belongs on the floor. His ball skills are better, his decision-making is better. He’s just maturing in that way. I think he was kind of an energy, shot-blocking runner that could do things with just his length and his athleticism, but now he’s starting to read things better, he’s starting to be a little more of a facilitator for us, which he needs to be with the way he run our offence, he’s starting to be able to break out with the basketball after rebounds and get it up the floor quickly.
“He’s always been a pretty good three-point shooter and he’s not afraid to take them, as we know,” said Nurse. “The only other thing, it starts with, can he use his shot-blocking? Can I find a way to let him use his shot-blocking? Because he has those natural instincts. And then the only other things is: Can he finish around the rim better? He does it. He’s done it at a level. He’s done it at another level. But the NBA level is a different story, there’s a lot more athleticism and taller bodies out there. We’ve gotta make sure he can continue to improve in that area.”
Nurse wishes he had Boucher with him on the national team – not only because Canada was thin in the frontcourt and could have used him to finish better than 21st – but because it would have been more opportunity to work apply things he’s been working on in a competitive environment.
“100 per cent. 100 per cent (I wanted him to play),” said Nurse. “He’s one of our players here and we were putting in a lot of work with those guys – how to win, individual training, lots of film sessions, some competitive games. All that is pretty high level and I certainly would have liked him to be a part of that.”
Gasol believes all his years playing internationally has helped make him the player he is today. Even in his mid-30s and after the longest season of his career, he wasn’t going to say “no” to Spain. His hope and the Raptors is that it won’t impact him when the ball goes up for real next month. The next four weeks and beyond are about easing into what everyone hopes is another long NBA season.
Boucher recognizes there might have been benefits to playing internationally for the first time this summer – not to mention some face time with Nurse, the boss he’s trying to please. But he chose differently and hopes that will allow him to shine over the most critical month of his career. Unlike Gasol, he can only think short-term.
“(My comfort level is) 100 per cent right now,” he says. “I’ve been here. I know the plays, I know the coaches, I know the trainers so I’m in the right place right now. I’m just trying to get better every day and give them a little bit more of me every time to show what I’m capable of doing.”