After solid year with Raptors, Trent Jr.’s future a key off-season question

Toronto Raptors’ Gary Trent Jr. and Gradey Dick chat with Donnovan Bennett about the power of mentorship. Hoops and Mentors Presented by Gillette.

MIAMI – Gary Trent Jr. has a lot be proud of this season, which may be his last as a Toronto Raptor.

It’s not certain this it it, though., Trent Jr. could sign a contract this summer that keeps him with the club for years to come.

Like a lot of things around the team as the off-season approaches, we’ll see.

Trent Jr. will finish the 2023-24 season as the team’s leader in games played, steals, three pointers made and three-point percentage and sits second in total points. He’s done it coming off the bench, as a starter and for long stretches as their primary offensive option. as the roster turned over for various reasons

But as the Raptors wind up their regular season with a working vacation in Miami, closing out with games Friday night and Sunday, Trent Jr. is prouder of his process than the result.

“Just being 10 toes down, no matter what situation is going on,” he said Friday when reflecting on his season. “Staying solid, being a good teammate no matter how I’m being treated or what’s going on or thrown my way. Just staying solid, really just all the way through, and being able to finish the year healthy and going out there and trying to continue to keep playing.”

It’s not a bad way to view a Raptors season that started with high hopes and ended with a collective ‘what can you do?’ shrug.

On Friday night, they did what they’ve done since Scottie Barnes and Jakob Poeltl were lost for the season with hand injuries as the Heat mostly coasted to a 125-103 win. The Raptors – even at relatively full-strength, less Barnes and Poeltl – simply couldn’t gather enough stops to be competitive.

The loss dripped Toronto to 25-56 and guarantees them the sixth-worst record in the NBA. At the draft lottery on May 12, Toronto will have a 45.8-per-cent chance to pick 1-4 or sixth. If they don’t pick in the top six, their pick will go to the San Antonio Spurs.

The Heat (46-35), who are in eighth place in the East but still with a chance to move up in the standings, shot 52.3 per cent from the floor and 41.5 per cent from three, with a lot of shots at the rim and a lot of open looks from three.

Most of the Raptors were ordinary, with the exception of RJ Barrett, who finished with 35 points, his second highest total of the season. The Canadian did it on 13-of-18 shooting. His big night pushed Barrett’s scoring average to 20.1 for the season, a new career high.

But, overall, Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic wasn’t pleased with his team’s defensive focus – “I don’t think we did a good enough job staying in front of the ball … and on our rotations, the communication piece wasn’t there” – or their ball movement on a night when Toronto had 23 assists and 17 turnovers.

“This is the NBA, it’s the best league in the world. We can’t take anything for granted,” was his post-game message, he said. 

It was a tough night for Trent Jr., who was 3-of-13 for the game and 1-of-7 from deep as the Raptors were 10-of-31 from three for the night.

But one game doesn’t spoil what has been a nice year for Trent Jr., who has been a steadying presence in a season where that has been a limited commodity in Toronto.

“Gary is an amazing human being. I have so much appreciation for his consistency,” said Rajakovic. “He’s a hard worker. He’s a high-level competitor. He brings it every single day … and I think that he improved, and he got better as a player as the season went on. Not just being a catch-and-shoot threat, but he improved his finishing. He improved his scoring off cuts. Defensively, he did a really good job when he was assigned to guard (as an) on-ball defender. He showed a lot of good stuff.

He’s even impressed teammates who have known him since way back when.

“I’ve known Gary since high school. Played [USA Basketball under-17]  with him, so I’ve known Gary for a little minute,” said Raptors guard Immanuel Quickley, who arrived in Toronto mid-season. “I knew he was a great shooter and a pretty good scorer. I didn’t know he was this good of a defender. His on-ball defence is top level. His competitiveness, mind and spirit is top level. It’s really a joy to have a teammate like that.”

Will they be teammates next season? Quickley is a restricted free agent the Raptors will likely do everything possible to keep, but what happens with Trent Jr. is one of the bigger questions the team will face. The Raptors were somewhat surprised when Trent Jr. opted into the final year of a three-year deal worth $52 million, forgoing free agency last summer.

And it was arguably surprising that they didn’t move Trent at the trade deadline once the Raptors had flipped over to rebuild mode. That they didn’t suggests that they have plans to keep the six-year-veteran, but then again if they don’t or they can’t, he wouldn’t be – ahem – the first quality player the Raptors lose in free agency without compensation.

And while there is a world where the Raptors don’t re-sign their free agents to use the cap space to take in a player by trade, mostly the sense you get is the Raptors would like to keep Trent Jr., given three-point shooting is a vital currency in the league and the recently turned 25-year-old is one of the best at his craft.

There are only 12 players in the NBA this season who have averaged 39 per cent from three, played at least 60 games and averaged six attempts per game, and Trent Jr. is one of them.

In his three full seasons with Toronto, Trent Jr. is one of 15 players in the NBA to make at least 500 threes and shoot at least 38.3 per cent from behind the arc.

“With Gary, you know what you’re going to get,” said one league source. “There’s some tunnel vision, he’s maybe not a great read and react guy, but he knocks down shots and competes.”

Trent Jr. is open to staying with the Raptors but is careful about making proclamations regarding a process he only can control so much.

“To be honest it’s really not my choice,” he said. “They gotta want me, so it’s like I could say I want to come here, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t want me here. So again, at the end of the day, I would love to be anywhere I’m wanted, anywhere I can help contribute towards winning, anywhere that can see me as part of their future or sees me as part of something they got going on that would be great to be a part of…”

The expectation, insiders feel, is that it will come down to the two sides agreeing on a role and a dollar number, with the former perhaps the tricker of the two questions.

There are teams that will have cap space and desperately need shooting – the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic come to mind – but it’s not like Trent Jr. is the only option on the market either.

The market for designated snipers is a bit fluid. Few have been better in the role this season that Grayson Allen in Phoenix. He leads the NBA in three-point percentage (.456) and is a pending free agent making $8.5 million this season. Similarly, Donte DiVincenzo who has been a breakout star with the Knicks, is in the first year of a deal that pays him an average of $11.7 million for four years. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Buddy Hield – one of the best three-point shooters in the league for several years now – will be a free agent this summer coming off a four-year deal worth $94 million. Given Trent Jr. is just 25, you’d think that he would have plenty of interest at the full mid-level, which would start at $12.4 million.

How many teams will have the cap space and the appetite to go significantly higher will be the question. If the Raptors want to retain him, they probably can.

As for role, I didn’t ask him specifically if the opportunity to start was going to be important to him, but it’s not hard to infer it is based on how the season has gone. He started the year coming off the bench but when the opportunity came to start, he relished it.

“Again, that opportunity [to start] only presented itself due to injuries,” he said. “Again, Year after year, time after time, never just: go ahead and do that. No, it’s always because that opportunity presented itself and I was ready for it, so just continue to stay ready and continue to show an improvement and continue to just try to contribute towards winning as much as I can.”

His contributions have been noted. It’s telling that the Raptors connected Trent Jr. with rookie Gradey Dick as workout partners. Teams are very selective about that kind of thing when they can be. The habits a rookie observes early in his career are important, and no one questions the focus and attention to detail Trent Jr. takes to his craft, and he took the opportunity to bring along the rookie seriously.

Having come into the league playing behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, among others, in Portland, Trent Jr. feels he has a lot of knowledge to pass along.

“Just continue to keep working, to keep showing him the ropes. You know, what to do, what not to do. How to work, how to pay attention to the little details and your footwork and your jump shots,” Trent Jr. said.

“Not making jokes in between shots and stuff like that; staying locked in. Just teaching them little things that make you a professional that separates you … just trying to explain to him this these little things and details that’s gonna separate you, whether it’s your diet … if you come in 150 days and you’re locked in those 150 days and if somebody else came in and they did the same 150 days and they weren’t locked in or detailed as you – you still did the same work but you’re gonna be better and get more out of it. So just stuff like that.”

It’s an approach that has worked well for Trent Jr. and an outlook he’ll keep front and centre as the off-season begins.

“If it’s outside of the game, you can’t control it,” he said. “So you dive into your work and let it the rest take care of itself.”

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